The Murder of the Guidebook
Looking around my scattered bookshelf, it occurs to me that I may be horribly antiquated, and outdated. Old tomes that have gone with me from coast to coast, back and forth. Some of my only meager possessions. Now I see decaying bindings, torn and tattered covers from books that were already old when I bought them. Steinbeck, Camus, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Hesse, and other great names line the shelf in disheveled disarray. Still, I can pick out each well-loved book from a glance at the spine, and bask in the warm nostalgia of pleasant times curled up with a good book.
The bookend for my collection of classic novels is a stack of guidebooks to some of my favorite climbing areas. Thailand, Rocky Mountain National Park, Joshua Tree, Leavenworth, Index, Washington Pass, Yangshou, the High Sierra. These are some of the only books I’ve ever bought brand new in my life, and they are some of the best-loved. I’ve gone through each from time to time, and read all the “stuff” in the beginning. You know, all the “stuff” about history, ethics, access, land managers, geology, etc. That “stuff” gives each crag I have had the pleasure to climb at the depth and nuance that makes a place special. You know how that favorite climb of yours has that crazy knob out left, right where you need it, and then the finger slot is good, but you have to hit it just right… You know all those details that give your favorite climbs character? Those details exist for places as well, and the guidebook is the modern catalogue of those details.
The guidebook has long been one of the most important pieces in my quiver of climbing gear. I’ve used guidebooks to generate psyche about routes days before I had the time to go climb them – poring over old photos, and descriptions of first ascent epics. I’d carry guidebooks proudly with me from home to car to crag. I’ve both read Peter Croft’s “The Good The Great and The Awesome” cover to cover while driving out to the High Sierra, and given my own copy to a friend to do the same. I’ve carried full size guidebooks on alpine routes before, just because of the high quality of that author’s beta, and the importance of word for word accuracy in certain things such as descent information. It can be a touch heavy, but it saves you a trip to the print shop.
Recently, Mountainproject partnered with Black Diamond to release Mountainproject’s free downloadable guidebook app for smart phones. I applaud the proliferation of readily accessible information as much as the next liberal-minded free thinker, although I may be more of a luddite when it comes to new technology. I still have a flip phone; my car is an 87 vw with an 82 engine; I have glasses, not Lasik; and some of my clothes I’ve had since high-school, more than 12 years ago. I suppose I don’t take change well.
But it isn’t the whole smart-phone craze and all associated maladies that has me writing this long drawn-out litany. I could go on for hours about “what’s wrong with America – no, what’s wrong with everything today- is these damn smart phones put people in these little bubbles of pseudo-reality and anonymity and depersonalize the human experience whilst encouraging people to distract themselves in front of screens for all hours instead of getting outside and BLAH BLAH BLAH”… I really can go on like that for hours. My friends can attest to it. But the reason I’m writing this piece is the way the Mountainproject app is being marketed. From the first press-release about the BD/MP team up, Mountainproject’s free app was touted as “The Guidebook Killing App”. This strikes me as unauthentic, unreasonable, and unappreciative. Why would we be celebrating something that kills guidebooks? Don’t we like guidebooks?
In a short interview with one of BD’s athletes, the athlete talks about how “Virtually all the info I need for a climbing area—from route listings to recent beta to quality consensus—is now available to me on my phone”. Really? Is that all you need to know? What about local ethics at that crag? What about the history behind that route? What about all the subtleties and innuendos that make these places more special than a gym? Yeah, you go to a climbing gym – maybe all you care about is route listings, beta, quality consensus, and grade. Okay. But at a crag? How about Yosemite? When you look up Yosemite National Park on Mountainproject, you don’t see the following names anywhere on the homepage: John Muir, John Salathe, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Yvon Chouinard, John Bachar, John Long, etc. You don’t see any names at all. The United States’ richest rock climbing treasure, with some of the most fascinating, breathtaking, inspiring history and stories, does not even get a mention.
What it all boils down to is that Mountainproject and guidebooks are not even in the same genre. It’s absurd for one to try to compete with the other, because they don’t do the same thing. Mountainproject provides crowd-sourced (AKA, quick but unverified) beta continually updating about CLIMBS everywhere. Guidebooks provide in depth detail and colorful description, from local experts, of CRAGS everywhere. Guidebooks are something you can plop on your coffee table, and make your own notes in (without having your notes visible to the entire climbing community). You also don’t have to wade through the whole community’s notes in a guidebook. You can look up route beta in a guidebook without having your onsight spoiled by some gear-laden beta-monkey spraying all over the page about where to put your #2 camalots. Maybe you feel like you have a #2 camalot on the end of each wrist, and don’t need to bring any extras at all. Climbing is personal, and the experience is individual. Most guidebooks celebrate that individuality respectfully by not going overboard with beta for gear, or movements.
The new world of apps and smart phone-led beta gathering that MP and BD seem eager to usher in is one that raises my hackles. When climbing areas become reduced to a collection of 5.somethings, when historic information about those who came before and worked way harder than you did gets lost, when routes get upgraded by people who don’t know what it was like when 5.9 was the hardest thing in the world – the climbing community loses something. I don’t know exactly what. Maybe it is spirit, or soul, or respect for tradition. Maybe it is honor, homage, humility. Maybe it is all of those. One way or another, I’d recommend exercising at least a little bit of circumspection before celebrating the death of the guidebook, the end of sandbagging, and the advent of the ultimate replacement for these obnoxious and archaic things: the smart phone. I like Mountainproject, and I like Black Diamond, and I don’t know any BD athletes, but I’m sure they are all great people (the one I’m referring to DOES stand up for guidebooks eventually in the interview in question). I bop around on MP as much as the next obsessed climber, and have used it to post my own route descriptions – and I’d probably call BD the most indispensable climbing company I can think of. It is precisely because of the high regard I hold these companies in that I am making this point. We all need to stay honest, and respect tradition. As the climbing community continues to grow, and the industry as well, we should be careful about how we word things, and what historical relics we jettison as we move forth into the future of climbing.