Sunday, August 3, 2008
A Guidebook's Influence
In 1996 I bought John Sherman's guidebook to Hueco Tanks and drove to Texas. Climbers from all over the United States and Europe were there. I spent the first day climbing on and around the Mushroom Boulder, and camped that night next to Pete's parking lot. Pete's small restaurant and shop served mostly climbers. He wasn't a climber, and was grumpy sometimes, but he and his wife both seemed to like having climbers around. They kept a scrapbook of letters they had gotten from some of the most famous climbers in the world. That night at the communal campfire I listened to the music of three Austrian climbers playing guitar, accordian, and trombone. Hearing one sing "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" with a thick accent was hilarious, strangely beautiful, and very memorable. I was on the trip by myself, but never felt lonely. There was a rich variety of people to climb with during the day and talk to at night. It felt like I was in the middle of something new and exciting. What Pete called "a new religion." I felt lucky to be witnessing it. John Sherman's funny and well written guidebook deserved a lot of credit for creating the situation. Hueco Tanks, and the book that brought us there, turned myself and many others into devoted boulderers. A couple years later the park imposed major restrictions. Many climbers felt that the climbing crowds brought by the guidebook were to blame for the restrictions. Years later, while on a ranger supervised bouldering tour at Hueco, I was given another explanation. In response to some questions I had about the issue, the ranger said that graffiti on North Mountain and two illegal excavations were the primary cause of the restrictions. The park managers didn't feel like they could continue to let the general public into the majority of the park without supervision. He said that climbers were considered one of the most responsible user groups, but that the same rules had to apply to them as everyone else. According to his story climbers weren't to blame for the restrictions. Everyone got punished due to the behavior of one gang influenced graffiti artist, and a couple people trying to steal artifacts. I'm not sure it's that simple, but that is what the ranger implied.
In 1999 Phillip Benningfield's "Colorado Bouldering" came out. I was so psyched. I'd been bouldering mostly at Rotary Park using a guide Craig Leubben had written for "Climbing" magazine. Suddenly instead of having a few places to boulder, I had reliable directions to over 40 areas across the state and the problems they contained. Ashley and I took a week long road trip to Durango and Telluride. We stopped at Morrison on the way there, and Marmot Rocks on the way back. Bouldering at a new area everyday on that trip was so much fun. For years my bouldering goal was to climb as many of the problems listed in the book as I could. This meant I spent a lot of time climbing easy problems and visiting new areas instead of projecting hard problems. I quit counting after climbing over 400 problems in the guide. Looking back on it, I had more fun playing that game than I'm having now trying to keep my 8a score from falling. I should go back to focusing on my old game. It's been almost 10 years since the book came out, and I can't think of any access issues that have arisen because of it. In fact, it helped a lot in getting Biglandia officially opened. Carter Lake rangers closed the area because they didn't know anyone was using it. The guidebook allowed me to show that climbers had used the area for a long time, that they valued it, and it was worth the ranger's time to make some calls to have it re-opened. I also learned from this incident that areas can be closed when climbers keep such a low profile that they aren't included in recreation planning documents.
Davin Bagdonas wrote two guides to Vedauwoo bouldering that lead me to spend countless incredible sessions up there. Despite the well written guides, I almost never see other boulderers at the best Vedauwoo areas.
In my experience, the connection between guidebooks, impact, and access problems hasn't been clear or predictable. Sometimes popularity makes an area harder to close. Public Land Managers need public support. If issues arise, the more climbers there are that care, the more power that they have. Sometimes guidebooks reduce impact and crowding by spreading people out. If it weren't for "Colorado Bouldering" and "Vedauwoo Bouldering" my family and I would have spent a lot more time at Emerald Lake and Chaos Canyon during the last 7 summers. Due to guidebooks, we've spent the majority of that time at Vedauwoo and other areas such as the Wild Basin Boulder. Often secrets travel more quickly than regular information. In a similar way, semi-secret bouldering areas seem more fashionable than areas found in guidebooks, and end up becoming more crowded rather than less.
There are many ways to learn about bouldering areas. You can hike a lot, ask for tours (this often feels like begging), search the internet, and examine climbing videos like a detective watching crime footage. I use all of these methods, but my favorite way to learn about climbing areas is to use a good guidebook. A well written guidebook is an incredible public service to the climbing community. Guidebooks help us get to new areas, plan our sessions, help the climbing community grow, and reduce elitism. I view the contributions of John, Phillip, and Davin as being completely positive, and hope they know some people greatly appreciate their efforts.