Stars in guidebooks: yes or no?

by Alan James and Bob Wightman Oct/2003
This article has been read 6,179 times


Bob Whiteman says star-less guidebooks can help spread the load

The latest Climbers Club guide to Tremadog, like the previous three CC guidebooks to areas in North Wales, will not use the now familiar star system as a means of indicating "quality" routes.

The approach to Wimberry - a quiet crag, though not without stars. Would more stars make people go there?

But who judges "quality"? The guidebook writer/team? Or does the guide simply repeat generally held views on the quality or otherwise of certain routes? In fact what makes a route, "good"? The set of criteria that I use are almost certainly different from those that you would use, or from those of the next or previous generation of climbers. Since my idea of quality will be different from yours why should you wish to base a day's climbing on my preferences?

Looking through recent guidebooks from around the country certain trends become apparent. First, the number of starred routes is increasing: are routes gaining in quality as if by magic? Second, these extra stars tend to appear on recent routes, usually on higher-grade routes. Is a hard route necessarily a good route? Third, the first ascensionists of these highly-starred routes were often the writers of the guide or their friends.

This last point can work both ways. There are routes at Tremadog whose first ascensionists are "out of favour" with the climbing establishment. These routes are either unstarred or have a single star yet, in my opinion, are better than many of those currently given three stars. Surely a guidebook should be fair and objective?

Three possible solutions to the problem of overcrowding on starred routes and the neglect of non-starred routes were considered:
1. Increase the number of starred routes.
2. A single star for only the very best routes.
3. Have no stars.

The first merely devalues the star system to the point where the notion of a three-star route has no meaning; in such a case, why have stars at all? The second option just perpetuates the current situation. So we are left with the third option.

Justification? Well maybe, just maybe, some readers of the guide will read past the headlines and discover some personal favourites that they otherwise would never have found if they had just followed the starred option. Of course, others will revert to type, and queue to climb someone else's idea of a good climb.

This debate started on the UK climbing newsgroup (uk.rec.climbing) where one wag suggested that the BMC should employ someone to stick stars into each copy of the guide, a la the Chee Dale debacle. Even better would be to include a sheet of gold and silver stars to be cast liberally inside as the purchaser sees fit. At least then the assessment of quality must be right. After all, if you can't trust your own judgement, whose can you trust?



Alan James says why their removal may concentrate erosion

In this day and age guidebooks must reflect the need to spread the impact of climbers by whatever method they can. Used properly, the familiar starring system can have a positive effect on spreading the load. More significantly, I think that omitting stars will have a negative effect in this respect.

Without stars, would the Gingerbread Slab at Lawrencefield be any less popular?

Removing stars from guidebooks won't result in climbers spreading themselves evenly across all the routes on the crag. They will just use different methods of selecting routes - the nearest ones to the car park, the ones their friends have recommended, the ones covered in chalk, the ones with the classy write-ups and the ones with paths leading to their bases. They will not choose the 'vegetated bag of choss' (which will probably never get much attention). Nor though are they likely to choose the former one-star route on the edge of the crag with a neutral write-up in a now star-less book.

The only quality assessment the guidebook can give is in the text description. So either you don't indicate anything about the quality of a route in the description - resulting in a very boring guidebook - or you try to spread the load by writing a lot of enthusiastic descriptions. No matter how well you do the latter, it is almost impossible to make the number of appealing routes greater than the total number of routes which used to be starred. Additionally, you will have to rely on people reading lots of text before they can make the assessment. But these days many climbers have a 'smash and grab' mentality to their climbing: they want to turn up and climb as quickly as possible, and will not bother reading. Even if you don't like or agree with this attitude to climbing, as guidebook writers we have to consider it.

No stars in the new Tremadog guidebook is not going to stop people from climbing Vector, Christmas Curry nor any of the current three-star routes. Without more drastic 'self-imposed bans' by the climbing community, these routes are probably lost causes. The same can also be said for most two-star routes. It is the strength of the single star that I wish to promote, a policy which we have adopted in the most recent ROCKFAX guidebooks. By maintaining the established number of three- and two-star routes, and only increasing the number of one-star routes, you can retain most of the credibility of the starring system. Nobody has ever expected that much of a single-star route and it does provide a quick and easy method of highlighting 'another option'.

This argument can be extended to say that all you do is give a single star to any worthwhile climb (a development of the CC's second suggestion above). This would also have the effect of spreading the load, as in the 'power of the single star' theory, but may even spread the load across the two- and three-star routes. But you'd also significantly undermine the credibility of the star-rating system - perhaps resulting in the same effect as a star-less guidebook.

So what do people think? Here are some comments from readers


It does seem that the routes with higher grades are given the stars leaving out the often quality lower grade routes. The system needs adjusting I think but it is good to have stars to give you an idea.
Mike Blamires

Strongly agree with Alan James - very lucid argument!
Alex Bregman

When Bob first tested the water about this on uk.rec.climbing I was very impressed and enthusiastic about the proposal. After the ensuing discussion I came around to the idea of option 2 (just one star). The credibility of the current 5-tier system (including the black spot) is zero anyway. I've never been able to tell the difference between a one and two star route. Are AJ's comments about increasing the number of 1-star routes a tacit admission that he can't either and is just using the present system to make his guidebooks more 'fast food' to cater to the lowest common denominator? (Hmm must use more punctuation when ranting). I'll buy the new Tremadog guide and read every word in it (as I and many climbers I know do with EVERY guidebook) then I'll get out and explore.
Tim Bevis
AJ comment -
Yes, I agree that it is difficult to differentiate between levels of starring; this will always be the case since people like different things. No, I am not trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator - the whole argument was about spreading the load, so please don't try to read other things into it.

An increase of stars in currently less popular areas would be beneficial, reducing traffic in the popular areas.
I seem to recall reading in the Staffs Grit guide that a single star was for routes of local importance, two stars for routes of regional import, and three for routes of national significance.
This seems a good system, as there will be many routes in outlying areas that deserve a single star (a good route on the crag). Two and three stars should be reserved for routes important for historical reasons, as I think that currently the impression that a three star route is three times as good as a one-star route. Also it would mean skanky old chimneys getting three stars, along with bold desparates of times gone by (eg. Cave Wall Froggatt?) would also get three stars. This may serve to encourage people away from three-star routes, and toward more one-star routes, as these would deserve their stars merely from their climbing value.

The traffic that some routes get due to their acquired 'star status' does pose one great threat to a climbers enjoyment that I have experienced, most noticibly at Stoney and on the Wing routes at Malham and that is one of polish or unsightly protection scars. My suggested solution to this problem is to strip worn routes of a suitable number of stars until perhaps they recover (I believe some of the Stoney classics have roughed up over the last 10 years, since the whole place has been out of vogue).
Stuart Lancaster

I agree with Bob - I don't think he's saying that the descriptions shouldn't give any indication of quality, only that stars automatically distract attention away from a lot of very worthwhile routes. To say that putting no stars in means that people won't have any way of deciding which the best routes are in my opinion is not true - it's just that without them we'll all have to read the book a bit more carefully and may pick up some 'unsung classics' that we've previously overlooked. I also agree that the use of stars in some guides has gone bonkers - the Dow guide for example - lots of forty foot high outcrops miles from the road above Cockley Beck with several starred routes on them? I haven't done any of these (too lazy) but I wonder whether the guidebook writers (who did most of the first ascents) were giving stars based on the quality of their own experience and weren't necessarily thinking of those who come along later.
Andy Wiggins

Why not get rid of guidebooks altogether? Buy a map, walk to the crag, choose the line the appeals to you and climb it. Yes this does require more skill, judgement, experience and risk but are these not essential elements to climbing? Using gritstone for example; no-one is going to look at the roof below Wuthering and think it goes at VS nor that you need to take those RPs on Right Eliminate.
Climb the route for the right reason: because it appeals to you; you may make a mistake about the grade, or indeed where the route goes but I can assure you that you will enjoy it more and certainly have a more interesting discussion in the pub afterwards.

Looks like the CC have missed the plot. The vast majority of climbers climb routes that were put up a long, long time ago and are in the range Dif. to E2. So, Bob Whiteman's comments on first ascensionists being in, or out, of favour with the climbing establishment are of little relevance to the majority. We've all noted the plethora of stars given to recent E5s in Pembroke, but I doubt the queues are all that long.
Stars are not for first ascensionists, locals, or for those who have been visiting a crag for years. They are there to try and help newcomers to a crag have a jolly good day out.It's as simple as that. With this in mind, Alan James' idea of increasing the number of one star routes would seem sensible.
I would have thought the CC's approach only creates yet more pressure for alternative guidebooks. If they are not coming up with the goods for the average bod, then I can see little reason why they should expect loyalty from us.
David Coley

Three points:
1) If a route needs traffic to tidy it up then indicate that in the guide book text. That might encourage people to get on it.
2) I select routes to climb by how appealing the line looks just as much as what grade it is or how many stars it has got.
3) Stars have value in an educational sense in that they tell you which climbs are important historically.
Therefore: I rely on the text and what the climb looks like. The stars are predominantly of academic interest to me.
Chris Harrison

The poll does not include my favoured option which would be to leave the existing star system much as it has developed. What is really required is more honesty/objectivity from the writers and the guidebook teams. Whether stars or a flattering and enthusiastic description are used, the writers are pushing their opinions of quality at the readers/users. Almscliffe is a multistar crag that probably doesn't have a bad route on it. Additionally, you could tour the whole crag in half an hour to pick your next route and complete many routes in the day. To award stars to routes therefore is a bonus to the first time visitor to enable them to sample the "best" which the crag has to offer. For a crag such as Tremadog, where most of the popular areas are virtually invisible, and each ascent (and descent of course) takes hours, then stars or some similar device become a shorthand indicator of a route worth doing. Without stars, I doubt if the average climber will want to disappear into the wilderness to find the adventure and the hidden gems.
Rod Witham

The star system has evolved through the years due to that fact that more easily developed topo guides have replaced descriptive guides which required more intimate knowledge of each route and lots of writing. And in the older, literary, form, there usually were pages of "recommended climbs", anyway. The star/topo guides come to us because there are so many,areas and so many climbers now such that the task of the guides is dauntingly massive and the areas are visited by many outsiders who could have no contact with the local beta and main local climbers. I agree with others that in addition, topo guides lack the constructive editorializing and important opinions of their authors and associates. For example compare Roper's Yosemite Guides of both the early '60's and then the early '70's, to those of Falcon, currently in print. I believe that topo guides are actually a reduction in information, over the older descriptive types, and in this respect serve to leave more to the climber to discover, as some have argued as a good thing. By eliminating the star system, we would merely ignore part of still- fundamental job of a guide author, that of writing about an area, not merely providing a geophysical record, giving his opinions, making his historical contributions to our community, regardless of how large it is becoming. To advocate that there are now so many climbers (read: "outsiders" here) we therefore should start to practice elitist or perhaps more accurately, provincial, tactics of reducing information, means ultimately we should not try to build community any more, not include our newer entering talent nor our foreign partners. I have seen this curious meanspiritedness off and on over nearly 40 years of climbing, and always find it repugnant and essentially a failure of nerve and heart. A more transparent inclusive sense of community is best for us all, and is nothing to be afraid of, it is just connectedness.
Peter Haan

Don't we have enough rules already? Come on! I've been on plenty of routes with no stars in the guidebook that I've come up with a personal rule: Don't climb any routes with no stars. They generally don't deserve them. Still, I sometimes get on a route that just looks great, even though it has no stars, and, amazingly enough, it IS great! Likewise, I sometimes do a route with a few stars and come away shaking my head, wondering what the guidebook author was thinking and complaining that the climb was a piece of crap.
Maybe the absence of stars on some of the deserving routes was because the author couldn't confirm the quality. Maybe he overlooked it. Maybe he intentionally left a few pleasant surprises for us out there. Maybe he just has a different opinion of which routes were good and bad than I do. We already have enough info in a lot of guidebooks to let us choose whether we might want to try each route or not. There is a difficulty rating, a protection rating, maybe a length rating, maybe some verbage, perhaps even a gear list and beta. I say, if the author wants to put stars also, that is his poetic license. And if he chooses to do so, he should decide for himself how they will be assigned. Remember, writing a book IS a creative endevour, and it will always be affected by the author's experiences, opinions and tastes.
Marty Brenner

(I'm from France) I prefer that there are no stars because they create so much traffic on a few interesting routes but not on other routes which are of a good interest. Maybe the stars are good when you go to a new place and know nobody, it gives you the possiblity to pick out the good routes and also gives you some knowledge of the routes when there are comments (thought - are you still on sight, when it talks about the "very dynamic move unless you have the telescopic reach" ?). But I like to meet people when climbing, and locals are also very enthusiastic people to talk about the routes they 've been spending hours to "fix" for you. So they probably indicate their favourite ones but tell you as well about the "secret one" nobody goes even if it's tricky or the ones that are valuable to visit once.
Without stars it gives you the chance to pay more attention on the environment (cliff and people) and not only to the overcrowded chalked ones.
Let's experience climbing by ourselves! LET'S GO !
Laurent Zoutte (France)

I just had a wonderful climbing week in Mallorca, also thanks to the star-graded routes. There are a lot of climbing area's in Mallorca, and I think that if you loose the star grading system, that only the areas where the first routes close to the parking are of worth-wile quality will receive visitors.
The way I use the grade system - when I arrive in a new climbing area I start with some three-star routes. If I like what I
find, I will also climb the other routes, otherwise I move on to an other area.
Harry Engwirda (Holland)

In my own (self-published) guides, I use "hollow" stars (an outline character) which can be filled in by the user after they do the route. I'm not sure how much this gets used in this way, but it at least emphasizes that the quality ratings are principally a suggestion rather that some judgment rendered from On High.
As far as traffic, I find this more to be a function of convenience of access, ease of difficulty of the climbs, and general perception of the overall quality of the crag, only the latter being affected by my disbursement of quality ratings, and then only partially. That said, I do put considerable effort in assessing route quality, starting by climbing virtually every route that I describe.
Bryan Burdo

I agree with Alan James too. Stars are especially valuable for visiting climbers, as I was one to fine old England last fall. When travelling so far to climb (B.C. Canada), I was quite happy to get on routes that were known to be worthwhile and not waste my time on choss. I don't mind climbing 1 star routes, and if the line looks good I'll get on it regardless. I'm there to have fun after all, but I also want to maximise my time. Taking the stars away wouldn't solve the problem of traffic, everyone who is in the neighborhood will figure out what is good. I know what is good here, without stars. But the stars are for the visitors, and the new comers to the joy of climbing. Have you considered increasing the scale to 5 stars? This gives a much broader view of the quality of the climbs, without compromising the quality of the 'classics', or letting the worthwhile but average routes disapear into the mire. of course it's all fairly subjective and egos will interfere, but, whatever, have fun and keep climbing.
Tim Crawshaw (Canada)


Here are the results of a small poll conducted in April 2001


To spread climber's impact guidebooks should ... Percentage away with the star system 26%
..increase the number of one star routes 43%
..give all worthwhile routes a single star 20% makes no difference 11%

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