American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Gunks Guide

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  • Publication Year: 1991

The Gunks Guide. 2nd Edition. Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO, 1990. 342 pages. Illustrated. Paperback. $19.95.

A funny thing happened at the Gunks in 1986. Silhouettes of climbers dangling beneath overhangs suddenly were sleeker, less cluttered. They didn’t flap in the breeze as much anymore. We thought at first this streamlined effect was related to that new health and training craze. Then we discovered The Gunks Guide, which could be fitted into a pocket while you were climbing (you had a pocket in those days if you still happened to wear something other than lycra). No longer did we have to punch ragged holes into the Williams’ “Red Guide” for a string with which to hang the book from off harnesses, nor did we have to pull it apart and clumsily rebind it so it would fit into a pocket.

There were some problems with The Gunks Guide. The photos weren’t quite as good as the Williams pix, and the Swain route descriptions occasionally were vague. The locator sketch of the Trapps was fun, but useful only if you had an artfully inexact way of envisioning what a white pine tree looked like, or had driven back and forth on the carriage road so many times (as had Todd) to tell the difference between one scree run and another. And there were the usual subjective guidebook grumbles about ratings, but I’m sure someone in the “real” Alpine Club is still miffed over W.D. Hesbett Smith’s discussion of Moss Ghyll Grooves in his 1894 edition of Climbing in the British Isles.

The Gunks Guide had other benefits besides its portability, most notably the route quality and protection comments. On the other hand, these improvements meant that if you wanted to climb a three-star route with a “Good” pro rating, you had to sneak in at night or climb in the rain on Wednesdays to avoid the queues.

Now the second edition of The Gunks Guide is available, and the immediate question is: “Has it improved?” The answer is mostly yes. Overall, the presentation is superb. Chockstone Press has published the second edition, and the usual high quality one now expects from Chockstone is evident. My copy was tightly bound, the pages were cut properly, and the text and photos were lined up correctly. The typeface is classy and easily readable, the layout simple and logical, and I didn’t feel I was being gouged when I paid for it even though it was twenty bucks!

Swain has also, depending on your point of view, performed his role as route editor more diligently. Some, but not all, of the previous ratings that received derision have been changed. And now there is a whole slew of new routes to consider for fresh subjective discussion. Swain adroitly dodges this issue by pointing out that he’s managed to climb only 1000 or so of the routes but hasn’t yet managed to climb them all.

To be sure, the pickiest of the nits out there will observe a few misspelled words, incorrect credits (depending on whose stories you go by), vague or misleading descriptions, and some other facet that he or she would have written differently. And even though the cliff photos are better than the previous guide’s pix, 300 vertical feet of rock is still a lot of detail to compress into a 2 × 3 inch black and white. (Why is it that Art Gran’s are still the best?) It is possible that some day the Gunks will benefit from a guide that has dual graphics of photos and topos, as in Richard Rossiter’s Boulder Climbs North and South.

In sum, The Gunks Guide II still isn’t perfect, but it is the best effort yet seen. Now, if the American Alpine Club, which is working on yet another Williams edition, can up the ante (and not just the price) and come forward with a truly definitive Gunks guide, then we’ll have something to shout about!

Stuart Pregnall

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