Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bouldering Colorado by Bob Horan: A Review

I recently received a review copy of the Horan book from Falcon and have given it a thorough reading, focusing especially on the areas that I am relatively familiar with in the Front Range. My overall impression is that there are two "books" here, one consisting of areas that many are familiar with such as RMNP, Horsetooth, Carter, Flagstaff, etc. and one that has many areas that only Bob Horan seems to have visited or knows well. It is clear that Bob is not up to date on current names and grades and has added fictitious problems everywhere. For example there are two new problems right of Little Chubby Demon at the 420s, where there are literally no holds. The RMNP section as has been noted is a farce where many well-known problems have all been tacked onto the 50/50 boulder for no apparent reason. Only the Kine Traverse, The Kine, and Whispers appear to be accurate, though V9 for the last problem seems a bit severe. But Evans and RMNP are not the only issue and high-end problems are not the only victims of misinformation. The magnificent V13 in Eldo, Suspension of Disbelief, is called Inversion and given V12 while Scarface in the Poudre is now V8 and called "Natural Tattoo". Both are very well known problems and errors regarding their names and grades are inexcusable. There are literally too many errors and omissions in this vein throughout the book to count.

The other "book" is about areas I have never heard of before and that look quite good. The only problem is that given the issues with the other "book", I can't quite trust that he is right with these areas either. I don't want to drive several hours only to be greeted with private property signs or totally misleading directions to mis-graded boulders.

My advice is certainly to avoid buying this book at the 50 dollar price tag. It is possible but unlikely that Falcon will invest in a radical revision and reissue of the book with thorough outside review and fact-checking. That would represent a large investment on the publisher's part that they likely could not recoup with additional book sales. Thus my fear is that local climbers and visitors alike are going to be left with a proverbial white elephant that is too expensive, too unwieldy, and not trustworthy enough to count on when it matters.


chuffer said...

half of the reason people buy guidebooks is that we like details and lots of them, the more the better.

this book gets ALL of the details WRONG over and over again.

JB said...

Hi Peter,

I'm going to post a response that I wrote to Jamie Emerson on the Falcon blog. Below that I have added some responses to your review.


John Burbidge

Hi Jamie,

I'd like to take a moment to address a few of the points you make. I was the editor of this book and worked with Bob to put it together. I have edited about two dozen climbing guidebooks and how-to-climb books, and also been a climber and user of climbing guidebooks for about twenty years. I'm not going to say that I'm perfect or that we did everything perfectly when putting this book together. There are always things that can be done differently and better, in hindsight. You can be assured that we will work to improve the book when it is revised, which is what we always strive to do. Climbing guides are a gigantic amount of work and the information includes hundreds of thousands of tiny details. Sometimes it is only through the revision process that these details--many of which are subject to differences of opinion--can all be made accurate.

This is the second guidebook that I've worked on with Bob Horan, and he has shown himself to be a humble, hardworking, and honorable man, in my opinion. He would never intentionally include mistakes in a book or include areas where bouldering is not allowed. He is very clear in the introduction that the purpose of the book is to offer information about bouldering on public lands, where bouldering is a legal activity. In the real world, of course, the line between private and public lands is forever changing. A place where people have been climbing for years can suddenly get posted private--sometimes land is private and nobody is even aware of it (I have seen this occur in Montana). This book took several years to create and some land status changed during the process. That is regretable and will be fixed on reprint.

You mention creating a "consensus" guide with the participation of the entire Colorado climbing community. In my experience that is not how most guidebooks are written, for a variety of reasons. One is that guidebook authors tend to be somewhat reserved, private people. Not to generalize, but I have found that to be true. Their motivations are many, but I can virtually promise you that money isn't one of them because usually they invest far more time and money into these books than they get back.

I have seen a consensus guidebook written up here in Montana. The Rock Climber's Guide to Montana was done that way, with decidedly mixed results because, as you know, climbers have a tough time getting along. This particular book was written before I started working as a guidebook editor for Falcon, and I was actually on the other side of the fence (your side, as it were). Me and my gang were the ones who bolted the latest-greatest routes and knew some of the areas best, but we chose not to share that information with the guidebook participants. Then, when the book came out, we howled and laughed about all the mistakes. We took copies of the book and wrote all over the pages with red pen, showing how much we knew and how stupid the guidebook people were. We wrote nasty comments to the publisher and had a great time doing it. Later, when I came to work for Falcon Publishing, I spoke with the person who edited the book and coordinated everything, and he told me what a negative experience it had been for him. Needless to say, I felt somewhat ashamed about the behavior of me and my friends. In any case, the book went through the revision process and got cleaned up and today it is accepted by most Montana climbers as being part of the canon of Montana climbing books. It is not perfect and never will be, but it works. (I have the original edition, I've used it for years, and I'm actually quite fond of it. Many of the mistakes we originally howled about were actually pretty minor, in retrospect.)

While Bob never advocates any type of high impact bouldering practices, in retrospect I would have included more information about low impact techniques. He does address that in the introduction and we again address it in the RMNP sections, which we did at the request of the rangers using their language. But in the end, Jamie, I'm going to say that people who cut down trees and vegetation to open up boulders, people who stash pads in wilderness areas and national parks, people who alter the rock and do all the other things that give climbers a bad name--these people know what they are doing when they do it, and they have character flaws that are not going to be fixed by a few sentences in a guidebook. A lot of what we're talking about here is common sense: Don't destroy the environment, don't go onto posted private land, don't be an idiot. We can and should always include more information about access issues and low impact techniques, and that too can be rectified in future editions, but in this first edition I will accept some responsibility for not catching that and placing more of an emphasis on that. The enormity of the project and vast amounts of information we were trying to organize distracted us from that mission to a degree.

As far as your more personal attacks on Bob and his previous books, I don't have too much to say about that. I stand by Bob as a good and honorable person who makes a sincere effort and invests an enormous amount of time and effort into these books. His other books have been around a long time and are decent sellers. Our Colorado sales representative has not heard an undue amount of complaining from stores or customers. For every person who chooses to criticize his efforts, there are many more who approach him and tell him how much his books have inspired them and helped them get into bouldering.

In conclusion, is the book perfect? No. But we have sent copies to many climbers in Colorodo for their review and opinion, and the response has been far more positive than anybody would believe after reading your analysis. A major new book like this is always going to be greeted with some controversy, and I don't say that as a way to make light of your concerns, but only to point out that in time, as the years go by and people get used to the book, it will, like many controversial climbing guidebooks before it, become an accepted part of the Colorado climbing landscape. To whatever degree you assist in providing information and updates, I give you my personal thanks.

Best regards,

John Burbidge

Addendum to Peter Beal:

Hi Peter,

Max forwarded to me the review you e-mailed him. I'd like to address a few of the points you made in that e-mail, and a few others I've seen floating around on the Web.

1. You criticize is the omission of significant boulders in important areas, and the fact that some areas are shown on the maps but not written up. Throughout the process of making this book, we had to go back several times to cut material that we wanted to include. It's likely some of these areas you refer to fell victim to this publishing reality. In some cases, I left an area or boulder on the map even though we cut the text because I thought it might at least be a reference that could help people locate the boulders and do their own exploring. You said you were concerned this would lead people to cross private land to get to the boulders. I would say that if land is posted private, STAY OFF. That's the law. If land is private but not posted as such, then I would suggest that the landowner post it private if he/she doesn't want people mistaking it for public land.

2. You mention that the photos of Bob bouldering are disrespectful toward local boulderers. I'm sorry if that is the case, but there is a very good reason Bob puts himself in the picture, and that is to provide some perspective on the size of the boulder. One of the things we don't like about other bouldering guides we've used is that the photos often show the boulder but no climber. This makes it hard to tell if the boulder is five feet tall or fifteen feet tall. Having a climber in the picture adds perspective. It's not realistic for Bob to bring along a group of models while doing research, or hunt up local boulderers to pose for him. You might not like this, but that's the reason for it.

3. I'm not sure if you addressed this next point anywhere, but there has been some discussion about whether the material in the book was reviewed by land managers. Our policy is to always have national park material reviewed by the park authorities. When it comes to national forest, BLM, wilderness, and other public lands, the fact is that we publish hundreds of guidebooks a year to activities on these lands, and it's just not feasible to have it all reviewed. We encourage our authors to work with land managers, and in the case of Mt Evans there is some dispute as to whether Bob did, but I do know that the letter from the rangers came to Bob long after the book went to the printer. (In fact, to clear up some misinformation I've seen floating around about exactly when the book went to the printer: This book did indeed go to the printer last spring. We have our color books printed in China, and it takes 3 or 4 months.)

The bottom line is that there are some people out there who will never like this book no matter what we do or what I say. But as I said before, if anybody wants to contribute updated information, then simply photocopy the page in the book, write your correction on it, and send it to me at the address below. If you do that, I extend my personal thanks. If you are one of the book-bashers but you don't share what you know, then I'm afraid your complaints will forever ring hollow to me.

My final comment here will be directed at anybody who might be considering buying the book. It is a beautiful guidebook. I believe that the VAST majority of the information is correct, especially when you get beyond some of the more hardcore concerns like names of problems and boulders. If you want a book that will guide you to new bouldering areas not covered in other books, and take you to some exceptional settings where you can do your own exploring--not to mention a cool book to just sit on the couch and page through while you wait for the weather to turn nice--then I think you will really like this book.


John Burbidge
40 West 14th Street, Suite 2A
Helena, MT 59601