Ed Hartouni · Dec 25, 2022
A review of Rites of Passage by E. C. Joe
If you are at all interested in just how the routes in the vast Southern Sierra were put up, and who did those first ascents and why, this book is the only written source.
This collection of stories recounts a time and space that is remote to most modern climbers: the beginning of the "clean climbing" revolution which featured passive protection, and the region of the "southern" Sierra Nevada mountain range, which even today sees relatively little climber traffic.
E. C. Joe has curated these tales of the exploits of a small number of pioneering climbers who valued the inherent uncertainty of adventure over the repeating of known routes. In a transcribed interview with Richard Leversee, a pioneer of backcountry climbing in the Sierra Nevada and a partner of E. C. on many routes, Richard recalls: "...we used to say, 'I'd rather do a shitty new route than a great one-hundredth ascent.'" This sentiment pervades the stories found in this book.
In the 1972 the Chouinard Equipment catalog featured an article by Doug Robinson, "The Whole Art of Protection" which Richard also mentions in this interview. The article was formative to that generation of climbers, not only in the choice of gear, but also the mindset of climbing. In Robinson's article he makes the prophecy about clean climbing: "Carried out, these practices would tend to lead from quantitative to qualitative standards of climbing, an assertion of that the climbing experience cannot be measured by an expression of pitches per hour, that a climb cannot be reduced to maps and decimals. That the motions of climbing, the sharpness of the environment, the climber's reactions are still only themselves, and their dividends of joy personal and private."
I provide this lengthy quote because it provides important context for the stories in this book. And for the past half century now, the stories were told around campfires with other climbers, I have had the good fortune of hearing many of them, told by the participants. I think it is wonderful to finally have them written down in such an authentic manner.
A few more points should be interesting to modern climbers. The passive protection extolled in that Chouinard Catalog fit in a limited range of cracks, for the most part smaller than 4", and probably no larger than 1/4", requiring the leader to run it out, or on first ascents decide to drill a bolt for protection. The rack that E. C. wears in the photo on page 40 "Rack Du Jour" and a 165' 11mm rope cost about $152 in 1972, which inflated to 2022 is $1,124. Modern "trad" racks and a rope are roughly double that. Route descriptions were mostly unavailable for the Sierra outside of a few areas, Steve Roper's 1976 guide to the High Sierra lists 13 routes in The Needles. And in this era long before climbing gyms existed, the parents of these kids allowed them to go climbing "outdoors" largely unsupervised by what would now be recognized as adult supervision. The kids somehow learned to climb, and at a high grade for the time, and on routes mostly of their own making.
The major shift in climbing over this time occurs in the act of first ascents, which defined "climbing" in the 1970s and 1980s, to that of "consuming" climbs, basically repeating climbs described in detailed guidebooks, which the majority of climbers practice today. What was humorous in various stories was the secretiveness with which those old "projects" are kept even now by that generation, secrets which are told to only a few, if at all, "I'd have to kill you if I told you."
There are memorable stories of climbing in The Needles, which probably shares the largest recognition among the contemporary climbing community. But notable stores by Kristian Solem "The Gorge of Despair" and E. C. Joe "In The Niche of Time" are my favorites. Kris describes a multi-trip effort along with Guy Keesee to put up routes in this remote area. This includes an excruciating account of Guy injuring his knee on an attempt, the team self rescuing and then having to hike out to the car, over ten miles away. They return with a third, Chelsea Griffe, and finish the climb. This took years to complete, and the seriousness of climbing in the back country no less than on the previous trip. E. C. recounts the logistical nightmares associated with climbing Tehipite Dome, "the largest dome in the Sierra." With two routes established, the idea was to put up a third. I knew E. C. during this time and heard the stories, and while this book has a necessarily abbreviated version, the feelings come through. These are just two stories, the rest are also pearls.
If you haven't guessed it, I liked the book. I second Vitaliy Musiyenko's hope that the telling of these stories will "capture the imaginations of all kinds of climbers to participate in their own 'New Golden Age' of exploration." This book rekindled my passion for adventuring in the Range of Light.
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