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New Guidebook Collection to Track Climbing History

Posted on: May 13th, 2009 by AAC Library

In the near future, the AAC library is scheduled to receive a collection of rare and unusual climbing guidebooks from Armando Menocal, a longtime climber and advocate of climbing. We asked Armando to give us some background about the collection, why he started it, and the significance of the collection. The following post was written by Mr. Menocal.
A common misconception about guidebooks is that their purpose is simply to give directions.
Prof. Jay Taylor, Journal of Historical Geography (Vo. 32: 190, 2006)

One day 25 years ago, a writer from a trendy magazine in San Francisco called me. She was doing a typical story on what people in the community were reading.

“What’s on your night stand?” she asked me.

Before I could think of something she might understand or that might make me look good, I blurted out the truth, “Rock Climbs of Tuolumne Meadows.”

Silence. Then a dubious and clueless, “What’s that?” I still wasn’t thinking because I made a second mistake, one that climbers know all too well: trying to explain climbing to a non-climber.

“It’s a kind of book with directions for rock climbs and basic facts, like features and difficulty. This one has mostly drawings or photos, but it’s the first published guide to the Meadows, after years when the only info we had was a spiral notebook that was kept at the Sierra Club’s Soda Spring campground, where climbers would write down or draw their first ascents. Half’m were total sandbags.”

More silence, and then, “That’s really interesting. What did you read before that?”

Why Guidebooks?
My fascination with guidebooks began as most collectors of mountaineering books. When I wasn’t climbing, I wanted to read about climbing. After a decade of reading and acquisitions, I could see that I was getting farther and farther behind the publication of new guidebooks. New books were coming out faster than I could read. I needed focus.

Then my collecting caught a break. In the 1980s, Jim McCarthy asked me to organize an Access Committee for the American Alpine Club. I had climbed in California, around Colorado, Tetons, and had even been on four expeditions to Nepal. But now I was getting calls about problems at City of Rocks, New River Gorge, and Tablerock State Park. I wasn’t at this game long before I learned to ask the caller, “I need to know about the place and climbs. Send me the guidebook.” Those were my first guidebooks to places I had never climbed, and in many cases, never would climb.

At first, I used the guides merely to educate me about an area threatened by restrictions or closure. In the 1980s, the climbing community was divided over sport climbing and bolt-dependent climbing. The guidebooks were the primary platform for the ethics debates that were leading to access problems.

Climbing norms at an area are usually reflected in its guidebook. Guides often influence positions on ethics, lauding some climbs while censuring others, paying particular attention to style and technologies used for the ascents described.

Among the first people I asked to join the Access Committee was Randy Vogel. Randy was a well-known Southern California climber, and he was to become the backbone of the Access Committee and then the Access Fund. Randy had published his first Joshua Tree and Tahquitz & Suicide guides by then, but I did not know that he was also an ardent and knowledgeable guidebook collector.

Randy became my mentor. He helped me hunt down rare guidebooks by the Bay Area’s first climbers. I have been particularly drawn to Yosemite guidebooks, because these guides not only record the history of climbing at one of the meccas of modern climbing, but its leaders–Brower and Leonard to Chouinard and Rowell, were to influence the modern environmental movement. I was able to get Richard Leonard’s first guide to Yosemite (1938) and to the High Sierra (1937) and David Brower’s mimeo guide to Pinnacles National Monument (1939). I added the original Rock Climbing Section records from the 1930s to my collection.

As I ran the Access Fund, I kept adding guidebooks. Eventually, Randy told me that between his collection of the Southland and mine, we had acquired almost all of the original California guidebooks.

In fact, Randy probably said that we had “all the R5, R6, and R7 guides” (that’s guide collectors’ code). Randy had published a book as rare as most of our guides, “The Climbing Guidebooks of the United States, California and Arizona.” Randy’s first guidebook to Tahquitz was the first in the U.S. to use quality ratings for climbs, and so it was no surprise that he created a rating to the guidebooks themselves.  But the new scale measured a guide’s rarity, from R1 to R7. R5 was “Rare”, 25-75 copies known. R6 was “Very Rare”, 6-25 copies known. And R7 was “Excessively Rare”, 0-5 copies known.

In the mid-90s, I turned the Access Fund over to the next generation of leaders, who were to build it into the largest membership organization of climbers in the US. I lived in Nepal and then the Tetons, and to make these moves, I downsized. But I knew where my heart was: my general mountaineering books went into storage, never to be on a bookshelf again. But I keep the guidebooks nearby, covering a wall and within reach. Along the way I added guides to Nepal and my new home in the Rockies, but I was no longer a collector.

In 2001, I was contacted by Jay Taylor, a professor at Iowa State who was trying to document climbing for a history of Yosemite rock climbing he was writing. Steve Roper had sent him to me. Jay offered to meet me in the Tetons, and at the local brew pub, I showed him my R6 and R7 guidebooks. Afterwards, Jay wrote me, “I’ve been rifling through the documents you brought, and I am getting a bit giddy.”

The AAC Library Guidebook Collection
Eventually, I talked to the uber-mountaineering book collector, Nick Clinch, who proposed a special and separate guidebook collection at the AAC Library. I pitched Nick’s idea to Jay Taylor:

I think it’s a great idea. This would be a trove both for the climbing community and for scholars.  A resource such as what you’re proposing, located at the AAC, would probably increase the number of people who would want to look seriously at the history of American mountaineering.  A lot of people are becoming interested in the sport. I really encourage you to pursue this. It’s brilliant.

Randy Vogel, still the most knowledgeable guidebook collector in America, put the proposal of a guidebook collection in a broader historical context:

Congratulations on a major accomplishment: getting climbing guidebooks taken seriously by the AAC as an important part of the climbing literature. It seems that the aging rock climbing generation has become extremely conscience of not just preserving our history, but embracing guidebooks as part of that historical record. This evolution in thinking about guides (and climbing history) is also now more often reflected in expanded form and content of guides.

The foundation of the collection will be the guidebook books I have collected over 40 years of climbing. However a unique aspect of this collection is that it will grow, and not be limited to the initial donation. New guides will be added as published. Falcon Guides, the largest publisher of guides in the US, is the first publisher to agree to donate future published guides to the collection.

Individual collectors are also being solicited to donor rare guides and collections. Several donors have already agreed to add their own guides to the Guidebook Collection. For example, Stewart Green, perhaps the most prolific current American guidebook author, said:

I’m planning on donating all my papers, research, topos, and everything else associated with my guidebook writing and work to the AAC collection. It’s something that is really needed to help document the history of climbing, and more specifically, American climbing. Guidebooks have been an important part of 20th century climbing and a collection of material would both preserve and chart the evolution of American climbing

The scope and design of the Guidebook Collection will be unlike other donations to the Library. It will include originals materials on which guides are based, such as descriptions of first ascents and initial route topos. Some of the first topos to be done have been committed to the Collection.

Where donations are not possible, the Guidebook Collection will purchase guides and other materials. A Restricted Fund has been established from the sale of hundreds of general mountaineering books that were donated to the Library, along with the original guidebook collection, for the purpose of establishing a fund for future additions.

Finally, to disabuse any legit climber of the idea you probably have. The collection is not a lending library – it will not save you the price of a guidebook for your next adventure.

Armando Menocal first authored a guide over 35 years ago, “A Ciimber’s Guide to Mexican Restaurants,” for weekend warriors en route to California’s many climbing venues. In Fall, 2009, his guidebook to climbing in Cuba, Cuba Climbing, will be published.