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Wizards of Rock: A History of Free Climbing in America

Wizards of Rock: A History of Free Climbing in America. Pat Ament. Berkeley: Wilderness Press, 2002. 381 pages. Paperback. $24.95.

Pat Ament has always been an artist, whether he is focusing on chess, music, the martial arts, writing, or climbing. I remember a number of years back I invited him to speak at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. During his stay, he taught my rock climbing class, presented an illustrated lecture to an art class, gave a poetry reading for the English Department, and did a public multimedia presen tation, as well as knocking off several hard rock routes in Ogden Canyon. In each setting Ament demonstrated complete confi dence, the same confidence that is reflected in his life as an artist. He founded a climbing magazine, The Climbing Art, that was dedicated to climbing literature, not route descriptions. He has tackled various literary genres in his writing, everything from deep philosophical prose to biography, autobiography, and poetry, all of which illustrate his confident style. He is clearly one of climbing’s most prolific writers with over 30 books to his credit.

Now Ament has turned his efforts toward history, and who better to tackle the history of free climbing than one so steeped in it, not only as a scholar and artist, but as one who was there pushing the standards himself.

Wizards of Rock is a historical overview of free climbing in America beginning with its roots in early explorers like John Muir and Elkanah J. Lamb, carrying through to contemporary climbers the likes of Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, Alex Huber, and seemingly everyone in between. Broken down in general time periods the book begins with the 1800s and gets more and more focused as the developments in free climbing get more intense. Each period is the story of free climbing legends, pioneers like Robert Underhill, Glen Exum, Fritz Wiessner, Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, John Gill, Layton Kor, and Lynn Hill. The list goes on and on, as does the list of climbs and contributions made by the aforementioned.

But what makes Ament’s book even more important is his meticulous research, in which he ferrets out lesser-known climbers who have played important roles in pushing free climbing standards. People like Greg Lowe, Kim Miller, Beth Bennet, Barry Bates, and Jim Holloway, to name a few. Ament is even-handed with all the personalities he features in the book, not to mention fair in his assessment of their climbs, thus presenting a reliable history.

While Wizards of Rock is, in essence, an encyclopedia, the entries still reflect the skill of an excellent storyteller. Case in point:

“Greg Lowe climbed Drop Zone, 5.11+ R, on a quartzite cliff above Ogden, Utah’s east side. This was another work of an unknown master. At every moment along the spectrum of time, a climbing world needs a new spirit. A ‘savior’ is sent…. The cliffs east of Ogden were, in the 1960s, surrealistic in their isolation, covered with ethereal orange and yellows in the setting sun of Utah’s dry light. Lowe’s time was at hand…. He climbed in a clean, honest way, motivated as much as anything by the simple desire to climb. The discovery of climbing was for him a joy, and the style in which he implemented climbing was, undoubtedly, a natural extension of his genius” (pp. 133-34).

Once one starts to turn its pages it’s hard to stop. Pat Ament has made yet another very important contribution to the climbing canon, one that serves not only as an important reference book, but fun read as well.

Mikel Vause, AAC