There and back to see how far it was.

Jan 23, 2014 | Blog | 0 comments


A climbing induced state



If you are reading this, as a non-climber, you may be surprised to hear that most crags have printed guides. They contain descriptions of where a particular crag is, how to get to it and lots of other useful things you would expect to get in a publication calling itself a guidebook.

Well, that makes things lot easier doesn’t it?  If only that was the case.  Excuse me for pausing for a sardonic laugh.

Most guidebooks are the result of a team effort. Both individually and collectively the contributors put in many hours of unpaid work. This involves updating text from previous guides and allegedly climbing most of the routes described in order to check the veracity of the descriptions. It would not be overstating the case to say that for many, their efforts are a labour of love. I mention this for two reasons; first, in no way do I want to belittle their sterling efforts and second many of the authors are bigger than me.

But in the seeds of their conception there is a serious flaw. Historically most guidebooks have been produced under the auspices of either active clubs or the British Mountaineering Council (the representative body of the UK’s climbing fraternity) and the committees that are tasked with producing the guides. There in a nutshell is the source of the problem, can you think of anything useful in the history of humankind that has been produced by a committee?

Unless you have been living on another planet, or subscribe to the communist creed, you must be aware of the problems of centralist command and control economies. They gave us the Berlin Wall and the Trabant.  U K guidebooks have much in common with these icons of the Soviet Union. Many seem designed to prevent you from actually reaching a climb and if you do reach your objective the experience is not what you had been led to believe. I actually knew someone who once owned a Trabant; he always had an expression of permanent disappointment. It looked like a car but never really did anything that we expect of a car. Believe me some guidebooks are the same. They masquerade as tomes of useful if not vital information yet provide you with many small disappointments. Although it has to be said, in their defence, they do not emit large amounts of evil smelling noxious fumes.

Some guidebooks are in reality works of mythology and can probably hold their own against The Lord of the Rings. They will certainly lead you, through the authors’ error and laziness, into many an adventure. You may think that it was incumbent upon the producers of a climbing guide, a book that encourages people to participate in a risky pastime, to be accurate.  This thought seems never to have crossed the mind of some of the book committees, or should we call them commissariats?

UK guidebooks are stuffed full of interesting but completely irrelevant information.  Let’s take the F&RCC (Fell and Rock Climbing Club) Langdale guide as an example. At the front there are thirty-three pages of interesting but irrelevant geological and historical notes before you even find a route. In addition there are over fifty pages of irrelevant or poorly placed information at the back. And this is one of the better books; some are so bad that you need a guide on how to use the guidebook.

Many climbing guides should have a health warning on the front along these lines:  ‘Beware! This book contains many inaccuracies as regards route grades, length of routes, description of said routes and use of English. A working knowledge of your native language may prevent you from being able to use this guide properly. Casual acceptance of the contents of this guide, as fact, could lead to serious injury or death’. That should just about do it.

Climbing guidebooks are replete with classic British understatement and euphemism. Or in some cases, just lies. Whereas this is not an insurmountable problem for natives it does make things very difficult for visiting climbers from other countries, particularly Americans. They tend to expect the literal truth.  French climbers, on the other hand, have a very healthy suspicion of anything Anglais and as a result they disregard useful tips with a Gallic shrug and seem to suffer little for it. For example, if you see this: ‘step across to the left,’ said step could be several steps across a wall of blank hold less rock, the traverse of which requires anything but a simple step. Of course none of that will be mentioned.  If a guidebook says ‘easy step to the left,’ it will probably take you half an hour to work out how to do the ‘easy step.’ The word easy should always be taken with a large pinch of proverbial salt. The appearance of the words,hard or difficult, should set alarm bells ringing in the readers mind.

In order to provide new climbers with a useful reference have listed a few suggestions below. Climbing guidebook items appear in bold type with the interpretation listed afterwards. If you study this it will give you a useful insight on how to approach and use a climbing guidebook in the UK. The list is by no means comprehensive, remember, climbing is about uncertainty so this might just give you a rough idea of what to expect.

Left: Right.

Right: Left.

Easy: Hard.

Hard: Very hard.

Very hard: Almost impossible for all but the very best climbers.

By now you should be getting a feel for things, so I will continue.

Easy move: If it’s easy why mention it?

Hard or difficult move: The fact that it’s been mentioned at all should put you on you guard.

Easy climbing continues to the top: The important thing to remember here is what went before. So if you are on a desperately hard route the easy bit will only be hard. You have been warned!

Interesting move or situation: This type of remark should always be written in red ink it generally translates to performing extreme gymnastic moves whilst trying to ignore shaking legs and rapidly liquefying bowels.

Ten metres: Anything between thirty-three feet and sixty feet. Interestingly although guidebooks have used metric measurements for several years, ask a British climber how far he has climbed, or fallen, and the distance will invariably be given in imperial measurement. Distance fallen will always be exaggerated so to gain a true picture divide by two.

Forty-metre abseil: You have been warned! Don’t forget to tie knots in the ends of your abseil ropes. I know of one particular spot where my sixty-metre rope is only a metre longer than the forty-metre abseil described in the guide.

Some suspect rock: A tottering pile of choss ready to fall over when subject to any additional load, the weight of a climber for instance.

In situ peg: I have two issues with this type of comment. Why is it written in a language that has not been used in this country for several hundred years? And even then only royalty, the church and the legal professions used it. When did you last see a monk on a climb? Furthermore, don’t expect to find a peg; a streak of brown rust is generally all that will remain from earlier generations’ efforts to protect themselves.


An interesting crag often overlooked by the hordes: A crap crag understandably ignored by the hordes.

Classic climbing: Beloved of earlier generations who were obviously too stupid to see the shortcomings of this type of route. Greasy, wet, slimy thrutching up chimneys with little or no protection, generally the only protection on offer is your bottom so wedge it in.

Time to the crag: Unless you are very fit it is always a good idea to add fifty percent. This seems to work for most people.

So having got to grips with the startling fact that nothing means what it says the hopeful climbers begin the two-hour (sorry, four hour) walk to the crag of their dreams. Finding the route should be easy as the guidebook writers have helpfully included a diagram of the crag as well as written descriptions. The fact that the text contains words you are not really familiar with is a minor hurdle. Surely it won’t take long to tell the difference between an arête and a diedre? I’ll give you a clue; the latter is not a girl. As for the diagrams, they are generally very good but bear in mind that they are produced from a specific viewpoint, which may not be yours. Also, I think I detect the dead hand of a committee here, they are very selective. Can you imagine the frustration of travelling to one of the country’s premier climbing areas only to find that the route diagrams do not cover the area in which you want to climb? It was not so long ago my self and another climber with over forty years of climbing experience between us, could not find a section of a crag where we wanted to take a group of beginners. We spent an hour of mental contortions trying to making bits of rock fit the guidebook descriptions. Frustrated and angry we eventually gave up and chose a bit of suitable rock, ignoring the guidebook and using our experience to aid us in our choice.

If you find all of this just a little bit depressing, fear not, help is at hand. In recent years  a series of guidebooks have appeared that use cutting edge technology to provide climbers with what they want. Primarily they use photographs, how up to date can you be? I know that in the UK we are often portrayed as being slow to take up innovations but I think one hundred and twenty years is a tad too much, don’t you? Superimposed on the photographs are lines that represent the routes. Information that is considered relevant is printed beside the route names that feature in text beneath each photo. It couldn’t be simpler and it works. Climbers have voted with their chequebooks and purchased these in large quantities.

            It is true to say that the producers of these climbing guides have stirred up a hornet’s nest of self-righteous anger among certain individuals in the climbing firmament. Some, but not all, of their arguments concern the theft of a common heritage. Many of the route descriptions are lifted straight from previous guidebooks produced for no commercial gain. There is merit in some of these complaints but the fact is these new guides are easy to use and they give climbers what they want. It may come as a surprise to some of the more vocal members of the UK climbing scene that most climbers are not remotely interested in the history of climbing. All they want to do is climb,  they may take an interest in the exploits of previous generations at a later date but the place to do so is not a guidebook but a history book.

            It was not so long ago that I stood next to an elderly man who had obviously been climbing for many years. He was studying his traditional style guidebook with a look of puzzlement and frustration. I handed him my super duper guide and his expression soon changed from one of bewilderment to one of wondrous comprehension. ‘nough’ said.

 This article on climbing guides was written several years ago but recent experience has taught me that it is as relevant now as it was when first penned.

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