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American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing

American Rock: Region, Rock and Culture in American Climbing. Don Mellor. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2001.303 pages. $28.

Don Mellor lays it out straight in his introduction to American Rock: “This is a book about American rock climbing. It’s a celebration of the rich diversity in American climbing experiences, and it’s an attempt to stand in the way of the insidious homogenization that is erasing the regional distinctiveness in every facet of American culture, rock climbing included.”

From this premise, American Rock heads into a wandering 300-page journey that attempts to talk about everything from Robert Underhill’s 1931 ascent of Mt. Whitney’s East Face to access problems at Hueco Tanks. For the most part, Mellor pulls it off, and the book provides a good look at the history, culture, geology, and eccentricities of almost every major climbing area in the U.S.

While emphasized in the introduction, Mellor’s abhorrence with the homogenization that he sees in the sport is not leaned on very much in the body. Neither is any other central theme. Instead, American Rock reads like a compendium of essays on the American climbing life in its many facets, leaving readers to form their own conclusions.

The book begins with a quick history of climbing in the U.S. and then moves into a section on climbing media and current trends in the sport. Chapter two is a geology lesson, and it is not until chapter three on page 65 that the book gets into a groove. There, Mellor starts an eight-chapter tour of more than 40 climbing areas from the Shawangunks to Joshua Tree. A wrap-up chapter, “Cherishing the Resources,” talks about current threats and issues in American climbing (e.g. the Wilderness Act of 1964, raptor nesting closures).

This bits-and-pieces style produces a book that at times feels disjointed and superficial. With only 300 pages to tackle a monumental subject, American Rock is not an encyclopedia on climbing in the U.S., but instead serves as an introduction to its constellation of areas, people, and subcultures.

But it is this same tell-all style that makes the book an overall success. There are a few holes here: almost no coverage of Montana, and minimal attention to Devil’s Tower; Mellor may disappoint flatlands climbers like myself by not giving any ink to Midwestern areas such as Devil’s Lake. These quibbles aside, the book is thorough, well written, and a first-of-its-kind. It will no doubt expand the consciousness of newbies and serve as a great refresher course for climbing veterans.

Stephen Regenold