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Sierra Classics: The 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra

Sierra Classics: The 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra. John Moynier and

Claude Fiddler. Chockstone Press, Evergreen, CO, 1993. 316 pages. $25.00.

When this new book first caught my eye on the shelf of a Yosemite climbing shop, my mouth watered in Pavlovian anticipation. I wondered, what routes did the authors incude? What was the selection criteria? Would it stimulate so much traffic as to have an adverse effect on the fragile alpine ecology? And finally, was it a “guidebook” or more of a symbolic call to action in the vein of Steck and Roper’s Fifty Classic Climbs of North America? I pulled out my VISA, bought the book, and sat down at a vacant table to begin to seek the answers to these and other questions.

I was initially delighted to see that my twenty years of experience climbing in the Sierra were validated by the work of Moynier and Fiddler. They included the obvious and well-known “classics,” such as Charlotte Dome, the east face of Mount Whitney, and Clyde Minaret, but they also divulged some previously hidden Sierra gems. These include the east ridge and north arête of Bear Creek Spire, the Moon Goddess Arête on Temple Crag, and the northwest arête of Devil’s Crag #1. The authors’ selections include a diverse array of technical difficulties. Routes range from the easy, third class east ridge of Mount McAdie, to the unrepeated, multi-day traverse of the Palisades. Falling in between these extremes are 98 routes that will keep climbers of a wide range of abilities busy for many years to come!

As I continued to peruse my new guide, I developed a few concerns about what the authors might have omitted. First, they did not include any criteria for their list of “classics.” Initially, I wondered if routes were selected because they offered great climbing, but this can’t be the case because the book features such notoriously loose climbs as the southwest face of the Black Kaweah and the northeast face of the Middle Palisade. Both peaks have routes with better rock and climbing. So I reasoned that perhaps the authors were interested only in climbs that followed the most classic lines. This certainly couldn’t be the case, however, because the guide includes such mundane selections as the north face of Mount Dade and the south face of Table Mountain. Lastly, I considered (like Steck and Roper) an interesting history as possible criteria. Were the routes selected because they were somehow linked to the history of the Sierra Nevada? It doesn’t appear that this was the case because the authors gloss over several interesting epics, including any discussion of Fred Beckey or the early efforts of Bay Area Sierra Clubbers on Angel Wings, the Obelisk, or Castle Rock Spire.

Perhaps it was unfair to evaluate a guidebook on its failure to establish a coherent method of route selection, so I next took a look at how well this new guide fulfilled the usual mission of a guidebook. In their introduction, the authors highlight the history of climbing in the Range of Light. They also offer brief directions on “getting there,” and they provide the usual guidebook stuff on ratings, using topos, and wilderness impacts. Unfortunately, these are all fairly generic and do not address a unique paradox: How do we justify the chronicling of routes and sharing the pleasure and beauty of climbing in the wilderness with the need to preserve this same wilderness in a state of 30,000,000 people and an ever-growing population of climbers? Given the importance of the Sierra Nevada to the birth and development of the modern environmental movement, this is no minor omission.

Climbers accustomed to route pictures or a tracing of the line of ascent will appreciate the clear topo diagrams. The only problem is they are too infrequently offered. The terse approach-and-climb descriptions are disappointing, too. I don’t mind that these authors have respected Steve Roper’s 1976 dictum that we should “ … get some adventure back into climbing,” but I strongly believe that a route description should, at least, accurately describe the start of a climb! Unfortunately, this guide will not be sufficient (or even adequate) for climbers not already quite familiar with the Sierra. Neophytes to the pleasures of Sierra climbing will need to purchase maps, trail guides, and seek additional information on such mundane matters as picking up wilderness permits and finding the desired roadhead locations. In fact, the most serious flaw in the Moynier/Fiddler guide is its absolute inability to stand alone. With two guides to the Sierra already in print, it would have been great if this latest offering had not only featured the best routes but also eliminated the need to haul two pounds worth of information on trips into the back country!

When I finally closed my copy of Sierra Classics, I was inspired to immediately get back into the high country, but also disappointed that the book had failed to include some of my favorite “back country classics.” It may sound like a predictable criticism of any “best climbs” account, but the authors did overlook some incredibly fine climbs. Most notable by their absence are the northeast buttress of the Dragtooth and the east face of the East Peak of Mount Bernard. Both offer great climbing on superb rock in incredible locations. Despite this oversight, the book is well worth owning and will provide both inspiration and direction to climbers for many years to come. So, go ahead and pick up a copy of the Moynier/Fiddler guide (but keep your old guides) and get ready to head off into the Sierra for another season of climbing in the “Gentle Wilderness.”

Barton O’Brien