Ten Things I Learned While Writing The Index Guidebook
A little over four years ago, I embarked on a project that I never thought I would finish… a new guidebook for the best crag in the world: The Index Town Walls.
You know what else has taken me four years to do in my life? High school, college, a couple of relationships, and that’s it. Four years is a really really long time, and in my professional career, it’s the longest I’ve ever stuck with something. Along the way, I learned a lot. Here, I share some of it with you.
- Climbing = Caring. That sounds cheesy AF. But it’s true. When I started this project, I didn’t think about much other than rock climbing. At the end, though, I see the rock climbing community as an enormous family, full of so many aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, precocious children, black sheep, curmudgeony grandparents, and all the rest. We have to care about one another. We have to work together. Nothing in this world is guaranteed, much less access to climbing rocks on public lands. It’s good for all of us to come together, work as a unit, and try to set aside differences to achieve common goals. You’ve got the Access Fund, and the American Alpine Club leading the way in unifying us. But you also have local advocacy organizations like the Washington Climbers Coalition that get together like tribal elders on our behalf to take care of our collective futures. The time of climbing anarchy where we all get to do/say whatever we want and screw everyone else is over. There’s too many of us for that now. We have to compromise, we have to care about one another, we have to be more socially conscious and aware.
- People still love guidebooks. I’m a retail buyer at a local gym where I live now. The other day someone advising me on the retail process, who didn’t know I was also working on guidebooks, told me “of course, you’ll have to carry guidebooks… those authors and publishers will be the bane of your existence… nobody will actually buy them.” Well, the Index guidebook sold nearly 1000 copies in the first two weeks. Almost every store that made an initial purchase made a second purchase within two weeks because they either sold out, or were about to sell out. Screw that guy. If guidebooks aren’t selling, it means a) it’s not a very good book, and/or b) it’s not a very good community. A good guidebook is not just a guide to climbing rocks, it is a historical text, a memento of the area, a celebration of the community, a souvenir of the climbing area. Guidebooks will always have a place in the climber’s life as long as they manage to capture some of that special essence of [Insert Crag Here], and bring it home to the masses.
- It Takes a Village. On most guidebooks you see a single author’s name. The Index guidebook has two – me, and the incredible photographer behind all of these amazing images in this article and in the book, Matty Van Biene. Of course, even two is nonsense. You have advisors, peer editors, beta providers, beta correctors, first ascentionists, retrobolters, family, friends, guest contributors, philanthropic photographers, pilots, friends, belayers, photoshoot models, correspondents, previous guidebook authors, and a slew of other people that turn a collection of names, numbers, and topos into a guidebook. The author’s name on the cover of our book should probably just be “Index”. Index wrote our book. Index took the photos. Index provided the information. A good guidebook is not about painting an area through your eyes, it is about letting an area paint you, until whatever you have to say about it, or whatever photo you shoot of it, comes not from you, but from the heart of that area itself. There can be no ego in a good guidebook, because it takes a whole village to make one.
- Get a Publisher (If You Can). This may not be as relevant for some people out there… But technology spontaneously combusts whenever I look at it, and it doesn’t behave much better for Matty, my co-author. Matty’s a photographer, I’m a writer. You know what Sarah Nicholson and Fred Knapp of Sharp End Publishing are? They are experts at making beautiful guidebooks. Sarah astounded me with her skill on this project. I couldn’t even understand what she was doing, much less how she was doing it. And yet, just like magic, she would click some buttons, twirl her stylus on the pad, drag something from one screen to the next, type something, and then boom, whatever the problem was was solved. She is a wizard, a magician. And Fred is the man that makes everything that would be a nightmare for no-business-with-business me turn into a dream behind the scenes. He got us the advertisers we wanted, found a great printer, knew what RGB to make the photos go at, color adjusted, found a boss proof-reader, spelled out (literally) business deals on the phone with the Korean owners of the Index General Store, just… he conducted. He conducted beautifully, and made it so SO easy for Matty and I to just do our jobs. Sarah and Fred were a dream. I’m sure many other publishing companies also do an excellent job, but having never worked with them, I have nothing to compare against. All I can say is: I would recommend Sharp End 100 out of 100 times.
- Consider Working with Rakkup, too. I’d also recommend Rakkup 100 out of 100 times. Rob and Todd each have more brain power in one half a lobe than Matty and I have combined. The platform they’ve built for creating digital smartphone guidebooks not only empowers the author to begin building their print book using software much less complicated than Adobe In Design, it also allows you to get new and updated information out to the public much quicker than print. They’re super generous, very easy to work with, and incredibly helpful with troubleshooting if you ever need it. The Index Guidebook would not have happened without them, and to them I am incredibly grateful.
- You Don’t Have to be a Local… But if You’re Not, Know You’re Not. You don’t have to be a local to fall in love with a place, to get a place, to want to give something back to a community. That can happen to anyone. But if you’re going to take on what probably should be a local’s role as a relative newcomer to an area, know your roll. Learn whatever you can. Be respectful of people who doubt your intentions. Try your best to meet and get to know the true locals that are like grease in the machine of the crag you love. Your job is not to be special, your job is to distill what is special into a guidebook. Some of what makes Index special is a modest amount of xenophobia. I really mean that. I’m glad some folks questioned my motives/intentions. If someone else was writing the book, I would question theirs. These are our favorite places, a little skepticism about changes, or new media about them, is not just healthy, it’s awesome.
- Hit the Send Button. Eventually, this has to happen. I am much chagrined to discover typos, errors, even some bad beta in our guidebook after it has already been printed. That said, it took us four years. Four years! That’s a really long time. We made so many rounds of edits, had so many different eyes on it, hired a professional editor to look it over. If I’d had my druthers, maybe I would never have published. There are new routes that we didn’t cover, new routes that will go in next year, the area is a constantly evolving and changing thing. The guidebook will only be up to date once, at best, if you’re lucky. Eventually, you have to let go, and put this thing out into the world.
- It’s a Labor of Love. It would be nearly impossible to calculate the wage I could pay myself for this project in dollars per hour. At the upper extremity, counting only time in front of the computer, I don’t know, we might get up to about $5/hr by the time we go through our first printing? If you add in time spent at Index itself, time which maybe you could argue isn’t work because it’s fun, then we’re probably down into the $1/hr range… If you add in the time in my life I’ve spent learning how to climb, exchanging emails with contributors, tracking down partners, dreaming about Index, thinking about Index, daydreaming about a better way to write this section or that, making notes about what to do next time at the crag, etc… you get my point. Some folks asked me at guidebook release parties recently, “would you ever write another guidebook?” The answer is definitely yes, but only if I find somewhere I love as much as Index. For anywhere else, even somewhere I kind of like but am not absolutely head over heels in love with, it would never be worth it. If you love a place enough to accept less than $1/hr in compensation for your efforts, then you may be a good candidate to author a guidebook. In the end, that means your efforts will be inspired not by money, but by love, and that will probably yield a pretty good book.
- Index is the best crag on the planet–for me. One thing I’ve begrudgingly come to accept while writing this book is that there is a slight difference between my OPINIONS and UNIVERSAL FACTS. They often feel like the same thing. You may find it difficult to believe, but, there are some people out there who don’t care for Index. There are even people who haven’t heard of it! There are folks that think Indian Creek, Squamish, the Red River Gorge, even Eldo, are better crags. The Needles in CA, J Tree, Spearfish in So Dakota, Vedauwoo, Boulder Canyon, all of these are SOMEBODY’s favorite crag. The best crag on the planet is the one you are most passionate about. And if you ARE passionate about that crag, do yourself a favor and grab the guidebook. Think of it as a precious memento from the area you love. A little keepsake you can cherish and hold to remind you of everything in your life that is so much better than sitting at home looking at your phone. The world is full of beautiful lands that still haven’t been !@#$ed up by resource extraction, suburban sprawl, monoculture farms, racists, homophobes, crooked politicians, and other putridities. Your favorite crag is a place to recover from all that is disgusting in the world, despicable and loathsome. Go dunk your head in the pure waters of the Skykomish, say your Aum Namashivas to Baring, Index and Perseus, get your ass spanked at the LTW, the UTW, or any of the fine TWs to be had, and come home renewed to give fascism the ass-whooping it deserves.
- Just kidding. Index is ACTUALLY the best. Objectively. Period. Sorry folks, that’s just how it is. You can’t beat it. If you haven’t been, you haven’t seen. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have written a guidebook for this place. Over and over again, I thought some force of divine providence would step in and put the kibosh on my efforts. “Wait – you thought YOU were good enough to do this book?! This is the best crag on the planet. You ARE NOT WORTHY.” It never happened. Nobody ever told me to stop. Nobody better-suited to the task ever stepped up and asked for the reins (and I would have handed them over without prodding time and time again through the challenging process). I don’t care if it never happened, I still don’t feel worthy. People thanked me – ACTUALLY THANKED ME – for writing this book. Are you freaking kidding me?! Index is one of my favorite places on this planet, certainly my favorite place to climb. Thank YOU. Thank you Washington climbers, Index locals, Rakkup, Sharp End, Matty, skeptics, girlfriend, WORLD. Thank you for letting me indulge in my little four-year Index wet dream (let’s be honest, the dream continues). My only hope is that what we have provided will add to, not detract from, the paradise that Index is. Of course, you never know. Will I destroy Index by blowing it up, the way the Indian Creek guidebook destroyed Indian Creek? The way all guidebooks destroy everywhere they guide folks to? I don’t know. But I hope not. I hope that guidebooks never destroy anywhere. I don’t really think they do. Guidebooks are surfers. They don’t build waves, they catch waves. That is what is happening at Index right now, is a wave of enthusiasm and excitement, and hence visitation. The job of a guidebook should be to ride that wave with style, and love, and prescience for the gnashing teeth of whitewash that are sure to come when the wave crashes upon itself. Shit will get tricky. As more and more folks climb at Index (CLIMB PERIOD… EVERYWHERE), we’ll experience a lot of growing pains, a lot of tough sequences. The cruxes will only get more cruxy. But on the other side of the coin, more climbers means more bargaining leverage. Against resource extraction, fascism, and all the other aforementioned maladies. Do we have to share more? Will Index become less our own little secret? Certainly. But what’s worse? Having to wait in line to hop on Japanese Gardens, or never being allowed to climb JG in the first place (because it was quarried, or closed to climbers, or who knows what else)? Writing this guidebook helped me… FORCED ME… to think about that question. And in the end, it provided me with an answer… not THE answer, but AN answer… my answer.
What’s your answer?