Confessions of a Non-wanna-be Guidebook Writer

The tale of the old Old Green Beast or the horror (and occasional joy) of a climber who became a guidebook writer. By Cameron M. Burns

When I was a young climber, I never ever, ever wanted to write a guidebook.

Never ever.

I hated them.

As Steve Roper so famously wrote in a classic guide to the Sierra Nevada: “kick the cairns over and let people discover it all for themselves,” or something like that. I agree. I’ll always agree with “Ropero,” as Layton Kor called him.

It came about in a silly way. In 1988, a bunch of my high school friends were starting to bolt (by hand) routes at a crag in New Mexico. We all got in on the act, spending hours hand-drilling bolts in the iron-hard basalt. It was horrendous work. But a few months later, a few members of the local climbing club, the Los Alamos Mountaineers, wanted information on the routes. So I stapled together 18 pages, gave them to about six blokes who corrected a few things, Xeroxed twenty copies, and set them on the desk at the local “climbing” store. They were gone in a day.

Hmm. That was that, I thought. Done with that crap.

 

Within six months I was cruising the Sierra Nevada with Steve Porcella (see Alpinist 48).

After 65 routes the summer of 1989, we thought a new guidebook (to just the fourteeners) might be a worthwhile project. Roper had revamped an old edition of A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra for the Sierra Club (about the 4th or 5th edition, several of which had different titles (Hervey Voge’s 1954 edition had the same title, but the 1972 edition, for example, was simply called Mountaineer’s Guide)), and the route descriptions and grades were interesting, to say the least. In the summer of 1990, we headed back into the Sierra, the Whitney region. Somehow, we timed our trip with one that Dave Wilson and Galen Rowell were planning, and we decided to do a sort-of foursome. We met in Lone Pine the night before the hike in.

Over dinner, we got to chatting about a possible guidebook to the fourteeners.

“You know how Steve graded all those routes, right?” Galen asked while skewering a lump of potato (he’d known Steve since the fourth grade in Berkeley). “He flew over the range with a pair of binoculars and declared, ‘that can’t be a Class 5. I’m calling it a Class 4’.” The story seemed completely plausible because the stuff we were climbing in 1989 had grades that were quite outta whack with what was in the guidebook.

On the East Face of Whitney, Steve and I watched from 200 feet away while Dave and Galen finished off a route Galen and Kike Arnal had tried the previous year—Left Wing Extremist—named for the chicken-winging they did on the climb. (We failed on our new route.)

In 1990, Steve and I wrote a 450-page guide to California’s 14ers with about 150 routes in it. I remember just printing out the Word document was more than anything I could ever afford. But we also knew no one would want that—it was mostly boring climbing history. With fourteeners, people want to just bag summits, not know about some incredibly obscure 5.9 lying 15 miles from a trailhead.

CA14ers(1e)We pared it down to 92 pages—the easiest route or voie normal on each peak. We sent it to a half dozen publishers and none of them wanted anything to do with it. So we self-published California Fourteeners (Palisades Press, 1991, 92 pages), 5,000 copies done at a print shop in Great Falls, Montana under the auspices of our own company (Palisades Press). It was a funky little purple book, that to this day is one of my proudest achievements (then again, eating a six-egg omlette is a massively proud moment for me).

Four years later, George Meyers of Chockstone Press approached us and gave us a publishing deal for the 92-pager—20 percent of gross sales because it was selling so well (something like 4,000 copies in four years). George’s was the second edition: (Chockstone Press, 1995, 92 pages).

(In 1998, the Mountaineers Books republished a much bigger version: Climbing California’s Fourteeners: 183 Routes to the 15 Highest Peaks (1998, 272 pages). Like the first version, it went into a second edition (Climbing California’s Fourteeners: The Route Guide to the 15 Highest Peaks (2008, 272 pages). The full 450-page version remains like garlic to a vampire—appropriately untouched.)

While all these books were happening (1991–95), I’d moved across the west chasing various journalism jobs. My girlfriend Ann and I ended up in Aspen when I got a job at the Aspen Times in 1992, thankfully, with subsidized housing. After three years there (and having payed off my student loans for architecture school), we got married, and I headed to Patagonia with two English climbers. We climbed a handful of routes, and I came home in early 1996—completely stinking broke. Not two nickels to rub together.

After landing at Denver International, Ann took me straight to George’s place in Evergreen, Colo. Several hours of talk ensued, and I walked out of his garage with four book contracts in hand: a Colorado ice climbers guide, a guide to Independence Pass, a guide to Escalante, and a guide to climbing in the Telluride area. Luckily (for both me and climbers everywhere), I was smart enough to realize I knew very little about three of those areas, but I had been doing quite a bit of ice climbing. We chatted on the phone, agreed both of us would tear up the Escalante, Indy Pass, and Telluride contracts—but I thought I could pull together an ice guide pretty easily because I really did know most of it.

The only issue, I soon learned, was Jack Roberts. He’d started in on a Colorado ice guide, but George explained that Jack’s progress was glacially slow, and, in all honesty, he didn’t think Jack would actually ever finish it. Jack, of course, was doing all sorts of wild routes in Alaska and other places, so that was completely understandable.

I went back to Aspen, and took up a job shoveling snow off roofs in Snowmass Village—I had to earn a buck.

 

COiceIn late March 1996, George and I talked again. He wanted a Colorado ice guide manuscript in three weeks and Jack was on another climbing trip, or generally unavailable. I quit my incredibly lucrative career as a snow shoveler, jumped in my truck, and spent a week driving around the entire state, taking photos of well-known ice climbs that—since it was early April—were coming unglued and falling to pieces. Three weeks later, I’d finished the manuscript, crappy as it was, to the first Colorado ice guide—“The Old Green Beast,” I’d later call it. It was about 40,000 words—no big length because words seem to flow out of me like some kind of puss. We used to do easily 12,000 words a week at the Times, sometimes more, and my editors would often complain I’d written too much.

Jon Klusmire, a friend who worked at the Times, recently noted in a Facebook post: “As one of those Aspen Times editors, this is how I remember describing Cam’s approach to writing: ‘It’s like crapping in a tub. Back up and let ’er fly.’” Grusmire (as we used to call him) is always spot on.

In the fall of 1997, The Old Green Beast came out. It was less a point of pride than I would have ever imagined. In fact, throwing a guidebook for an entire state together in three weeks, with one week of on-the-ground research (even if I knew most areas), was sort of like performing brain surgery for the first time using Brain Surgery for Dummies as your guiding light.

Not a great idea. I was scared when anyone picked it up.

 

In the winter of 1997–98, climbing with Jesse Harvey in the Fisher Towers, we ran into three young climbers from Crested Butte sitting around a campfire. We talked climbing.

“So you guys like the Fishers?” Jesse asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said. “But we’ve got the new Cam Burns ice guide and we’ve been doing a lot of ice lately.”

My entire scalp rotated 30 degrees back on my skull, eyebrows lifting as if hauled toward the sky by an invisible crane. I waited several moments, then asked, “Is the book any good?”

The kid shrugged: “I think so, although we’ve only done a dozen routes in it so far.”

Jesse leaned over, and held the back of his hand up against his mouth so, ostensibly, the lads couldn’t hear him. But being a cheeky bastard, he said it loud enough so they could: “Cam, didn’t you say you wrote that book in two weeks?”

One of the Butteans looked at us curiously. He heard part of the wonderful commentary by my best climbing partner at the time (a somewhat cherished position at the time, since I led everything).

Thankfully the lad from the Butte hadn’t quite heard the entire comment. I swung an angry foot at Jesse, then announced it was bedtime as we had to get up and fix a few pitches in the morning. Oh, yes, and I had to go take a piton hammer to my friend’s head.

 

Over Valentine’s weekend in 1998, my wife and I hiked into a climb near Lake City. Three other climbers ahead of us were standing at the base of the route we wanted to do, and they were scouring the Old Greener. I did a quick 180 and told Ann, “We’re leaving. Run. Run!”

“What? We just got here.”

I bolted along the post-holed trail, gear clanking like an Indian dishwalla.

“They’ve got the Beast,” I yelled back at Ann. “Run.”

She tripped over the rope, now flopping around her feet, and gave me a stare that would’ve melted an ice climbing guidebook—even one with some bad mistakes. We got in the truck (also green), and buggered off to Ouray.

“Well, that certainly was fun,” Ann said as I drove. “What if we run into some ice climbers with a Tolstoy or, God forbid, an Ed Abbey?”

“Shsssh.”

 

A year or two later, Jack Robert’s Colorado ice climbing guide came out. It was really, really well done. But at a trade show, a good friend, Brian Litz—the publisher of Jack’s book—told me he’d been over to Jack’s Boulder home one day and found Jack at a keyboard with The Old Green Beast open, and Jack copying the Green Beast ver batim. Brian flipped, he told me at the trade show, and explained to Jack that you can’t do such a thing in writing. (If you study the mistakes in The Old Green Beast, some of them are repeated in Jack’s first book—like, for example, a route in Redstone that Duane Raleigh pointed out was horribly incorrect in the Beast (“In your own backyard,” Duane appropriately and correctly chided)).

But I didn’t mind the situation. Jack’s second edition was far, far superior to the first two books out there, and Jack and I later climbed together at Lincoln Falls.

Ice climbing with Jack was like watching a gazelle outrun a cheetah in the Serengeti. Ice climbing with me was like watching a sanitarium patient fumble with a walker. Besides, Jack was a real climber. I was oozing puss.

K&KForget the Beast. I was already onto several more books, including the second guidebook to Kilimanjaro & Mount Kenya: A Climbing and Trekking Guide (The Mountaineers Books, 1998, 176 pages); Selected Climbs in the Desert Southwest (The Mountaineers Books, 1999, 240 pages); 50 Hikes in Colorado (Norton, 2003, 208 pages); and later, Kilimanjaro & East Africa (The Mountaineers Books, 2006, 240 pages).

As well as several books of stories, chapters of books for other people, ghost-writing material for people, magazine articles and columns, gear companies’ material, and much more.

 

What strikes me looking back is that while writing all this stuff, I kept a full-time job the entire time. Research was done on vacation time, and it was always go, go, go—mostly on weekends. Mistakes are inevitable, as I’ve read in some of the not-so-friendly comments online, but I’ve always told critics, “hey, if you don’t like it, try writing your own. I’m sure it’ll be much better anyway.”

The Old Green Beast, though, was special. It came during one of those moments in life when you’re just living for the climbing, not giving a damn about the next buck but needing one anyway. Surviving any way you can. And seeing the world.

And Jack was always giving me story ideas for the UK magazines I wrote for. I scooped everyone on the news of Jeff Lowe’s Octopussy because of Jack, and later won a Colorado Press Association award because of that story. I never had a chance to thank him.

I miss his warm smile, his humble demeanor, and his friendliness when I’d show up at Gary Neptune’s shop. He was always good value, top shelf, as were his books. Well, his second edition, at least. The first had a bit too much of the Old Green Beast in it.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Non-wanna-be Guidebook Writer”

  1. Very funny, and Cam through and through. I still don’t know how he manages to do all the stuff he does, and stay sane, or is he?

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