Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Thankless Job of the Guidebook Author

"Where is it?"

"Dude, I have no idea." The deeply tanned young-man raises his hand to his forehead to block the sun from his eyes. With his other hand he points at a wall in the distance. "The guidebook says it's over there."

The young man's partner sneered, "no way it's over there!"

"That's what the guidebook says."

"Well, the guidebook's wrong."

"Yeah, it is." The young man lowers his hand from his forehead and looks at his partner. "This guidebook is lame."

"No," the partner shook his head. "This guidebook author is lame!"

The preceding is an example of the conversations going on around the climbing world every day. Many guidebooks have errors and as such, many climbers come down hard on the guidebook authors. In some cases, the errors were avoidable and in others they weren't.
A common belief amongst climbers is that guidebook authors have climbed every route in the guidebooks they've written. In some cases this is true. For example, in select books it is reasonable to expect a guidebook author to have firsthand knowledge of the 50 to 100 climbs generally featured in such tomes. However, it is not reasonable for an author to have firsthand knowledge of the hundreds if not thousands of routes that might be described in a comprehensive book. Comprehensive books rely heavily on a combination of good research, interviews, and peer reviews of a manuscript.
I have had the opportunity to author two guidebooks. The first, Washington Ice: A Climbing Guide, required significant research. Throughout the project there were a number of factors working against me. First, nobody ever wrote a comprehensive guide to ice climbing in Washington prior to ours. There were a few published resources, but they only covered a small percentage of the material in the book. The vast majority of the route research was derived from interviews with first ascentionists; some of which had foggy memories. Second, many of the routes had significant approaches. With our limited free time, my co-author and I tried to climb as many routes as possible. This was incredibly difficult as most climbs required a day or more to complete. And third, many of the ice climbs in Washington are ephemeral. Some routes only come in once every few years. As a result of these factors, it took over three years to write the book and there were still minor mistakes.
Washington Ice is definitely not a perfect guidebook. But many people have had many days of great climbing due to the publication of the book. Perhaps a few people have had a hard time with some part of a description; but when all is said and done, those same people probably wouldn't have gone climbing at all if they didn't have a guidebook.
In late August, Fun Climbs: Red Rocks will be published by Sharp End Books. My second guidebook is a select book. I have first hand knowledge of every climb listed in the book. As such it is unlikely to have as many minor mistakes as my comprehensive ice book. However, I still expect people to complain. Even with perfect descriptions and photos of every single trail, every single crag and every single hold on the routes described, there will still be those who can't find a climb or feel that the route topos are incorrect. This is part of the deal when you write a guidebook. More complaints than thanks.

So next time you see a guidebook author, thank him first. Then, explain to him how he could do it better. He will listen. He will take note of the complaint. And he will do his best to fix it in the next edition. Guidebook authors want to be proud of their books and even more than that, they want you to be psyched to use them...
--Jason D. Martin

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