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Desert Rock: A Climber's Guide to the Canyon Country of the American Southwest Desert

Desert Rock: A Climber’s Guide to the Canyon Country of the American Southwest Desert. Eric Bjømstad. Chockstone Press, Denver, 1988. 453 pages, black-and-white photographs, topos, maps. $25.00 (paper).

Those who have climbed in the American desert are not likely to have forgotten its inherent mystery and solitude. And those strange, strange landforms! Pinnacles lean crazily over grazing sheep. Outlandish jam-cracks shoot up through blank expanses of crimson rock. Jagged crack systems completely pierce spires, and a climber deep inside one of these labyrinths sees only austere red angles and a sky as blue as it ever gets.

Climbers have written poetically of the desert for a long time, but until now no one has taken on the enormous task of writing a comprehensive guide. Eric Bjømstad’s weighty book will be welcomed by thousands of climbers. The guide begins a little shakily: the author does not outline the boundaries of his book—and never clarifies the subtitle. Zion, to most people, is surely part of the “the canyon country of the American southwest desert,” yet it is not included. Fortunately, a map (without a scale!) tells what the text does not: this is basically a climbing guide to the Four Comers region.

Offsetting this irresolute beginning is an excellent introduction that tells prospective climbers everything they need to know. The geology section is especially thorough, and never again will desert climbers wonder what kind of rock they’re on. The overview of the area’s climbing history is fascinating and includes lyrical recollections by noted desert climbers. A section entitled “Climbing in the Desert” constantly stresses the need to preserve the fragile environment.

The bulk of the book, naturally, covers the numerous developed climbing districts. A great surge of desert rock climbing has taken place in the past fifteen years. Colorado National Monument, the northernmost area covered, now contains dozens of alluring routes on its spires and walls, and the same is true of the Fisher Towers. In Arches National Park, where climbing was slow to develop, more than a hundred routes have been established, including many on the arches themselves. Similarly, routes abound in Canyonlands National Park and at Ship Rock. It was clearly time for a guide.

Bjørnstad has done a remarkable job compiling this vast body of information and presenting it in a satisfactory fashion. How accurate are the route descriptions? My impression is that they are quite adequate. Bjørnstad describes in great detail how to find the formations—frequently not obvious—and points the way to the first pitch. You’re often on your own after that, which is as it should be. The author describes the descents very thoroughly, and I, for one, applaud this and hope it encourages other guidebook writers to pay more attention to this important aspect of the route.

Desert Rock has many minor flaws. For example, Bjømstad’s descriptions sometimes fail to inform. The account of one route (a variation) reads, in toto, after the first ascenders are named: “They rappeled [sic] the route to the second belay station, then to the ground.” Informative, isn’t it? In the same vein, Bjømstad’s prose is often muddled. For instance, a non sequitur: “With no water anywhere near Ship Rock, the region acquires a Sahara-like aridness during the summer months.” And a contradiction: “… the route was completely cleaned, leaving few anchors.” And an absurdity: a climber is “seemingly ubiquitous.”

One wonders when climbers—and publishers—will learn that routinely using “bivouaced,” “prussik,” and “gulley” displays a certain ignorance. I would estimate that close to a thousand mistakes—spelling, punctuation, and factual—mar Desert Rock. It perhaps doesn’t matter that Belmore Browne’s, David Muench’s, and Eleanor Bartlett’s names are misspelled, and when Albert Ellingwood visits “Whales” we have to smile. But are we to trust Bjømstad when he says “go right 45 feet”?

It is clear that the author relishes the history of the area, and he devotes about half of his main text to this intriguing subject. Curiously, though, Bjømstad the historian seems unable to transcribe quotes correctly: in checking about ten against the originals I found that only two had been copied correctly. A long quote on page 384, for instance, has six errors, making master wordsmith Chuck Pratt look less than literate.

Bjømstad occasionally confuses trivia with history, as when he lists eleven people who once set off fireworks atop Castleton Tower. And he occasionally errs: Agathla was climbed free long before 1983, and only one bolt was used on its first ascent, not forty. The first woman to climb Ship Rock was Jean Aschbacher in 1955, not Gale Weeding (a man) in 1952. Landscape Arch was soloed several years earlier than the listed date of 1973. Mesa Verde was discovered many decades before 1932.

All this aside, the immortal desert adventures of Ormes, Powell, Kor, Pratt, Beckey, Carter, Forrest, and dozens of others are brought to life and put into one place for the first time—and this is one of the joys of Desert Rock.

Anyone contemplating a trip to the Four Comers region should own this guidebook: there are routes for everyone. Now that some of the mystery has been taken out of desert climbing, the hordes will arrive from the hinterlands; let us pray they will treat the frail wilderness in a kind and gentle fashion.

Steve Roper