What’s the Role of Climbing Guidebooks in the Age of Apps?

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Turns out, old-fashioned guidebooks still have a lot to offer.

In the summer of 2016, I arrived at Seattle Bouldering Project to present a slideshow to a packed house of 170 people. They had all come to celebrate the release of The Index Town Walls, a Guide to Washington’s Finest Crag—a climbing guidebook I’d been working on with another climber, Matty Van Biene, for close to four years. I was amazed at how many people showed up—partly because I had only met a couple dozen Index regulars in five years climbing there, but also because I thought guidebooks might be a thing of the past.

At almost every crag I’d visited around the country, most climbers were using apps on their phones—like Mountain Project, Rakkup and Topo Guru—instead of guidebooks. But Fred Knapp, founder of Sharp End Publishing, publisher of my own guidebook, and author and editor of countless other guidebooks, says, “Guidebook sales keep growing, which probably is in sync with the industry as a whole.”

With so much information available online, why are climbers still excited about old-fashioned print guidebooks? From my experience with publishing one, and chatting with other writers and publishers, here’s my take.

1. Guidebooks provide expert info. 

Most apps crowdsource info from their users. Most guidebooks rely on the author’s firsthand experience. And those authors are highly experienced with the crags they’re writing about, at the very least because of the time and dedication required to produce a guidebook. “Nine times out of 10 there is going to be much more detailed and comprehensive information in a guidebook,” says Brenden Sullivan, co-author of the new Frenchman Coulee guidebook. With crowdsourced information, there’s no way to tell how much experience a user actually has when they’re giving advice.

2. Guidebooks give the inside scoop on stewardship. 

Apps like Mountain Project fill the need for current information on conditions or closures, says Katie Sauter, library director at the American Alpine Club. But for more in-depth information about long-term access issues and local organizations, books offer a deeper dive, says Michael Reardon, executive director of Carolina Climber Coalition and founder of Ground Up Publishing.

3. Guidebooks are collectors’ items.

“Due to the fact that many guidebooks produce a small print run, a fairly large percentage of them become collectible pretty soon after their publication,” Sauter says. Many guidebooks are beautiful works of art, too. Karl Kelley, author of the latest Indian Creek guidebook, says his copy of Desert Rock by Eric Bjornstad, which is out of print, is a prized possession. “It’s a classic in my collection that is cherished and set on the top shelf,” he says.

4. Authors are a trusted source for ethics issues.

In the introductory section at the front of most guidebooks, there’s almost always at least a few pages devoted to local ethics and etiquette like Aaron Huey’s new Tensleep guidebook, which addresses these topics on the very first page. Or Vic Zeilman’s guidebook to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, which features a long section about bolting and new route development, explaining how “the Black Canyon holds true to its ethic of going ground-up and hand drilling on lead.” You may find such info in bits and pieces on rock climbing apps, but “generally a person who wants to pen a guidebook has a strong tie to the area and community, and will convey more than just route beta,” Kelley says.

A colorful collection of rock climbing guidebooks fills a black bookshelf.

The author's personal guidebook collection.

5. Guidebooks are fun to read.

The original version of Peter Croft’s The Good, The Great, and The Awesome was pretty light on technical information about approach, climb and descent. But every route covered included a short anecdote from Croft that illustrated what made that route special to him personally. He described how you might stand at the Tuolumne Store and jerk your thumb over your shoulder toward Cathedral Peak and say, “Yeah, I just climbed that.” I recall that story every time I see Cathedral Peak.

6. Everyone needs a break from screen time. 

Having a stream of climbing information available almost instantaneously on your digital device may be convenient, but sometimes we just need a break from our phones. In fact, according to a study conducted by linguistics professor Naomi S. Baron, 92% of college students actually prefer reading print books to e-books, citing the lack of distractions that are rampant on screens, as well as headaches and eye strain.

7. Guidebook authors often give back.

In an effort to show our appreciation for all the support we felt as we wrote our own guidebook, Matty and I decided to donate a portion of our royalties to the Washington Climbers Coalition, earmarked for use specifically at Index. Our publisher, Sharp End, matched that donation. Then there’s Karl Kelley, who donated 100% of his royalties from the Indian Creek book to The Access Fund. Over the past three summers, various editions of Aaron Huey’s Tensleep climbing guidebook have raised over $18,000 for the Bighorn Climbers Coalition.

8. Guidebooks inspire. 

The biggest change in guidebooks has come with full color, Knapp says, with books like David Bloom's Indian Creek guide. "His vision for that book, released in 2009, “was to inspire, to create a dreamer book that you could peruse in the off season or find motivation for a road trip.” That book was part of why I wanted to work with Sharp End, and it served as a template for what I hoped to achieve with my own book.

Not long ago, I was hanging out with my friend Nelson Klein talking about guidebooks. Klein was just back from Indian Creek, where he’d been camping and climbing with a group of Washington locals. “It was the funniest thing,” he told me, “there we were on a sunny morning in the Creek, all sitting around on crash pads and looking at the guidebook.” Here’s the funny part: It wasn’t the Indian Creek book they were looking at—it was my Index guidebook.

Where I live in Northern Arizona, Mountain Project’s information is far more comprehensive, and arguably more useful, than any individual guidebook. And I’ve contributed plenty of routes, comments and information myself over the years. But that special feeling I’ve gotten from using guidebooks and seeing other people use my guidebook is something unique.

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