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Great American Rock Climbs

Great American Rock Climbs. Richard DuMais. High Peak Books, Wilson, Wyoming, 1995. Black-and-white photos, topos. 115 pages. $21.95.

Richard DuMais tackles a topic paradoxically simple and difficult in his Great American Rock Climbs by attempting to chronicle a sampling of the great climbing of all grades and types to be found throughout the United States. Any well-traveled and experienced rock climber, armchair or otherwise, can rattle off a dozen eminently classic routes scattered across the nation: the Nose, Bastille Crack, Repentance, High Exposure... the list would be as wide and deep as a climber’s knowledge. This expanse presents the other half of the paradox: any truncation of a list that could account for thousands of climbs will arbitrarily eliminate comparably classic routes. Though I have climbed a third of those the author selected and have no real complaints, readers of Great American Rock Climbs will undoubtedly find some of their favorites overlooked by DuMais — and might grimace at the inclusion of what they consider less worthy routes. Therefore, rather than judge the book on the subjective nature implicit in which climbs it features, I will focus more on how it presents the climbs DuMais has selected — which still leaves plenty of room for criticism.

Great American Rock Climbs’ most significant shortcomings lie in its lack of a specific audience. I approached it as a to-do list for climbers and felt disappointed in the style in which DuMais presented the routes: a photograph of the formation, but no means to locate the route on the formation, and an adjoining topo only very rarely featuring distinguishing landmarks to link it with the photograph. This layout of illustrations, coupled with the fact that the reader needs to delve into the smallest of print to discover in which state the climb might be found, made it seem to me that DuMais had written the book to be appreciated by climbers who had already done the routes he had selected.

However, the format of the text describing each climb aims more at newcomers to the route, as the descriptions fall into regular accounts of a vague history of its ascent and draw upon a small bank of superlatives. DuMais describes five different routes as THE climb to do, placing THE in bold-face type annoyingly often in case we missed his point. While I am sure that DuMais climbed many if not all of the routes listed, his lackluster descriptions fail to convey the majesty of the routes he has chosen — perhaps because he has not included any personal anecdotes, as have Fred Beckey or Steve Roper and Allen Steck in their respective volumes that use the list format as an organizing principle. The broad focus of the text and the fact that more than half of the introduction summarizes the overall history of climbing made me suspect that Dumais may have intended Great American Rock Climbs for the fledgling or non-climber, but the presence of the topo and a side bar of route data complicated this possibility. Exactly for whom this book was written was for me a muddied issue.

Other problems with Great American Rock Climbs make it a less useful addition to a climber’s library. The book’s lack of a table of contents or integrated index inconvenience the reader attempting to look for a particular route. This lack of a contents page or index is obviously intentional, true to the writer’s private conception of the enterprise. The bookseller Michael Chessler has included a separately-printed, one-page index as an addendum to the copies he sells, and most readers will be grateful.

Some photos are randomly dispersed throughout the book: Why, for example, does a photo of the Bastille Crack join photos of the Nose in the section featuring the Salathé, or the Teton’s Guide’s Wall appear beside the Tour De Platte in the pages detailing the Nosel And while the text does not purport to be a guidebook by any means, a small map in each section locating the climbing area within the state would be helpful to inspired climbers. Photos should feature the path of the climb.

Overall, I could appreciate Great American Rock Climbs for what it was: brief descriptions and accompanying topos and photos of over fifty excellent climbs; but I felt disappointment over what the book could have been.

Peter Caster