"Life is brought down to the basics: if you are warm, regular, healthy, not thirsty or hungry, then you are not on a mountain... Climbing at altitude is like hitting your head against a brick wall - it's great when you stop."

Chris Darwin

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What makes a good guidebook

I have once again shuffled through quite a few guidebooks when trying to come up with where to go next. During this research I have ran into guidebooks created with different philosophies. Of course, there are also good and bad examples of execution of any design.

Anyway, here are few thoughts on what in my opinion makes a good guidebook:

General structure. Probably the most obvious, and common, solution is to organise books based on mountain chains, then cover all of the routes on a specific mountain together, usually subgrouped by mountain face. This approach is employed in most of the guidebooks published by European alpine clubs (particularly Austriuan, German and Swiss). However intuitive and organised this approach is, it makes it rather tedious to get a good overview of what climbs are available from a particular starting point (typically a valley). To overcome this, I see two possible solutions

  • Have a introductory chapter for valleys that list huts and other commonly used starting point and list climbs/features that are climbable from them (including references). Actually many guidebooks have such a section but with no list of available climbs. ideally such a list should contain most important route details, such as name, grade, length and type and reference where full description of that route exists.
  • Have the whole thing organised by valleys rather than by mountains

I haven't seen a single guidebook using the former, the latter is used by some guidebooks for mountain areas (Mount Cook and Cordillera Huayhuash come to mind) and is almost always used for rock climbing and ice climbing guidebooks. The more I think about it, the more I like this valley based approach, although I still feel that the former option might actually be the best.

The general structure being whatever, I feel that index based on peak is absolutely necessary and should not be missing from any guidebook.

  • Maps in general and schematic ridge overview maps in particular, are extremely helpful in giving general overview of where things are and how to get from point A to point B.
  • Good images with route lines do a much better job in describing how the route goes than virtually any verbal description. Particularly if the key features are marked on that image. As added bonus, images work in any language. Such images are usually easier to compare to the text if they are put inline (i.e. not gathered to the back of the book), however the latter works too if the text references which image is associated with which route description.
  • First ascent info is useful when referencing different guidebooks, particularly ones in different languages when route names might not work too well in identifying which route is which.
  • Introductory general chapter that lists things like what gradings are used, seasons, classic climbs etc. are useful. Ideally the seasons should be broken down according to type of climbing as ice routes generally are in at the different time of the year than rock routes.
  • For grading, alpine overall grading should obviously be used (this seems not to be so obvious for publishers of guidebooks regarding to Eastern Alps). Additionally, I really like the technical gradings presented together with overall grade, not just in the verbal description. As for the grading scales, I prefer WI/M gradings for ice and mixed and french grades for rock. That being said, local scales work just as well. Particular area where the common practice leaves often a lot to be desired are snow/ice (and mixed) pitches. Commonly steepness is expressed as degree, which doesn't work too well if
    • route has short section that is significantly steeper than the rest of the route
    • route involves genuinely steep climbing
    if degrees are still used, then the length of the steepest passage, possibly combined with average angle could be sufficient. Still, it wouldn't do much good for really steep routes as anything between WI4 and WI7 would be pretty much 90. Obvious remedy would be to use WI/M grading (or Scottish winter grading). Which leads us to grading difficulties for mixed parts. Most commonly rock grade is used with perhaps mention of the climb being mixed terrain. The problem with this is that estimated rock grading in dry conditions doesn't really have any meaningful correlation to actual difficulty of the mixed climbing. For example uiaa IV pitch can be either easy mixed climb (perhaps somewhere around M2) or very difficult and bowel-emptying exercise depending of the nature of the pitch. M or Scottish winter grades would work way better.
  • As for elevation gains and times, it should be made obvious whether the figures are for the actual route or if they include approach as well. For routes generally used for descent, time typically required for descent should be indicated as well.

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