American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Rocky Heights–A Guide to Boulder Free Climbs 1980

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  • Publication Year: 1981

Rocky Heights—A Guide to Boulder Free Climbs 1980, by James S. Erickson. Published by the author. 280 pages, illus. Price $10.00.

This is the finest climbing guidebook yet published. It is comprehensive, accurate, concise, compact, sturdily bound of durable materials and, wonder of wonders, reasonably priced.

The writing is varied and interesting; at times witty or playfully taunting; often challenging and always suffused with Erickson’s love for and sensitivity to both the climbs and to Boulder’s growing community of climbers, of which he is the pre-eminent member. Even the crisply logical grading system reflects the fact that this book was for Erickson a labor of love. Only extreme love could have inspired him to the arduous task of finding a consensus on the relative difficulties of every pitch in the area by type of climbing, which feature forms the basis for the unparalleled accuracy of the free climbing grades. A fanatic devotion has brought forth his highly creative quality and danger ratings, which convey far more information in a less cumbersome form than any other guidebook.

Virtually every feature of Rocky Heights, from the handy index, to the unpretentious format, to the trim size, bears the unique stamp of Erickson’s rigorously logical, boldly imaginative and dogged search for perfection, which has for so long characterized his climbing. I would beg the reader’s indulgence, however, for not documenting the above sweeping assertions in order to turn now to what I consider to be his most significant achievement: the laying of an ethical foundation. Meanwhile, I invite the curious or skeptical to pick up a copy and see for themselves if Erickson’s skills as a writer don’t at least equal his skills as a climber.

America’s climbing history is discontinuous and diverse, reflecting the phenomenal variety of climbing challenges that abound on our continent. With such dissimilar problems to excite the imagination and tax the spirit as El Cap, Mount Rainier, Devil’s Lake and boulders here, there and everywhere, it is hardly surprising that the rules of the game are anything but uniform. When Erickson says, therefore, on page 7 of Rocky Heights, that “rock climbing is a game, only a game, and nothing but a game, (and) as such, it possesses rules which are sacred to the sport and very basic to its value,” one might well wonder which game he is talking about.

Indeed, individualists that they are, a consistent ethical foundation has been more lacking than missed by American climbers. If any criticism is to be levelled at Rocky Heights, I suspect it may come from these “individualists” incensed at the didactic nature of his ethics lecture, Erickson’s disclaimer to the contrary notwithstanding. And, too, some of these climbers may be further annoyed at Erickson’s assertion that “competitive ethics are only important for one thing: assessing the relative accomplishments of climbers,” believing as some do that climbing is or should be a non-competitive sport.

Erickson’s answer to all of these objections is: “climb as you will.” In the meantime, however, he offers his version of the best set of rules that could govern free climbing, which, of course, are the same rules he has developed and used over the course of his climbing life. I say “could” govern free climbing because the logic of his introductory remarks makes it plain that by far the most important rule is that everyone play by the same rules. In other words, one need not be in complete agreement with every dot and comma of the Erickson Manifesto for it to provide useful competitive parameters. Further evolutionary development of the rules of play are needed to guide us to more meaningful achievements of more lasting inspirational value than the ethical hodge-podge of the past two decades has given us.

I believe, in contrast to Erickson, for instance, that a climb successfully led after one or more falls conforms with a venerable and valuable tradition: that of the vendetta. The tradition inspires the most difficult courage to muster—that which lifts one up for another try at what last time may have led to a soul-searing defeat. Although I agree with Erickson that “aerial bouldering always decreases the relative merit of an ascent,” (it is obvious that the climber who does a given pitch without falling is a better climber than the one who doesn’t), that same aerial bouldering increases the awe surrounding a climb which always extracts falls. And, when that climb is finally done without falls by the next generation’s “Kloeberdanz Kid” (or “Cinch Crack Kid” or “Genesis Kid”) his reputation (or hers, as the case may be) will be enhanced in direct proportion to the degree of awe mentioned above, thus furthering the stated purpose of competitive ethics: “assessing the relative accomplishments of climbers.” The unusually detailed history of each climb provided by Erickson in Rocky Heights both facilitates this process of relative assessment and gives implicit recognition to the fact that comparative assessments are in no way hindered and often enhanced by a dust-yourself-off-and-try-it-again approach to climbing.

Unhappily, the ethical debates of the past two decades have been wider in scope, to the point where each generation of climbers (five to ten years) has found itself playing a different game altogether. The heroic exploits of the big-wall generation, for example, which so powerfully inspired and challenged Erickson’s and my generation are now largely irrelevant to the current crop of rising stars, amongst whom, as Erickson says, “very few know how to (or care to) place pitons and bolts.” Indeed, however reverent my generation may have felt toward the indomitable spirit, boundless energies and creative courage of the Chouinards, Robbins and Kors, only a few of their vast accomplishments have been guiding lights for the free climbers who followed them.

This confusion of rules has led to a number of unfortunate consequences. First, the burning energies of many of the heroes of the Sixties and early Seventies should have earned them a more lasting place in the stars than the shifting game seems to have accorded them. Although I seriously doubt that any of these giants would give a second thought to this slight of history, because of the gap in the myth-creating process, and discontinuities in the rules, future generations will miss the spiritual encouragement which these heroes could have imparted through their climbs.

Second, because free climbing in America has developed largely by freeing aid climbs (at its worst and most telling by means of the pin scars), both the climbs themselves and the myths surrounding them are heavily tainted by their aid climbing history. Not only were free climbers too late to participate in the finding, defining and naming of most of America’s most difficult walls, buttresses, ridges and cracks, but I can think of times in each of America’s three most popular climbing areas when guide-book writers (guardians of the lore) have denied recognition to or otherwise disparaged superb free climbing achievements merely because they deviated from the aid line, as though the exigencies of aid placements should somehow define a free climb’s direction.

Third, and perhaps most important for those with a Darwinian view of history, American climbing standards have probably fallen significantly short of what otherwise would have been with inter-generational ethical consistency. So we have lacked the natural foundation by which the achievements of the past provide stepping stones to ever higher achievements in the future, as was demonstrably the case, for example, in the Elbsandstein of East Germany and, to a lesser extent, in Great Britain.

Because Erickson provides a tautologically consistent and well-tested set of free climbing principles, because he offers a “brief but complete history of each route’s development as a free climb,” because he challenges the aspirant with a graded list by difficulty of all free pitches in the area, and because he personally describes the challenges, excitement, joys and fears to be found on each climb from a free climbing perspective, Rocky Heights goes a long way toward creating the common ethical foundation. This quality gives the book a far greater significance than a guide to an area; since shared ethics are essential to the achievement of both the hardest climbs of which we are capable, and the individual and collective fulfillment of which such climbs are enduring inspirational symbols.

Steve Wunsch

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