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The evolution of guidebooks
by Dave Philipps
In fall 2008, the Colorado Mountain Club published a guidebook that was riddled with typos and 70 years out of date, at a time when online competition has put the future of even the most current printed guidebooks in question. And it charged $185 per copy.
“It sounds crazy,” Alan Stark, the club’s publisher, said recently as he cracked open a new, hardbound copy of the guide. “Obviously, this is not a typical guidebook. It’s a collector’s piece. People will buy it not to use it, but to have it.”
The book is called The San Juan Mountaineers’ Climber’s Guide to Southwestern Colorado. It was first published in 1933 — hand-typed and hardbound in less than a half-dozen copies. It was the first modern guidebook in Colorado, and with its maps, photos and route descriptions, it set the template for the hundreds that have followed.
Climbers have passed around photocopied and stapled versions for generations, making it an almost mythic book. The club reproduced it exactly, down to the crossed-out letters and handwritten notes in the margins of the typed pages.
Its reprinting so many years later begs the question: Where do guidebooks go from here?
If the San Juan guide is the past, what is the future?
In one sense, the Guide to Southwestern Colorado is a history book. In another, it is still a living guidebook.
It was compiled by three college kids living in Montrose and Telluride from 1929 to 1933.
“At that time the San Juans were largely unclimbed and even unnamed,” said John Lacher, a longtime Mountain Club member who pushed for years to have the book republished. “Reading it, you feel the sense of wonder and adventure and discovery in a wild country.”
At the time, climbing was an obscure sport. The young authors, Dwight Lavender, Carleton Long and Tom Griffiths, used some route information sent to them in letters by the father of Colorado Mountaineering, Colorado College professor Albert Ellingwood.
“But for the most part, their descriptions are straight from their own climbs. There was no other place to get them,” Lacher said.
They even did their own survey work, after finding that government surveys for the area were wildly inaccurate.
The San Juans are the steepest mountains in the state, full of crumbling volcanic cliffs and high, lonesome towers. Lavender, in the guide’s introduction, called it “delightfully ragged country.”
Many descriptions, in which the authors scurried up hemp ropes along crumbling ledges, end by saying another route might have been easier. Others list peaks that had yet to be climbed.
For a mountain called Death Head near Lake City, they simply said, “The ascent should be easiest up the south ridge... We have no record of its ascent.”
Lavender, the primary author, died of polio at age 23, just a few months after finishing the book, adding to its mythic status.
“I look upon the book as historic, but I’m still pretty darn impressed with the information in there,” said Rick Trujillo, a well-known mountain runner and climber who lives in Ouray.
He made a copy years ago from one of the originals and now uses it when he needs information on obscure routes.
“I have never done this one couloir on the north side of Mount Sneffels,” he said, “but now my nephew wants to do it, so I’ll use the book. It’s the only description of the route anywhere.”
Even if the Guide to Southwestern Colorado still functions as a guidebook, it is being republished at a time when the function of guidebooks as a whole is in question.
Much of the information once available only in print is now on the Web. Descriptions online, not limited by the physical page, often include more photos and exhaustive detail, and can be updated to reflect route changes or even current snow conditions. Plus, almost all of it is free.
“Sales are definitely slowing down,” said Gerry Roach, who has published a number of guides, including the popular Colorado’s Fourteeners — From Hikes to Climbs. “I’m not sure if they will ever totally go away, but it’s getting to the point where it is hardly worth doing them. You don’t get much of a return for all the work.”
Instead, climbers have flocked to websites such as Summitpost.com and 14ers.com, where anyone can upload and share information for free.
“Guidebooks are very limited,” said Bill Middlebrook, the Summit County software designer who maintains 14ers.com. “They don’t have the room to include 30 photos of the route for each mountain. The website does.”
He’s watched 14ers.com, which he started in 2000, grow to where it averages 15,000 unique visitors daily in the summer.
“It gets hammered,” he said recently. “I think as people have gotten used to getting information online, they’ve come to expect an extreme level of detail books can’t provide.”
Middlebrook still likes having Roach’s guidebook around.
“I love books. I love thumbing through them,” he said. “They’re much more friendly for browsing.”
In general, sales of guidebooks are still steady, said Max Phelps, director of marketing for guidebook giant Falcon Publishing.
“We’re certainly aware there are more options out there,” he said. But people continue to buy books because “the kind of editorial attention the books receive and the process of selecting authors ensure a level of reliability that one might not be able to count on in other formats.”
Besides that, people just seem to like having a book.
“They’re flashy. You can put them on your bookshelf. You have something. You have that connection to the mountains,” Middlebrook said.
That’s the idea behind the $185 The San Juan Mountaineers’ Climber’s Guide to Southwestern Colorado. The Mountain Club printed 200 copies and has already sold about 70.
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