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Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Ticklist

Fifty Favorite Climbs: The Ultimate North American Tick List. Mark Kroese. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2001. 150 color photos. 224 pages. $32.95.

My bet is that within a year Fifty Favorite Climbs (henceforth FFC) will be found next to Fifty Classic Climbs (FCC) on the bookshelves of most climbers in North America. While FCC was the inspiration for FFC, the two have little in common beyond “Fifty” and “Climbs.” Indeed, the contrast is more striking than the comparison, not surprising given the changes in the sport over the 22 years between their respective publications. Only about a Fifth of the climbs in FCC were 5.9 or higher (a few, having been freed, were subsequently raised to 5.10), and an ambitious young climber might aspire to repeat all of the routes with the possible exception of Mt. Logan’s Hummingbird Ridge. Maybe there are those who contemplate ticking off the list in FFC, but not only will they have to climb at a higher standard (about a fifth of the climbs are 5.12 or 5.13), they will also have to be masters of an increasing range of conditions and techniques, from big walls in alpine conditions to difficult rock climbing with ice tools to the contorting demands of sport climbing. This said, FFC still presents many climbs that today’s competent climber could be inspired to attempt, depending on his or her bent.

Instead of updating FCC (as if “classic” could be updated), Kroese sought out fifty of the most accomplished climbers of the last 20 or so years and interviewed them on their favorite climbs. On the one hand, he follows a very strict format for each climber/climb, and on the other he has selected climbers who pursue a wide variety of styles, philosophies, playgrounds, and techniques. The result is a broad picture of the great diversity of the sport as well as specific accounts of the trials and rewards that climbing offers—both panorama and close-up if you will.

As to the format, each unit consists of four pages, starting with a full-page color photo of a climber (usually, but not always, the featured climber) on the climb. The facing page has a small portrait and a brief bio of the climber followed by the history of the climb (if it isn’t a first ascent) and an account of the climber’s ascent. Not all climbs, by the way, are first ascents or extremely difficult. The variety mentioned above also suggests that many different qualities can make a climb a favorite one (“scared the shit out of me” sometimes seems to be one). The third page continues the account and also has another fairly large photo that shows the route. If need be, the account carries over to the fourth page and is followed by information on first ascent, elevations, difficulty, time required, equipment, special considerations, references, and beta on how to get to the area, the route, the descent, and a detailed topo of the route in case you want to give it a go.

The use of large photos and the beta section necessarily restrict the amount of text, and to my mind this is an advantage. Kroese has decided to write the bio and account of the climb himself, based on extensive interviews, rather than have the climbers do their own. While this may deprive us of the climber’s voice, it results in a consistently high quality of writing. In the main, Kroese’s prose is remarkably efficient at getting the largest amount of information possible in the space he has allotted himself, and, while he tries to be objective and avoid sweating palm histrionics, he also delights with the occasional turn of phrase or insight or image that makes one smile. The reader might note that in the biography section each of the climbers is presented as something of a superperson, but then upon reading the account of the climb it seems quite likely that he or she really is, at least with respect to climbing.

I suspect that the names of somewhere between 40 and 45 of the climbers will be familiar to most readers. Given the history of the sport, most are men, but eight women grace these pages. Most are American, and all currently reside in the U.S. Jim Donini and Jim Bridwell appear to be the oldest climbers in the collection. Most of the others are seasoned veterans in their 30s or 40s, along with a few young hot shots. A few have highly honed egos, but most come across as desirable rope companions. Are there accomplished, even prestigious climbers who are not included? Might one wonder why X was included but not Y? Of course, but 50 is 50, and if it’s my bat it’s my rules.

As remarked above, the diversity of the routes is remarkable, from Nabisco Wall in Yosemite (soloed by John Bachar) to Belligerence, a 36 pitch mixed route on Mt. Combatant (Greg Child); from Gorillas in the Mist, modern mixed climbing in the Adirondacks (Jeff Lowe) to Hall of Mirrors on Glacier Point Apron (Johnny Woodward). As might be expected, Alaska and Northern Canada are home to nine of the climbs, the Canadian Rockies and Coast Range to another nine, Yosemite to eight, but then we are treated to areas that have been developed since the days of FCC: Newfoundland, Baffin Island, Red Rocks near Las Vegas, the Needles in the southern Sierra Nevada, Zion, and Canyonlands.

Two climbs especially appealed to my imagination, perhaps because both are imaginative in their conception. One is Ron Kauk’s traverse on Middle Cathedral Rock. If solo climbing appeals to you, surely this is your route. Since you are never more than fifteen feet off the ground, if you don’t feel up to the 5.12 that day, climb down, walk on a little, resume. If you want a longer climb, do laps. I should interject here that Kroese, and presumably the climbers concerned, take a somewhat relaxed approach to climbing style. One would not go to the Cookie Cliff with an aid rack, but on some of the longer, harder climbs one will find a rating like 5.9 A2, or 5.12b. If the climb is just rated at 5.12d, I guess you know what to expect. As to style, one climber also caught my attention when he was quoted as saying, “The first time I saw the Portrero, I saw about 150 lines I wanted to bolt”—in order to protect subsequent free ascents it turns out. More diversity.

The other climb that fairly shouted (but sotto voce) “what a great day” is Peter Croft’s solo traverse of nine summits spaced along an eight-mile ridge in the Evolution Range of the Sierra Nevada. Croft did it in a long day, but the beta suggests two to five days. One could do it with a partner. One could do just three or four summits. It is a wonderful place to be. My pointing out these two routes should not be taken as slighting any of the others. A number of them are notable in their boldness, but then boldness is always notable. A number of them seem quite challenging but also fun. And if you don’t want to do a particular climb, there are always the pleasures of reading the account in this book.

Joe Fitschen