As Confucious might have said - if you want to start an argument amongst climbers, simply mention bolts, Park & Ride or guidebooks then leave them to it. But what does the future of guidebooks hold for climbers? Summit asks three people who should have a better idea than most - Dave Turnbull (BMC Chief Officer), Alan James (Rockfax), and Niall Grimes (BMC Guidebook Co-ordinator).
Whose Line is it Anyway?
Guidebooks go to the very heart of our sport providing the definitive historical record of who did what, when and in what style. Route descriptions tend to pass from one generation of guide to the next with little change whilst grades are tweaked (usually upwards), new routes incorporated and graded lists added. The majority of guidebooks we use today are produced purely on a voluntary basis by the Climbers’ Club, BMC, FRCC, YMC and others, and the effort involved in guide production is simply staggering. Quite right then that voluntary producers feel ownership of route descriptions and claim copyright over descriptions, lists and databases that make up our guidebooks.
The whole question of voluntary versus commercial guidebooks is an area where the BMC finds itself on difficult terrain. On the one hand the BMC has always had a most important relationship with the country’s climbing clubs, and in general both have always acted in each other’s best interests, so the concerns that clubs have over the ramifications of commercial guides is a concern too for the BMC. But on the other hand, the BMC today is a broad church which represents a wide range of climbers, many of whom have no affiliation to any club whatsoever, both individual members of the BMC as well as non-members.
So, while the BMC is concerned over the impact of commercial guides, we are also aware that we, as an organisation, cannot rightfully boycott other guides that our members like and choose to buy. So where does that leave us and can a balance be struck between the voluntary and commercial sectors? I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the depths of improving the dialogue between the two. The BMC is ultimately committed to the volunteer guidebook system and will support voluntary producers wherever it can, but at the end of the day commercial guidebooks are here to stay and it's up to all of us to work together to give climbers what they want - quality guidebooks.
Change, once one has gotten over the natural human terror of it, soon starts to seem pretty exciting. And I for one can feel the terror starting to subside, and more than a vague twinkling of excitement starting to glow inside me for the future of BMC guides. So what is this change? The wrangles of the past two years have been far from satisfactory to anyone involved in guidebooks in the Peak District – not for the BMC, nor for Rockfax, and certainly not for the climbing public. But these events are past now, and while not forgotten, all those involved with the BMC and Rockfax feel it is time to start to move forward. So, in this piece, I intend to concentrate on what the future holds for the third and most important section of the equation – the climbers.
Right then. The BMC guidebook system is, over the next few years, going to provide the climbing public with a collection of guides that will not just serve their needs at the crag, but will inspire, inform and entertain them better than any guides have done in the past. After many successful years that saw a continuous output of inspirational gritstone and limestone guides, a gradual stagnation plagued the BMC guidebook system over the past few years. This is now lifting. As editor of the forthcoming Froggatt guide, it has been a pleasure to be involved with some of the best climbers in the Peak. Ben Heason, writer of the Froggatt section, has ticked almost every route in the crag, including second and first solo ascents of many of the desperates, and probably the first on-sights of many too. I doubt if a crag of the stature of Froggatt has ever been so comprehensively ticked. Pete Robins in doing the same at the mighty Curbar, working his way through climbs in superb style, and adding many of his own as he goes.
These are just two examples of the new blood that has started to come in to work on guides, but in these two examples and many others like them, lie a great future for the volunteer system, and are in a way an example of what I see as the great potential strength of the volunteer system- that is the participation of climbers. The new chair of the guidebook committee, Richard Wheeldon, through his work behind the counter in Hathersage’s Outside shop, is very well aware of what climbers actually want. And with a greater participation from a wider group of climbers, as I hope to see, there will also be a great opportunity to find out first hand what climbers want, as well as a means to provide it. Well, here’s what I would like to / hope to see develop very soon for the BMC guidebook system;
A regular output of good looking definitive guides to all Peak District crags.
For the guidebook system to be very open and responsible to all the climbing public, responding to their demands and reacting to their opinions.
To encourage the involvement of as wide a range of active passionate climbers as possible, from the occasional VD leader to the full time E9 merchant, as well as encouraging all the talented volunteers who had put their time into the system in the past, to continue to support the new system
To reward the superb efforts of all volunteer guide writers by getting their work on the shelves as quickly and as attractively as it should be
To provide all the information that guide users want, including good histories, graded lists, informative and entertaining first ascent lists including such information as first on-sights etc.
To ensure that the voluntary system of guidebook system continues to survive and flourish and gives the public what they deserve for at least another hundred years.
That doesn’t seem unreasonable, does it?
Alan James, Rockfax
Buying a modern style guide, like a Rockfax, is like sleeping with the sexy person next door. It’s like cheating on your trusted partner, who has given you many hours of pleasure on the crag, in the tent, and even under your duvet. And cheating on this big old mama with a slick young thing just isn’t a very nice thing to do.
Let’s face it, the endless discussion about guidebooks - how they are produced and, more importantly, by whom - is a discussion shrouded in sentiment. There is nothing wrong with loyalty and even a touch of conservatism isn’t always a bad thing, but I would like to turn to boring cold facts. After all, life isn’t just about sex.
What should a guide do? Well it should tell you where the routes are, how hard they are and it should be accurate and up-to-date. It should inspire you to leave the sanctuary of your duvet, and it should be written for climbers, not for the authors’ ego. In the past there has been limited choice verging in many areas on a monopoly, with only one guide for a crag and maybe a selected guide covering the best of the routes. This has led to information gaps resulting from long waits between guides or reprints. Pembroke and North Devon by the Climbers’ Club were both out of print for years with no real alternative available. The BMC Stanage guide has been constantly available due to reprints but it is really a version of the ‘83 guide with new routes added in ‘89; that’s nearly 20 years since a real re-write. 20 years that have seen the biggest IT advance in history.
So what happens if instead of the closed-shop approach we have open competition? What if the route information is regarded as public property and as such can be used openly and freely by anyone? I believe that this attitude is not only the best way to go; it is the only way to go since the web has made it inevitable. It is also my belief that it offers remarkably little threat to the history and tradition of climbing which is very dear to our hearts.
If you open up access to the information with every route described on the web then the historical record is preserved, the feedback potential is immense and the ability to keep it up-to-date is unparalleled. The amount of information we have assembled via the Rockfax online route databases is truly staggering and makes all other research look outrageously undemocratic in comparison. Most club guides are assembled by a team of 30 people at most. The Peak Gritstone East Rockfax had emailed comments from over 500 people and online votes from over 1000. But all producers can tap into this information - it is there on the our site for all to see - and the more producers get involved in this, the more information there will be.
With competition you get variation, you get innovation and you get market stimulation. Sloppy products are shown up for what they are, the innovative products shine through and gaps are plugged. Climbers get a choice and ultimately it will be shown that there is plenty of market room for different styles of guidebooks to cover one crag. It is often perceived that this will mean no coverage for lesser crags. Who is going to include the poxy quarry in their expensive book when it’s only had 3 visits in the last 10 years? Well, don’t, stick it on the web and suddenly you have the information, you have the record, but you don’t have the delays caused by re-writing it for the new edition. What about the minor routes? Again they could have a permanent home on the web. However both the quarry and the minor routes will probably be just as happy in a definitive guide. After all, in a competitive market, a definitive big mama will have at least one major selling point over the selective sexy young thing.
There is another old line trotted out each time the waters of the guidebook world are stirred: “We need the funds from our big seller to help pay for this little fella.” Not so. It is possible to produce a profitable book for any area. Just look at the number of small areas which are covered by books produced by small businesses: Merseyside Sandstone (Stone) and Climbing in North East England (Smart Boys Publishing) to name but two. These books may not have made a lot of money, but they exist, as do the companies that published them.
All you have do to is ask yourself what you want. I suspect the answer will be that you want both the comfort of the big mama and the radical appeal of the sexy young thing. Well, unlike in the real world, you can actually have them both this time and no-one will be upset!