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Free climbing’s greatest moments recounted

Rock climbing is a sport that invites attention to detail.

The tiniest things take on enormous importance when climbing a difficult route. Mica crystals glitter like large mirrors, orange and black lichens seem to blossom like trees, and a person’s focus narrows to only the surrounding rock.

But that beauty is immediately forgotten when the climb is complete.



Author Pat Ament is no exception when it comes to paying attention to the small things.

His book “A History of Free Climbing in America: Rock Wizards” details the chronology of the sport in the continental United States. Leaving out Alaska, Hawaii and the rest of the world keeps the volume of information to a manageable level — though just barely. The sheer quantity of information demands the narrow focus of a climber.




Starting in the 1800s with John Muir, Ament covers the most interesting and significant events and people in the sport. He tries to “pay tribute to climbers, and to recognize their talent and humanity.” The book succeeds on this level, marking the years with importance. Some ascents he focuses on, adding commentary from participants, while others leave more to the imagination.

The number of climbing events he records means that brevity becomes a necessity in describing some routes. Consider this entry on the Durrance Route on Devil’s Tower in Wyoming:

“1938. Jack Durrance, with partner Harrison Butterworth, climbed the Durrance Route, 5.6, up Devil’s Tower. Today, this straightforward, steep crack remains the most popular route to the summit.”

Some might think that the “most popular route” deserves a little more attention than two lines. More significant ascents receive more ink, but still the route descriptions read more like journal entries. This is one of the book’s problems.

Another distraction is the quality of photos. Historical photos reproduced well, crisp and clean, but head-shot photos of the participants make them look like ghouls, zombies and aliens.

Another problem is the organization. If you know the year of a particular route’s first ascent and want to read about it, you’re in luck. Without the year, you have to read the entire book to see if your favorite route at the crags made the cut.

Some may not agree with the routes Ament selected, or the time he devotes to each one, but no one can deny his qualifications to write it. His place in climbing history is know to most, and if not, they can catch highlights in this book. As much of a historian as he is climber, Ament covers the American side of climbing completely.

Reading the book is an experience much like hard climbing. While you’re involved in it, the photos and journal entries stand out in importance and beauty, but after you’ve finished the book they are quickly forgotten.

Colin Hupp may be reached via e-mail at chupp@tahoedailytribune.com


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