An Ode to the Humble Guidebook

I have it on good authority that writing a guidebook is a long and tiresome grind which, even once completed, yields little financial reward. It’s often a thankless chore, taken on by unsuspecting folk who spend the following months crying and gnashing their teeth.

Despite the inherent difficulties of production and the advent of digital information services such as Summit Post or Mountain Project, the humble guidebook remains a mainstay of climbing culture. What has kept this tradition not only alive, but thriving? How has it survived the seemingly inevitable death of printed media?

Guidebooks have been instrumental in the passage of information across generations and in opening this erstwhile niche sport to the masses. Some may argue that this is not necessarily a good thing, and indeed this was one of the main reasons for the initial resistance toward the very concept of guidebooks. However, an examination of the virtues and pitfalls of climbing entering the mainstream is a concept for another article… or maybe an entire book!

Once the taboo of recording routes on anything more substantial than an envelope or grubby napkin was broken, guidebooks became a repository of beta for would-be ascensionists from Alaska to Mt Arapiles, Yosemite to Yangzhou. Each tome then came to represent a positive feedback loop – more information allows more climbers to participate, which in turn creates more crag development, which in turn creates more information to record.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of physical media in our day and age. I see little point in committing information to print which can be just as easily consumed digitally, and in many cases with enhanced functionality.

For example, the only advantage a book has over a Kindle is that it can be burned for warmth. If I’m ever forced by circumstance to read a Peasant Book (you know, one made of paper), I’m constantly disappointed by its lack of dictionary options and poor Wi-Fi capability. As for the surprisingly common argument that “I just like the smell of books”… well, that’s just hippie propaganda and has no connection with rational thought.

As far as I can tell, only two mediums have survived becoming anachronisms in an era of digitisation – the vinyl record and the climbing guidebook. Any vinyl enthusiast will tell you that there is a je ne sais quoi that comes from placing the needle onto the gently spinning disc, something that the sterility of an IPod can never mimic. It’s a different experience, aurally, visually, emotionally.

A guidebook is very similar. It’s a tactile experience, very different from an online databank. As you leaf through the dog-eared pages, trying not to destroy the duct-taped spine, you get a sense not only of the history of the area, but of the personal history of this book. It’s been a constant companion, the Navi to your Link, as you quest through the nooks and crannies of your local crag.

Whoa there! Tactile experiences? Emotional connections? I almost began the slippery descent into sentimentality there, even after railing against the new-age nonsense of “book smells”. Perhaps it behooves me, as a pragmatic individual, to speak about the practical benefits of a hard copy guidebook.

For me, the process of browsing through individual entries on Mountain Project is unbearably tedious. If you’ve got a specific route in mind, it’s a fairly simple process. However, for a more complete view of a mountain, crag or climbing area, a guidebook is far superior. This is especially true in areas with diverse climbing styles where single pitch sport climbs might exist side-by-side with epic trad rambles.

Another benefit is quality photography. I don’t know how many descriptions I’ve read that state “climb the obvious crack”… Well, it might be obvious to you, buddy, but there’s an awful lot of rock here! Modern guidebooks often have an emphasis on photography that is not only useful, it’s beautiful to boot. A neat, well-presented guidebook is equal parts art and science.

In a modern context, the weakness of guidebook lies in its static nature. Compared to a website, it can’t possibly compete with the ability to maintain current information. That said, I also have something of a soft spot for this foible. To me, the guidebook is a piece of history, a snapshot of a crag at a particular point in time. And if you think that’s not valuable, then perhaps go ask hardcore Star Wars fans about their thoughts on the “new and improved” addendums to the classic original trilogy. A moment of silence, please.

I’m not sure how many guidebook detractors are floating about, but I feel I’m not alone in treasuring my battle-weary guidebooks. Each crease is a memory, each smudge an epic tale, and each tick a modest victory.

On behalf myself, and I hope of climbers everywhere, I want to go on record and salute guidebook authors for their dedication. Mahalo.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in August 2016

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