Traprock. Ken Nichols: The American Alpine Club. 1983, 479 pages, black-and-white photographs, sketches, maps. $19.25.
In the beginning there were no guidebooks. And lo this was good. Wind and rock and sky and man were free with one another. And later when man first came to the hills with his ropes and jangling iron, there were still no guidebooks. And this also was good. Then little guides appeared across the land. And this was bad, but we got used to the badness. Nowadays the jangling iron echoes in all the secret places, and guidebooks will plague us forever … and if you accept this inevitability, then Ken Nichols’ Traprock must be reckoned a monumental achievement, the result of a magnificent obsession.
Traprock compares to the run-of-the-mill guidebooks as Moby Dick to pulp fiction. It is encyclopedic. It is finely crafted. It is the apotheosis of the urban climbing guidebook which exists not so much for the qualities of rock or setting but because of modem man’s confinement to the territories of industrialization. Traprock is also a harbinger of where guidebooks are heading. We can anticipate—with dread or excitement—a decade or two hence when Yosemite will have been as intensely climbed and documented as Traprock’s central Connecticut region. The result, applying the relative scale of Traprock’s 1318 climbs, would fill whole library shelves: and still, as with Traprock, while the presses rolled new routes would be created.
Because knowledge of these 14 crags cannot be fitted into a pocket guide, Nichols has produced a one-and-a-half pound volume suitable for reading in bed or in the car. As much as an actual guide, it is about a love affair between Nichols and the local dolerite. The historical and geological material is lovingly presented; even the broken glass, used prophylactics, beer cans and butt ends at the base of cliffs he treats with sympathetic understanding. The quality of sketches by Nichols and Clint Cummins, who spent many hours tied into tree-tops drawing, is first class. And there is even an occasional flash of wit and humor—qualities that seem to be getting rarer these days, as guidebooks too often read like computer print-outs.
One ancient game played by guidebook reviewers is to catch and parade a handful of inaccuracies. There might be contentions about interpretation, but on matters of fact I’m so confident of Nichols’ steel-trap mind that I promise to donate $50.00 to the American Alpine Club Endowment for each one sent in.
There is one small point of criticism that I’ll raise, though I don’t know that there’s a better alternative. In Traprock, Nichols uses a three-, two- and one-star quality rating system, much praised in Jim Erickson’s Rocky Heights about the Boulder region. Ostensibly this is to help the visiting climber who is scarce on time. The trouble is that one- and no-star climbs become pariahs, and when these are no more than 50 or 60 feet long—extended boulder problems almost—one wonders if they are worth the paper they’re printed on.