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A History of Free Climbing in America...A Review

Submitted by jmlangford on 2002-12-02

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WIZARDS of ROCK, by Pat Ament

Review by Jody Langford

From the classic photo on the front cover to John Gill's quote on the back cover, this book is a first rate text.

"Pat Ament amazes me with the power of his mind, and the depth of his insights, as well as the breadth of his mastery of disparate disciplines. A gifted writer, he is a keen and thorough student of the American climbing scene."-Royal Robbins

"Pat's word pictures are stronger than photographs." -Tom Frost

"No one gets over better the intricacies and animal ecstasies of rock climbing, and Pat's gift for succint characterization is something to marvel at."-Jim Perrin

"Pat is an exceptional writing talent who is also an innovative and inspiring boulderer-a combination of attributes unique in my experience."-John Gill

"That meditative vein with the acutely observed images from nature create striking effects. Every galaxy should have a Patrick Ament."-Reg Saner

~Above quotes from the introduction.

The book is a chronology of free climbing in the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii. It begins with the September 1869 climb of Cathedral Peak by John Muir and ends with the first free ascent by Tommy Caldwell of The Honeymoon Is Over, V 5.13c, on the Diamond of Longs Peak in the summer of 2001.

Pat does a masterful job of making the reader feel like they are on the rock with the climbers. His writing style is very engaging, never allowing me to lose interest. It takes a great deal of literary prowess to turn a chronological list into a readable text, but Ament accomplished this task with ease.

The book is divided into time periods, some several years long and others, when a significant amount of climbing activity took place, covering just a single year. Within each time period, Ament documents the most significant climbs. Ament says in his introduction, "The book cites routes that were 'pivotal' in terms of the general evolution of standards through the years. It was difficult to decide which climbs to include. Certain individuals did many significant climbs. It is not possible to mention them all. To name the climbs of John Bachar and Royal Robbins, for example, would require two separate books. Thus their 'highlights', the more visible and published ascents, are selected." Ament then goes on to explain what I think is the most important feature of this book, "In some cases, I have spent time on lesser-known climbs because they introduce an individual or suggest developments in a particular region. I introduce many individuals who have been undersung or entirely neglected in the past."

It is more than just a listing of the climbs. Through correspondence and interviews with the climbers, and first-hand experience, Ament describes each climb with amazing detail.

For example, on Tony Yaniro's ascent of Grand Illusion in 1979, he quotes Yaniro: "People made a big deal about it because it looks so impressive. A photo of it went into a magazine, and it was disturbing to people. There hadn't been anything rated 5.13 yet. It was very straightforward and just hard. I went over several weekends in a row and tried and went back home and trained. It was a strength thing. We had EBs. With better, more sticky shoes, you can stem it better. I was lie-backing almost upside-down, and it was hard to place gear. It took a lot of effort. I'd go up and make my effort and fall off. In those days, hangdogging was just coming into vogue. I'd fall off, and while hanging, mess around a little to feel the finger holds. It might have been called tentative hangdogging. It created a lot of stink with the California climbers, especially Bachar. I was unwilling to rate the climb, because it's so 'at the limit'. I knew as soon as I rated it people would say it didn't count. People wanted to dismiss it because I bouldered the moves. I thought it was one of the most impressive cracks I had ever found. It was the first thing I actually specifically trained for. I built simulator devices for training and stressed specific muscle groups."

John Bachar said, "We hated hangdogging. We weren't into that stuff then. Jardine was really the first to hangdog, and realistically I had no idea if Yaniro was hangdogging or not. But he would go out on climbs and he would do whatever he wanted. No one ever saw him do these things, but we heard he did some very weird and tricky things to get up certain climbs, for example, at Joshua Tree. He might top-rope the crux, then lead it somehow. Or he would say he couldn't do it on a top-rope but succeeded at leading it. One day he emptied out a pack full of chisels, files, wires, brushes, a regular hardware store. I asked, 'What do you need a chisel for?' He answered, 'Sometimes you need to smooth a hold.' I though, 'He's in his own world.' There were climbers that would use sho polish to cover up where they were chiseling. But we didn't know that much about Grand Illusion, so we just had suspicions. Yaniro didn't say much to anyone, in general, about how he did climbs."

John Gill is covered extensively. He is described in the 1961 section as "The most remarkable transcendence in the history of climbing." Gill's exploits are covered in detail, including an in depth look at his ascent of "The Thimble". (Read also Ament's book Master of Rock.)

A History of Free Climbing in America is also crammed full of great black and white photos from all eras. Ament, a talented artist, augments the photos with paintings of the climbers, allowing a unique perspective.

John Gill calls A History of Free Climbing in America "a work of substantial historical significance for the climbing community. Were it a compendum of free-climbing achievments alone it would merit considerable praise, but it is far more. Pat Ament artfully chronicles the continuum of technical progress and the eclectic and fascinating cast of charcaters responsible for that progress." -from the back cover.

I highly recommend buying this book. It will prove to be an invaluable resource to anyone interested in the history of climbing. There is a comprehensive glossary of climbing terms and an appendix listing significant climbs. It is large, 8.5x11, and over 380 pages. It is available from Wilderness Press.


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