The Best Of Ascent. Edited by Steve Roper and Allen Steck. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1993. 384 pages. $25.
Before there was a name there was a need. The Sierra Club Bulletin had become Sierra and was shifting coverage from mountaineering to conservation, while The American Alpine Journal continued to predominantly parade the rigors of expedition life. In neither forum, essentially the only two at the time, were certain aspects of the climbing life revealed. Behind the desperation of a particular climb there could well be the desperation of a life, and that could lead to humor, humor to whimsy, whimsy to an aesthetic intensity, intensity to introspective analysis, and analysis to alcohol. Or something like that. So Allen Steck said, “We will make a magazine just for people like us,” and it was so.
And he called in Steve Roper and Joe Fitschen, and we said, over not the first or last glass of sherry, we will call it Ascent. And here it is 25 years later.
In the current volume, Steck and Roper have reprinted 27 articles from a list of some 130 that have graced the previous twelve issues and have added two new expedition accounts and six new pieces of fiction. Are these really “The Best”? It would be churlish to quibble, and even Steck and Roper take pains to qualify the term and explain their criteria for selection. I confess, some of my favorites didn’t make the cut, but that bespeaks the quality of Ascent articles over the years.
As Dave Roberts discusses in his Foreword, Ascent was born not only with a vision of the kind of climbing experience it would like to offer but also of how it should be presented. No ads. This presented a clean look and kept crass commercialism at bay. And, amazingly, readers over the years have been willing to foot the bill. Extensive white space. Climbing is an expansive and expanding activity. It thrives on lots of room. Rich duotone photographs. The context is frequently as important as the activity, even for those less romantically inclined. Fine photos in the Sierra Club tradition would serve not only as reminders of the experience but as an extension of the literary quality into the graphic realm.
And here one feels a loss in the current volume. The photos sprinkled through the text generally are of poor reproductive quality, and many are smaller than half a page. No doubt, Steck and Roper had their reasons, not the least of them economics I would think, but it also points up other losses. The original issues, especially those prior to 1980, contained poems, book reviews, drawings, climbing notes, mini-guides, and even editorials. None of these competed with the main course articles and photo essays, but, like appetizers, side dishes, and deserts, they complimented the more substantial fare and enriched the feast. So, while we may have the best articles, we have no other indication of what gave Ascent its high quality and unique character.
Perhaps all this is just to say that even though you have the best you can’t have everything. At least Steck and Roper gave the articles they selected a chance at a much larger audience than they originally had. The articles deserve it, and today’s audience deserves an opportunity to read the articles as well.