Literature on the Rock: An Annotated Bibiliography
by Paul Nelson
I’ve got a dilemma. I’m a bibliophile, obsessed with books to the point that my tiny cabin in the West Virginia woods is filled with hundreds, with hundreds more in storage. Most are some sort of nonfiction and history. Quite a few are climbing books as well– mostly guidebooks, but some memoirs, instructional, and such as well. But here’s the thing: I am not really interested in alpine/mountaineering as a climbing discipline, and that type of climbing makes up the majority of climbing literature. And while I can acknowledge that some mountaineering writing is excellent and gripping (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Kiss or Kill by Mark Twight), I feel as displaced from their settings as any non-climbing armchair explorer would. On the other hand, finding a great book about ROCK CLIMBING actually gets me fired up to get out on the rock, and even try out some of the climbs that the book talks about.
Here are five books that, in my biased opinion, should be required reading for any connoisseur of rock climbing nonfiction literature. Happy reading!
Fall of the Phantom Lord: Climbing and the Face of Fear, by Andrew Todhunter (1999)
Most climbers today know of Dan Osman as that guy in the speed soloing video that has made its way around social media though the last few years, and may condescendingly use the tragic story of his death as a cautionary fable against risky activities. If you want to know more about this complicated figure, however, definitely check out this book. Osman was not only a pioneer in the now rarely-practiced sport of rope jumping that would eventually kill him, but also an incredibly gifted and well-rounded climber, with first ascents into the 5.13+/14- range as well as some very hairball free solos.
In videos such as the early Masters of Stone series, Osman played up his extreme daredevil persona to a degree that we rarely see climbers doing now days, taking purposeful falls on A4 routes, dry tooling waterfalls while wearing snorkeling googles, and even crotch-crashing BMX bikes in a style more befitting of “Jackass” than of most climbing videos.
Todhunter’s book, however, follows Osman not only on his sketchy activities, but shows a more insecure, brooding side of a man who was worried about his diminishing climbing fitness as he aged, his uneasy relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and above all his insatiable urge to keep pushing the adrenaline aspect of climbing. There was never, and never will be, another climber like Osman.
Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America, by John Sherman (1994)
This book, John Sherman’s magnum opus (and very different from his more humorous climbing columns and short essays), is ostensibly a “guidebook” and actually is a great guide for roadtrippers searching for boulders. But it is much more than that. In a state-by-state, region-by-region approach, Sherman tells where the great boulders are, and gives equal attention to mega-areas like Bishop, and tiny little interstate pitstops like Rock City, Kansas. But even more interestingly, Sherman tells the complicated stories of the pioneers who sought out and found all these boulders. These days, bouldering is more popular than ever, but we hear very little about the early figures of the sport, like Chris Jones, Curt Shannon, Pat Ament, Jim Holloway, and even Sherman himself.
The only drawback of Stone Crusade is that it is so dated. Not only was it published before Nicole, Sharma, and Graham fully ushered in a new age of bouldering, but it lacks quite a few classic areas that were simply not yet developed or discovered in 1994 (such as all of Chattanooga’s amazing sandstone). Yet it can still be prophetic in some ways, such as predicting a bouldering renaissance at my home in the New River Gorge, which is occurring right now.
Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World, by Lynn Hill (2003)
Lynn Hill needs no introduction: the original strong female rock climber, Stonemaster, first free ascentionist of The Nose, competition and sport climber, the list goes on. This autobiography, written with the editing and assistance of John Long and Greg Child, shows her progression and evolution in a beautiful cycle through the 70s, 80s, and 90s. She began climbing traditional routes on California granite before traveling across the western US, then to The Gunks in New York, and on to France before returning to her roots in Yosemite to pull off her greatest achievement on The Nose.
We can learn a lot from this book: height is not everything, always finish your figure eight knot, etc. But the message I took the most from Climbing Free is that diversifying your climbing on all types of rock, by way of sport, trad, and bouldering, only makes you stronger, much stronger than rigidly sticking to just one style.
These two books are the essential “founding fathers” biographies for all climbers. In case you are not aware, Gill essentially invented modern bouldering and the gymnastic style of climbing, and Robbins refined the craft of big wall climbing, and was one of the earliest climbers to focus on “pure” style of using eschewing fixed ropes, excessive bolts, and excessive pitons on his routes.
Ament, one of Colorado’s best free climbers in the 1960s, knows both Gill and Robbins well, and these books are very intimate, informal biographies, ending with personal stories of the author hanging out and climbing with the subjects. Not only are the stories fascinating, but the period photos are amazing as well.
The High Lonesome: Epic Solo Climbing Stories, edited by John Long (1999)
Unlike the above books, this is an edited compilation. It mostly contains first-person essays by great solo climbers, going back even to John Muir and wrapping up with Peter Croft. Although it trends toward the mountaineering aspect more than rock, there are some great stories of free solo rock climbing as well. An interview with Derek Hersey, who would die soloing, is particularly profound, and John Long’s “The Only Blasphemy” will have your palms sweating as he describes in slow motion the process by which he very nearly fell from a 5.11 in Joshua Tree.
Like Stone Crusade, the only drawback of this is book is that it is a tad dated– Michael Reardon and Alex Honnold were well in the future at the time of its publication, and two of the book’s figures, Tomaz Humar and John Bachar, would later die while solo climbing. John Long, perhaps a second edition of this is due?