Feedback about the guide #2

I received this comment to the blog at the end of last year:

“Just seen a copy of the guide, and as someone who climbed pretty extensively in the UAE from 1999 – 2004 I feel entitled to comment. While it’s great to see something in print after all the efforts, I am really disappointed to see the big bold trad ascents termed as ‘Chossaneering’. I find that quite insulting to the people who brought alpine style climbing to the UAE, and you do them a huge dis-service. Shame.”

From Andy Chubb in the UK. I had a feeling I had seen his name somewhere and discovered after a search of the route archives that he had been involved in a few first ascents in the guidebook area, mostly on trad cliffs that I had not included in the guide like the Barun Nose in Wadi Ghalilah. My immediate thought was that I’d publish his comment if he’d actually paid for the book rather than just flipped through one of the freebies I had had sent out from Cordee or a copy in a climbing shop – and so emailed to ask. I never got a reply. Consequently I have not published the comment nor felt any pressure to respond, especially as I have been busy with other stuff.

I was going to write that this is the only negative feedback I’d received on the book. But that’s not quite true. Alan Stark (who I should emphasise has been otherwise very supportive but who has also suffered from some of my heartless route exclusion) wrote on

“The term ‘Chossaineering’ [sic] is not what I would have used, and a little less pleasing than my preferred term Adventure Climbing. I’m not sure whether Antoine, Bill, Geoff Hornby … would be over pleased at having some of their not inconsiderable multipitch ascents described in a slightly disparaging manner.”

And Ralph Heath from Al Shaheen, who I met recently at Wonderwall, did mention politely that there were some murmurings in Tradistan (sorry: Ras Al Khaimah) that the book hadn’t done full justice to the trad. Actually I missed out some of his new routes too (… a bit of a pattern emerging here perhaps?).

So, where to start? I think there are two separate themes here which I am going to tackle separately:

  1. the general impression that I may have been dissing the trad.
  2. the specific topic of onsight multi-pitch trad new routing on ill-defined lines on large rambling loose limestone cliffs (ie “chossaneering”: can you see why a single word term for this might be useful?).

Regarding (1) I have described in the book itself and before on this blog how routes and cliffs were selected, so I am not going to repeat myself in detail. About half the routes in the book are trad. This seems about right, especially given that a majority of the UAE climbing population only climb sport. I am also reasonably confident, because I consulted quite widely, that I included most of the best trad routes (at least within the “properly-cleaned” category).

But are the trad routes that are in the book as enthusiastically described as they could be? I will concede possibly not. There are various reasons for that. Amongst them, I’d especially note the lack of good trad climbing photos, for which I don’t accept any blame! It just seems the trad regulars don’t feel much urge to get on an ab rope with a camera.

It’s also true that I haven’t spent much time during my five years in the UAE on the trad; it’s definitely easier to enthuse about routes you have actually done yourself. That’s partly because I have been trying to push my sport standard here and also because I climb plenty of trad routes each summer on the glorious (solid) granite cracks of Squamish in Canada. And frankly there aren’t many trad lines on the limestone in the UAE and Oman that have really called out to me. Bridge to Nowhere at Khasab and Acquiescence in Ghalilah did; deeper into Oman the Al Hamra tower routes and the French route on Jebel Misht which I climbed back in 2007 … and the Red Wall looks pretty amazing too. But that’s about it. Maybe I have visited too many other great climbing areas and have become excessively fussy. Plenty of other people find more to like; I absolutely respect their opinion.

And how about (2)? First of all, I didn’t coin the term “chossaneering” but I do like it. It’s a useful self-explanatory term to distinguish a particular ascent style and not intended to be derogatory: it is unquestionably impressive to set off up a big loose cliff with no idea of what lies ahead. The main people responsible for those sort of routes within the guide’s coverage area of the book are – I think – adequately recognised in the historical section in the appendix. And all their routes are recorded on the archive page if not in the book itself.

Primarily though, the job of a climbing guidebook is to guide, not pronounce on historical achievement. If any of the big multi-pitch routes had proved popular and had been acclaimed as classics at the time the book was written, they would have been given more prominence. But they hadn’t. As I wrote in the book’s introduction, people into these sorts of routes seem to only be interested in first ascents … almost no-one repeats anything. So it is hard for consensus on quality (or even the correct line …) to get established. Maybe that is changing (for example, I gather that the quite accessible long routes on Jebel Hila are getting frequent traffic). If so, and I am writing the next edition, I’ll reflect that. And make sure I record at least one new route from anyone likely to criticise …

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10 Responses to “Feedback about the guide #2”

  1. Alan Stark says:

    I know Andy quite well – though it’s some years since I’ve seen him.

    He’s a very reasonable and likeable guy, and IMHO he’s not the sort of person to make ill considered or insincere comments. Unlike myself his climbing experience includes many more locations worldwide, so can speak with a lot more authority than I can.

    One thing we do have in common is that our climbing careers started long before ‘sport’ climbing came in to vogue, so see things through ‘trad’ coloured glasses. Our climbing motivation was just to climb – there were few recorded routes to repeat – and the fact that we did ‘first ascents’ was that we happended to be in a place that gave us the opportunity to do so.

    The fact that there was generally only one party on any given section of cliff when routes were being climbed has a lot to do with the lack of ‘action photos’ though there are more than a few ‘arse’ and top of head shots in our collection that do not make for good publication (particularly if you happened to be following Bill Wheeler).

    I’m glad to hear the Hila routes are seeing a few more repeats. Whilst I never actually ascended any of them, I was possibly the one who wandered up the wadi, saw the faces and alerted Bill and Antoine to the possibilities. It’s possibly the biggest single face in the UAE, and there are a number of smaller subsidiary cliffs a bit further up the wadi that certainly have scope for development with routes of all grades.

  2. admin says:

    Not for the first time, I would like to point out that I had been climbing for eleven years and had reached trad E5 (just!) before I did my first sport route! So no need for the implied disparaging of my manhood ;-)

  3. Alan Stark says:

    As far as I can see, neither Andy’s comments or my own (recent ones) doubted your manhood – though I have apologised for ignorantly doing so in the past.

    With only one very soft E1 lead in my whole climbing career (it was originally graded VS when I did it) I’m in no position to indulge in appendage waving. I’ll leave that to others who are better qualified.;-)

  4. admin says:

    This kind of thing, Alan: “One thing we do have in common is that our climbing careers started long before ’sport’ climbing came in to vogue, so see things through ‘trad’ coloured glasses.” … you’re always at it! The point I was inferring: I also started climbing long before sport existed yet have come to acquire more than one colour of “glasses” … ie your “so …” is not a useful generalisation.

    [For people with very poorly-tuned humour-detectors: reference to manhood neither literal not serious]

  5. Alan Stark says:

    “One thing we do have in common is that our climbing careers started long before ’sport’ climbing came in to vogue, so see things through ‘trad’ coloured glasses.”

    Don’t take it so personally, Toby. No slur or slight was intended – it was purely a personal statement of fact. If I was inferring anything it was that on a personal level our preferred method of ascent has always been ‘on sight’. We were just lucky to be able to find unclimbed rock that we could actually get up.

    Others have every right to make new ascents in whatever style they choose though I do raise my eyebrows if an existing adventure route is compromised by retro bolting.

    You’ve done a fine job with your guide — I’m very aware that the sheer size of the area and the amount of recorded climbing was never going to fit in to one guidebook, so some selection was necessary. I’m grateful that your website hosts details that were given to me of the many long mountaineering routes (virtually all of which I had nothing to do with) so that those who like that sort of thing can repeat what has been done before, or be inspired to create their own ‘epics’.

  6. admin says:

    I am not taking at all personally, Alan! Anyway enough … I am not having my blog turned into a forum.

    Meanwhile I see the chossaneers are in full spray mode over at the BMC site: … yet more NTBRCHs and a rather unkind jibe at Jakob (presumablyat fault for tending to simul-solo in a few hours the stuff these guys take days over): “This year a new guidebook is rumoured, authored by Jacob Obenhauser . If done well, it would prove extremely useful to visiting climbers: two activists, who have already seen proofs, are not convinced.”

    Memo to no-one in particular: if you want to see your view of the world in print, write your own f***ing book! ;-)

  7. Andy Chubb says:

    I wrote to you earlier in a personal mail…

    “Hi Toby,

    I don’t understand your persistent enquiry about whether I bought the guide, except that you seem to have set that as a criteria for being allowed to comment, but if it is important to you then I confess I have not bought a copy, but looked at a copy which a friend of mine had purchased. I’m sure you’ll appreciate that since I no longer live in Dubai I don’t need a guide. But if you have some free copies you’re giving away then I will happily give you my address.

    I think the 2 issues are: 1. the impression (gained by several people including some who’s comments you have not seen or heard) that you have been “dissing trad”, as you put it, and I think your comments in the blog don’t do much to help that relieve that impression; and 2. the lack of appreciation of history in the guidebook, which I think is an important part of climbing (particularly trad), and indeed an important part of a guidebook.

    Don’t feel the need to justify what you have done. You’ve published a guide, which is something no one else has managed, and you were never going to please everyone. It’s just unfortunate that you chose to upset some of the trad community that started off the climbing scene in the UAE in the first place, before the sports climbers got anywhere near it.”

    But now I see the discussion has got a bit tetchy and childish so i will comment no more.

  8. admin says:

    There are a couple of reasons why I asked the question:

    1. not only have I produced a guidebook which at best will be only marginally loss-making for me, but I also fund a website that hosts old archive material, including all your routes. So it is not unreasonable to hope people involved with the UAE scene contribute in some way.

    2. the book has sections hidden in it that may not be obvious at a quick glance in a shop. For example, did you actually see the historical stuff at the back?

    As to “before the sports climbers got there”, I’ll just repeat yet again that this sort of generalisation is not useful. Most of us in the region involved in setting new sport routes (and new DWS, new boulder problems and even new trad when inspired) have heterogenous climbing backgrounds and aspirations. If you visited my house right now you’d see photos of these three routes hanging on my “long-term goals” wall: Freeway at Squamish (ten plus pitches of granite cracks); La Guerre Sainte at Wadi Rum (ten plus pitches of vertical sandstone wall, bolted but hardly sport; the Limah Roof (an unclimbed and distinctly-scary DWS project). I regard myself just as a “climber”. And not a blinkered one.

  9. Toby says:

    How hard is Freeway? Do you need a belay slave? I even have jumars to follow quicker now! I’d just want a belay on the Split Pillar pitch in return. :-)

  10. admin says: