10. Climbing

No book can teach mountaineering, and any decent discussion of the subject would occupy more space than this book. If you are completely inexperienced, or even if you are an amateur, find out from the mountaineering club in your state those mountains on your route which can be climbed by any tyro, and stick to them. Of course the thrill of climbing consists in taking chances, but only reasonable chances. If you are in doubt, go back. And don’t go places you can’t get back [from]. Climbing down is often more difficult than climbing up.

Basketball shoes, of the best grade, are best for rock work of medium difficulty. They are lethal on ice and snow. Espadrilles, rope soles, French and Spanish peasant shoes with canvas uppers, are even better for rock work if they are stout enough. Such footwear can be found in some of the larger stores in the big cities. Only those imported from the mountainous districts of Europe can be trusted. Most are made to accompany “smart beachwear,” sarongs by Poiret and such like, of course they are worthless in the mountains. Good espadrilles are safer on ice, snow, and wet rocks than rubber, and they do not draw [?] the feet.

[Modern rock climbing shoes are now far better than any of the above types, at least for climbing of significant difficulty.]

You can usually get out of a tight spot by taking off your boots and climbing in your socks. A few experts use only heavy wool socks for rock climbing. This is hard on the socks, but if you are sure-footed it has its advantages; if not, it is even harder on the toes.

Never climb alone unless you are sure of what you are doing. Preferably a climbing party should consist of not less than three persons, and there should be at least twenty-five feet of rope to each person, whether it is necessary to rope in or not.

If you are interested in real mountaineering and are inexperienced, go on a trip with one of the clubs, where you will be able to climb with experienced leaders. If you rely on books and your own nerve you may meet disaster. Every year hundreds of rank amateurs, securely roped into the center of skilled climbing parties, accomplish quite extraordinary ascents. This is not, however, the way to acquire real “style.” It is wisest to leave the major ascents to the third or fourth year and to begin with easy scrambles in basketball shoes, unroped, and in the company of experienced climbers, or at least under the leadership of such a person. Too often the weak sister of a roped party develops a “grip and tussle” technique and a dependence on mechanical aids and on others that only assiduous retraining can unlearn. True style, the combination of balance, speed and accuracy in an effortless rhythm that is characteristic of the best climbers, is of slow evolution. Rappels and human fly traverses, “scientific” mountaineering with its highly specialized equipment, all that is fine when one is ready for it, but one must grow into it, it cannot be conquered by assault in a single season. Remember, a party of skilled climbers functions with the coordination of a fine orchestra. This beautifully unified effort is a great part of the pleasure of climbing; one dub, no matter how hard he tries and how minor his accidents may be, is sure to spoil the harmony. Refuse invitations to accompany experts on difficult climbs until you are sure you will not be an unmitigated nuisance to your companions.

This section on climbing has caused me some worry, originally there was a lot more of it. Mountaineering is a lot of fun and it is a lot of fun to write about. Some poets still claim the privilege of writing solely to please themselves, but this book can hardly be considered art for art’s sake, I have tried to keep before me the uses to which it is likely to be put. Purely as a matter of literary form one might expect a lot about mountaineering in a book on camping in the mountains. After much cogitation I have drastically reduced this section and left only a few words of warning and advice. You can’t climb mountains with a book in your hand, searching for serac, couloir, or arête in the index when those entities present themselves, but the Lord knows, somebody might try it. It is better for all concerned that such a contingency be eliminated beforehand.


Chapter 10 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.