Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock. Steve “Crusher” Bartlett. Sharp End Publishing, 2010. Color photos. Hardcover. $49.95.
As climbers craving a fix, we accept almost any writing if we cannot get to the rock. A few sexy pictures and a few words about grunting up 5.hard, and we set literary standards aside. We lap up writing we would not accept in another genre. Let there be a story about rock or ice, with a picture or two, and our critical facilities get tossed aside.
But once in a long time something is published that not only gives us our fix when the weather keeps us indoors, but actually has literary or historical or visual merit. Think of the writing of W.H. Murray in Mountaineering in Scotland. The history in books like Chris Jones’ Climbing in North America or Doug Scott’s Big Wall Climbing or Roper’s Camp 4. Or the visual appeal of your favorite coffee table climbing porn. Then think about how wonderful a book would be that combines all three merits—well-written, visually stunning, and bringing to life the climbing history of a uniquely important region. Crusher Bartlett’s Desert Towers comes as close to that ideal as any climbing book I can think of.
Its 350 pages cover the history of desert tower climbing in the Southwest, from John Otto’s ladder of steel pipes leading to the summit of Independence Monument in 1911 to today’s 5.13 free climbs. In addition to Bartlett’s own narrative, Desert Towers is graced with stories by 27 desert rats ranging from Raffi Beydan’s “Shiprock Finale” (originally published in 1940 in Trail and Timberline, the Colorado Mountain Club’s journal) to Jason Haas’s “Free Cottontail” (an account of the 2009 first free ascent of West Side Story, written for Desert Towers). Included are some classic desert stories, including Chuck Pratt’s “The View From Dead Horse Point.” But Bartlett has also unearthed a few new gems—stories as good as or better than the famous tales. Other than his omission of anything by my favorite desert writer, Dave Insley, I have nothing but praise for these selections.
The history doesn’t end there. More than reprinting some existing stories and retelling others in his own words, Bartlett has interviewed desert climbers from all eras. We meet them as real people, hearing their tales as if at a campfire or a pub.
A final word on history: The issue of banned climbing on Navajo lands figures prominently. But in addition to the usual complaints by climbers, Desert Towers devotes five pages to the Navajo perspective. Those five pages alone are worth the price of the book. They should be required reading for every climber who visits the desert.
Desert Towers is full of stunning images. The book is big (9" × 12"), and many photographs are given a full page or even two pages. While we have come to expect “historical” photos to include amateurish head and butt shots, in this case the author has dug up photos that are of real historical interest while at the same time being strong images.
Finally, the writing: Given that Desert Towers is fundamentally a history of one specific area, it could easily have been boring. That it is interesting and entertaining from the first word to the last is a tribute both to Bartlett’s own writing ability and to his skill at weaving together the tales of others.
Consider how difficult it must be to write anything fresh about landscape near the end of a 350-page volume in which you and others have described that landscape a hundred times already. We wandered through an immense, colorful maze. Above was hard blue sky, porcelain brittle. The sun, already fierce, slowly ascended its grand arc over the distant La Sal Mountains. To left and right, cliffs and buttresses were daubed with impasto stripes of chocolate, cinnamon, marzipan, vanilla, and coffee. We wandered under flying saucers, balanced on immense spindly pillars. We were in Van Goghs head, looking out at his demons.
No doubt Desert Towers leaves out something important or gets a date or a name wrong. Someone more familiar with the history of climbing on the Colorado Plateau may spot errors that escaped me. But no history is either complete or completely accurate. I suspect this one comes closer to those ideals than any other. It is entertaining, informative, and beautiful. It contributes meaningfully to the historical record. And it even comes close to explaining how seemingly sane men and women could convince themselves that groveling up a filthy, desperately dangerous curtain of mud for five days, at the rate of 60 or 80 feet per day, is worth doing. Not just once, but over and over again. This is a truly magical book.