Semi-Rad: In Praise of Guidebooks

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Brendan Leonard
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These days, killer climbing beta lives right in your pocket. The smartphone has changed how we access information for climbing areas the world over, for the most part in a good way. Hell, I think Mountain Project is the greatest invention since the cam. You can find photos of the route you want to climb, the sometimes-complicated approach beta, updates on whether an ice climb is in or not, and even comments from the dozens of people who have pulled the crux move and think it’s sandbagged at 5.10, soft for 5.10, or only 5.10 if you’re 5’9” or shorter. But you can’t deny the beauty and usefulness of a good guidebook.

Rock Climbing Guidebook Mountain Project app

Guidebook vs. app.

I have lost countless hours sitting on the floor at the American Alpine Club Library surrounded by hundreds of guidebooks, unable to focus on whatever I came to the library for in the first place, leafing through pages and pages of routes all over the world. My imagination delighted, I play out fantasies of easy alpine adventures and 5.14d sport challenges where I wouldn’t even be able to grab the start holds. Guidebooks unlock areas, but they also inspire adventures. I leave with a mental tick list 100 routes long and vague travel plans for the near future.

I’m in love with guidebooks. You couldn’t separate me from my copy of Leigh Ortenburger and Renny Jackson’s beta and history masterpiece A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range, even though I’ve only climbed four routes in the Tetons and have no immediate plans to go back this year.

I think Steve Levin’s Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide is the Dawn Wall of guidebooks, with the meticulous curation of beta for every single route in Eldo (even if a route has never seen a second ascent and is a pile of garbage), historical info, and beautiful full-color photos. It retails at $40, but I think it should go for more like $75. The Eldo guidebook and South Platte Climbing: The Northern Volume, by Jason Haas, Ben Schneider, and Craig Weinhold are almost closer to the artistic level of coffee table books than guidebooks, and really, maybe they are, except a lot of climbers don’t own coffee tables.

The Internet is a great place to get a feel for a particular route, but I still haven’t found something that gives me the feel of a place like a guidebook does when I crack one open. Crowdsourcing beta is of course wonderful because of the sheer amount of information from a handful or a dozen people, and the ability to constantly update that information. But there’s also something more personal about an author’s curation of all the routes in one place, or even the 50 best ones, and the labor of love it requires. Guidebooks are an art that I’m very enthusiastic about. So when a publisher asked me if I’d be interested in writing a guidebook, even I was a little shocked that my immediate thought was “Hell no!”

I know that the best of them are a tremendous amount of work, usually done for very little money, and maybe even less gratitude. But, after thinking about it more, I figured that if I could share the pleasure and pain of the process, that is to say work with a cowriter, then maybe I could do it. The publisher was game, so I asked my friend Lee, who has a degree in journalism but has spent the past couple decades as an aircraft mechanic. Lee, needless to say, was excited.

I began jokingly calling the project “Guidebook Light” since it’s not an exhaustive tome, more of an intro to multi-pitch trad routes in Colorado’s Front Range for climbers who are just getting started placing gear. It covers 40 routes, 5.4 to 5.8+, a far cry from the encyclopedic volumes that line my shelves and have beta on hundreds or thousands of routes. But really it’s the only guidebook Lee and I would be qualified to write.

We made a list of climbs spanning the Front Range from Rocky Mountain National Park to Elevenmile Canyon, decided who would write which route descriptions, tried to round up photos from friends and acquaintances. I dragged my girlfriend around Elevenmile Canyon, Eldo, Garden of the Gods, and Lumpy Ridge, re-climbing routes in order to take one or two photos. For the last route in the book, Lee and I bushwhacked into the base of the Fifth Flatiron last July because I told him it was a fun route for new leaders, which was correct. My memory of not bushwhacking, however, was incorrect. We finished up editing and proofreading over the winter.

In March, I got the first two preview copies of the finished book, my name and Lee’s name on the cover under the title, Classic Front Range Trad Climbs. Lee and I have been climbing together since 2007, and not only have we managed to not kill each other, we made a book covering some of the terrain we had climbed, just in case anyone wants to have similar “fun.”

I never thought I’d write a guidebook, and the thought of people actually buying and using our book is slightly terrifying. We are now, in some respect, responsible for directing the adventures of our readers. Throughout, I tried to remember the book that got me fired up about trad routes in the Front Range-—a book called Serious Play, by the late Steve Dieckhoff, originally published in 2002. Dieckhoff’s hand-drawn topos made the lines of rock formations look soft and inviting, and the language he used was straightforward, no sandbagging, and made you feel like every route was doable, even for a gumby like myself: “This traverse is a bit tricky, so place a solid nut in the crack and then go for it.” Every guidebook should read like this, I thought at the time. I hope people will read our guidebook and feel like everything in it is possible out there in my favorite places. That’s what a book has the power to do.

Brendan Leonard lives in relent-less pursuit of 5.fun. Read more of his work at semi-rad.com.