Review: Climbing Rock: Vertical Explorations across North America, by François Lebeau and Jesse Lynch

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I began climbing in the era of classic, large-format climbing-photo books: epic tomes like Uli Wiesmeier and Stefan Glowacz’s Rocks around the World (I still have my copy) and Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light. These books would set me off dreaming of future trips and the day when I might be good enough to try the climbs featured, and I still have a fondness in my heart for the format. So I’m always excited when a new offering in the genre comes out, as with the photographer François Lebeau and the writer Jesse Lynch’s 272-page Climbing Rock, a richly realized, eye-grabbing coffee-table book of Lebeau’s best images. (Full disclosure: We often work with Lebeau here at Climbing Magazine, and he was one of the featured photographers in our 2019 Photo Annual.)

The book—which focuses solely on rock climbing—follows a novel format based on the four seasons: Each season/section intro details the areas on the North American circuit climbers flock to at that time of year. So, for example, the “Spring” section focuses on cragging destinations like Rifle, the Hurricave, and Red Rock and multi-pitch venues like Zion and Yosemite, while the “Summer” section focuses on alpine venues like the High Sierra, Bugaboos, and Squamish. I found this to be a very effective, engaging format—and a logical one given how seasonal our sport is and the way North American climbers (or visitors to the continent) travel: We follow the best conditions. The book also features an ever-engaging foreword from the Yosemite/Sierra legend Peter Croft, as well as a solid mix of pull quotes throughout from some of today’s top climbers like Dru Mack, Alex Honnold, Lynn Hill, and others. There is a carefully constructed travel/lifestyle/philosophical narrative at work here that does a stellar job of tying the images together and that speaks, with authenticity, to the core of rock climbing. This is a book by climbers for climbers—that much is clear.

Which brings me to the images. Lebeau, originally from Montreal but now based in the Bay Area, has distinguished himself in recent years as one of the hardest-working, most talented climbing shooters out there, and he seems to be all places at all times: the Red River Gorge with 5.14+ redpointers, up on El Capitan with Barbara Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher on some gnarly free big wall, at the Gunks with local trad crushers, out in the austere, dusty Owens River Gorge with Peter Croft, rolling through the Buttermilks with big posses of psyched boulderers. Personally I love his eye and reverence for landscape: While the climbing action in Lebeau’s shots is always top-notch, his images are imbued with a strong sense of place, pulled back to let the surroundings breathe. This is what climbing is at, at its best: The chance to push ourselves athletically and mentally in some of the wildest, most unique landscapes on Earth, and Lebeau knows this. Climbing Rock also does a great job with variety, showing multiple angles of the same climber on the same climb and mixing up the pure climbing porn with lifestyle shots like climbers lounging below Rumney’s Waimea Wall, rock textures, hanging out in the parking lot at Donner Summit, night climbing by headlamp, and so on.

Rock climbing, of course, is so much more than just hanging on to rocks, and for us diehards even transcends “lifestyle”; it is life itself—nothing more and nothing less. Climbing Rock understands this, and our little world—of passion, fear, sublime beauty, and self-realization—jumps to life on its pages.