What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,
that, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?
– William Shakespeare

In Defense of Mountaineering Guidebooks

I am always amazed when I see stumps of once large trees near treeline. They are not going to grow back, at least not until a comet hits Earth and changes the balance of nature. I am equally amazed that nothing grows on mine tailings. Even a comet may not make them fertile. We are the future generation, and we have stumps and tailings to look at. Yet, the mountains are not dead. We can climb them, then loll about in fields of flowers.
Ironically, we now drive up the miners’ old roads in our fancy four-wheel-drive vehicles made of mined metals, hike uphill for a few hours to a summit and claim a personal victory or conquest. Miners and loggers make physical extractions from the mountains. Climbers make mental extractions from the mountains. For now, we have driven mining and logging offshore. We no longer rush to the mountains to get the gold; we go to get their good tidings.
A debate today swirls around the opinion that even climbers’ mental extractions are causing unacceptable environmental damage. We leave too many footprints. Those who choose to make an effort are being cast as pseudo-criminals who love the mountains to death. Eh? I take a longer view. Death to a mountain is when it is mined into oblivion like Bartlett Mountain. Death to a mountain is when it commits suicide like Mount St. Helens. As violent as those actions were, we can still climb the stumps of those peaks. There are still good tidings there.
Any long view must compare the damage done by climbers’ boots with that caused by monster trucks. Obviously, boots pale in comparison. Still, are boots too much? Sometimes, yes. What do we do? Rather than lament the lost age when we could walk unfettered by such concerns, we should strap in and solve the problem. For a government agency to shut the door and refuse entry is not a solution. Excess footprints are easily dealt with. We need sustainable trails through the fragile alpine zone, and the Colorado Fourteener Initiative is creating these trails. Their efforts are a grand example of the public’s ability to strap in and solve the problem. There is no environmental problem created by climbers that cannot be solved by climbers.
Our mental extractions from the mountains are going to continue to increase. So is the positive social value of these gifts. As society creaks and groans in other arenas, we need the mountains’ good tidings more than ever. The gift that mountains offer society is immense. Mountains give us an arena where we can lift not just our bodies, but our spirits, and without uplifted spirits, we devolve. Mountaineering is a great metaphor for life. It is worth fighting for. I view guidebooks as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
I started climbing in 1955, and for 20 years could not conceive of writing a guidebook. I reasoned, like a miner, that the good tidings were hidden, and that once found, should be protected by a claim. I felt a proprietary ownership of the secrets I found with my efforts. I felt that sharing the secret would diminish it as a microscope can change the microbe. I dashed across the globe to discover secrets before they were diminished. While I had many unique climbs and experiences, this effort left me frustrated and exhausted, since I could not dash fast enough. Too many people were ahead of me. After I shared an ascent of the Matterhorn in 1973 with a hundred other people, I pointed to the heavens and started pontificating about the lost age. Then I realized no one was listening. They were just climbing the Matterhorn. Society had jumped my claim. I pondered this for many years.
Still, I did not write a guidebook. I reasoned that sharing would attract still more people and hasten the demise. I clung to this view as the population quietly doubled and mountain use increased tenfold. Tired, my pontifical finger withered, and I was alone with my memories of the lost age. Then, early one morning in 1981, I sat upright in bed and started writing a guidebook. It was done in a week. At the time, I could not explain it, but I knew that not sharing would hasten the demise. Finally, setting the demise aside, I knew that what the mountains needed was love.
Approached with love, the mountains can endure our mental extractions forever. Approached with malice, greed or ignorance, the mountains will indeed suffer. Worse, even with love, climbers may lose their access to other interests and opinions. The government agencies and monster trucks stand ready. The best we can do is love the mountains and share this love. Climbers as a group need to evolve. We must spread our arms wide and embrace, not just the mountains, but other user groups as well. The mountains need loving user groups intimate with their secrets to be their ambassadors. I offer my guidebooks from a deep love for the mountains so that future ambassadors can also share the mountains’ good tidings.
– Gerry Roach
Copyright © 2001-2023 by Gerry Roach. All Rights Reserved.
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