Friday, January 30, 2009

Guidebooks -- How Much Information is Too Much?

There are two kinds of climbers in the world. First, there are the kind that are completely bewildered by a guidebook description. You'll see them wide-eyed and stumbling around at the crags, or even in the mountains looking for a route. Once they're on the route, they often have no idea which way to go. They simply have to follow their noses and their noses are not very good.

Second, there are the kind of climbers that glance at the guidebook and then walk straight to the route. Once they're on the route, they might glance at the route description occasionally, but they always seem to know where they are going.

Certainly, there are climbers who have more experience and better mountain sense. Those climbers barely need a guidebook as it is. But this article isn't about them. Instead, it's about the guidebooks that each kind of stereotypical climber might use. In other words, "the good guidebooks" and the "bad guidebooks."

What is a so-called "good guidebook"?

Most would consider a good guidebook to be one that is very clear. There are photos of everything. There are route topos. Pitch lengths are described. Bivi sites are detailed. And there is excellent approach and descent beta. In other words, nothing is left to the imagination.

Then what is a "bad guidebook"?

Jason on the third ascent of Sunspot Ridge (5.8 IV) in Red Rock Canyon
This was a phenomenal "secret" route with almost no beta.


A bad guidebook has little valuable information. There are few photos and many routes are described so briefly that no one would ever want to attempt them. Climbers often wander around looking for their climb or even their approach. Pitch lengths are incorrect and there is little to inspire one to climb a given route.

There is actually an argument for "bad guidebooks." The argument goes something like this, if you have too much information, it kills the adventure. If you have too much information, the experience is somehow tarnished. If you have too much information, it's just not as fun.

Coley Gentzel climbs an obscure route on Early Morning Spire in the Cascades.
Note the Guide Tennies while wearing crampons.
"It was an adventure...I'll put it that way," Coley said of the route.


I have to admit that occasionally it is kind of fun to climb an obscure, poorly described route. Particularly one that is in the mountains. Such adventures tend to take one away from the crowds and sometimes even introduce a route that is a little bit of a secret, but quite cool. So there is something to be said for the so-called "bad guidebooks."

A few years ago, I guided one of the couloir routes on Whistler Peak. There were approximately two sentences in the guidebook on the route. Essentially there was no beta. We climbed the route and found it to be utterly spectacular. It was a moderate climb with a bit of steep snow and a bit of mixed terrain.

There was also nobody else on the route...

In other words, I think that people should give certain guidebooks, (i.e. the Beckey books) a break. Historically, all that people had were limited descriptions. I think that every climber should try to climb at least one obscure, poorly described route a year. Every now and again, you'll find it to be worth it.

--Jason D. Martin

3 comments:

dreaminvertical said...

For me there is a big difference between no information and wrong information. It can be dangerous if the book shows 100' rappels when it is 120' or says to descend in the right gully instead of the left gully. Adventure is awesome but there are still "bad" guidebooks.

Sara Lingafelter said...

Lack of detail about approach, rack requirements or number of bolts might trigger adventure... but I am careful to use my eyes as well as my reading skills when scouting an approach, or when checking out a route that's new to me. If the book says "gear, singles to 2 inches" and I can see an offwidth section and a ropestretching pitch, I'll take a full double rack up to my biggest cam. If the book says 6 bolts but I count 10, I take 12 draws. I'm not perfect as a writer, and neither are guidebook authors despite their best efforts.

That said, I'm with Luke (or is it Lizzy?) from DreamInVertical. When a book says to descend in the right gully, but the left looks objectively better to me, it's really hard to trust my instincts and go against the book! I guess it all comes down to the disclaimer in every guidebook -- climber beware. The guide book is no substitute for proper training and experience, eh?

I was perusing Olympic Mountain rock guides at a used bookstore a few weeks ago, and the information contained in them was SPARSE. If I set off with one of those guides, I'd know I have to be prepared for anything!

George Sudarkoff said...

I don't buy the argument for bad guidebooks. If you want adventure, leave your guide book at home. Or read every third line.