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Sherman Exposed: Slightly Censored Climbing Stories

Sherman Exposed: Slightly Censored Climbing Stories. John Sherman. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1999. 238 pages. $24.95.

Here we have John Sherman’s collected articles—30 of them, almost all written during the 1990s and most having first appeared in Climbing magazine. The book is organized into four parts: the first is a mock self-interview titled “A Brief History of Vermin.” The second part is called “Verm’s World,” collected articles from the column of the same name that ran in Climbing from 1995-’99. These are not organized chronologically but in general categories of “history, ethics, approaches to the sport, and general satire.” Part three is organized by Place (“life has been one extended road trip for me”). And part four is “Characters.” Sherman has added brief introductions and afterwords to most of the pieces, commenting on their origins, timeliness and the editorial battles fought on their behalf, all of which make for interesting reading and give readers a behind-the-scenes view of how articles find their way into print, as well as how climbing media shapes the experience of their readers.

In his preface, Sherman proclaims two self-imposed roles. First, by exposing “a new generation of climbers to the values of traditional climbing—sheep, inebriation and lowering after every fall—I hoped to give something back to the sport. Second, by providing lovably vulgar satire, I hoped to get climbers to take themselves less seriously.” It would seem appropriate to use these criteria to judge how successful he’s been. But the goals themselves pose the exact problems some readers will have with the whole. How many traditional climbers hold to the values of traditional climbing as Sherman sees them? Sheep and inebriation? Come on—it’s a joke, folks, lighten up! In fact, that’s the other goal: lightening up. It’s just that some readers will never find vulgarity “lovable.” About those would-be readers, I can only say that they’re missing out on a lot of sharp observations about the state of the art, as well as brilliantly drawn portraits of places and people.

In Sherman we see the embodiment of both Royal Robbins and Warren Harding, a pair whose individual values are generally understood to be mutually exclusive. But Sherman somehow takes Harding’s semper farcimas and combines it with Robins pure, ground-up ethic. I suppose one of the tricks to reading Sherman is to know when he’s joking and when he’s serious: the answer is usually both a and b.

One of the more rewarding pleasures of reading the pieces as a whole book is that you realize that Sherman very seldom writes about himself. When you read the whole, though you glimpse the “brief autobiographical” content, you realize the amazing range of his actual climbs. His commitment to bouldering has been well-documented in his twin labors of love, Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America and Hueco Tanks: A Climbing and Bouldering Guide, so it’s no surprise he’s done The Thimble, Ripper Traverse, and Midnight Lightning. But add Astroman and the first third (the easy third—he’s clear about this) of the north face of the Eiger and throw in a season as a volunteer ranger on Denali, and it all adds up to the climbing life.

The portraits of places and people are the strongest pieces in the book. I took equal satisfaction in reading about places I know well, like Deadman’s on the east side of the Sierra where I’ve bouldered dozens of times, or the gripping, committing, disintegrating, muddy towers of southern Utah’s sandstone, where I’ve never climbed at all. In the case of Deadman’s, I recognized the place perfectly, but felt I was seeing it anew through the eyes of someone who pays closer attention than I often do. In the case of the Fisher Towers, I was reading about a kind of climbing utterly foreign to me and utterly terrifying, and I had no doubt it was being accurately portrayed.

I doubt it’s an accident that the portraits of people is titled “Characters,” because his subjects possess it in aces. One key ingredient to character is that none of the characters ever seemed to particularly seek out the public eye. I think his two-part tribute to Robbie Slater, lost descending K2 in 1995, is as good as writing about friendship, partners and loss gets. Period.

I appreciated the previously unpublished pieces and their commentaries as much as the pieces already published. If anything, the writing that’s being newly presented to the public is a little less censored, a little more personal, targeting Everest baggers, hold chippers and film makers, all of whom should understand that a little criticism goes with the territory.

If you’re of the opinion that Sherman is a raving lunatic, he’d probably be the last to argue with you. In fact, you’d do well to remember that he’s the one who very self-consciously gave you that impression in the first place. Don’t let the hyperbolic style fool you—this is one very smart guy. And don’t miss the one-paragraph history of climbing since about 1970 that ends with the sentence “Climbing is now decidedly mainstream, as proven by the media’s insistence on calling it ‘extreme.’”

At this late point in the review, I feel obligated to confess that I have a juvenile sense of humor and that I enjoy a glass (or more) of beer. I’m also male, of roughly the same generation as Sherman and am a traditional climber (a bad one, though). While I’m being confessional, I should add that I never saw a bolt I didn’t clip; further, I admit with much regret that this year I may “climb” more days indoors than out. I suppose I’m saying that, when I’m reading, Sherman is preaching to the converted. I doubt that he will win many converts, but like all the devout, I believe that even if I don’t need Sherman to remind me that “climbing” indoors isn’t climbing, others do.

David Stevenson