ROCKFAX Trad Climbing + by Adrian Berry and John Arran19.95, added Jan/2008, see all Rockfax news & reviews
Reviewed by Toby Foord-Kelcey
TradCLIMBING+ is the latest addition to a groaning shelf of climbing instruction books. A search across Amazon UK books for 'Rock Climbing' produces 755 results, of which the majority are instructional. Though the involvement of Rockfax and the obvious credibility of the authors, Adrian Berry and John Arran, are sufficient for this book to get attention, potential buyers will still want to know what makes it different.
A friend, who takes a professional interest in this area, rates Libby Peter's 'Rock Climbing Essential Skills and Techniques' very highly. It is the official handbook for the SPA and MIA schemes and has a no-nonsense academic look and feel. Adrian Berry himself reviewed the book online a year ago. He was positive but tempered his enthusiasm, writing that "this is a book for instructors, rather than coaches." Adrian is of course a climbing coach and inverting that sentence explains the aspiration of Trad+. It wants to help you succeed on routes, not gain certificates. This is also spelt out clearly in the Introduction chapter and is the context within which Trad+ should be judged.
The arrival of the UKC review copy of Trad+ in my corner of the world coincided helpfully with a group of us heading into Oman to climb over the Eid ul-Adha and Christmas holidays, there also meeting with climbers out of Muscat. I thrust the book in front of everyone, asking them to read it with the notion that it might improve their performance in mind. The book's visual appeal, particularly the extensive images of climbing in an apparently rain-free Britain, made this a popular task. In fact, on several evenings, despite the alternative attractions of the Hajar mountains' stunning night sky and our scintillating conversation, I had to prise it from the hands of people who'd entrenched themselves with it by the campfire. That in itself is a recommendation.
The Tactics and The Mind chapters, which form the core of the book's 'get you up routes' focus, did impress everyone. These chapters are laid out similarly to those in Rockfax's excellent SportCLIMBING+ book, but are trad-specific. Students of 'Hard Grit' may be shocked to learn that the science here comprises more than just yelling "I'm Jerry Moffat, I'm on top rope". (In fact this is omitted. Perhaps Seb Grieve has it trademarked?) Topics range from the obvious-but-worth-reinforcing (shifting your focus appropriately between protection and movement on lead, for instance) to coaching tricks (self-videoing to boost confidence) through to the metaphysical (what do 'limits' and 'goals' really mean?). People with a low tolerance of introspection or disinclined to push themselves won't get much from it. People who want to improve probably will. One UKC forum pundit often writes that expectations of climbing performance are driven by the standard of your peers and that 'anyone can lead an E5' if their mates aspire similarly or are already at that level. I think that may be right (and it isn't inconsistent with this book's ideas on motivation) but it is a rare situation. The coaching elements of Trad+ will be useful to everyone else; those who lack a constructive peer group.
We were all slightly disappointed by the Destinations chapter, which ends the book. It reads as if it was rushed and it occupies less space than it deserves. It should either have been left out or expanded more. Sport+ has a much better equivalent chapter. The space issue shows through generally in a comparison of the two books: Trad+ feels squeezed into its 288 pages, whilst Sport+ luxuriates expansively in two-thirds the size. Rockfax could have shuffled the duplicated content between the two books better, with, say, more of the Training chapter material exclusive to Sport+, as I suspect many people will buy both books. In their current form though, the books do anyway complement each other.
The Gear, Protection and Ropework chapters were found to be a rich vein for nitpickery; especially when cross-referenced to the photos. Our helmet-evangelist objected that fewer than half the climbers pictured are lidded. We spotted a few dubious belay set-ups amongst the photos, like triangularly-loaded anchors in an Avon Gorge shot. Isn't even one paragraph too much to devote to Sliders or a whole page too much on the placing of Tricams? The rope ascending section ignores the GriGri as a lower device option; very safe when speed isn't a priority and you don't want to fork out for a limited-usage device like a croll. The cam section is coy on the subject of weight variances between different designs. And so on and so forth. But all small issues. No-one we had two gear distributors and three people with climbing and/ or vertical access instruction backgrounds within the group had a truly substantial complaint.
Most climbers of my generation, who started out in the 70s or 80s, learned to climb by climbing with friends, with at most some guidance from a school teacher or the like. One positive consequence of that informal route is a tendency to figure things out from first principles rather than automatically applying learnt methods. I have sometimes been surprised how people, who have come into climbing via courses, will fuss over issues where incremental safety gains are slight obsessive equalisation of belay anchors, for instance yet make poor gear placements when on lead. Objectively the latter seems rather more important but it has to be learned through practise and experimentation and can't be wholly rule-derived. In that context, it's notable in the practical sections of Trad+ that the authors steer carefully between excessive prescription and encouraging independent thought. The mechanics of cam action are explained, for example, where a lesser book might just lay down placement dos-and-don'ts. Similarly the reason for understanding fall factors is explained; the theory isn't just presented. The recommendation on helmet use is very sensibly nuanced. The notes on 'Real World belays' and 'No Belay' (is that covered in the SPA?) are gently subversive. This tone is a key strength of the book and why I would recommend it to anyone starting out. That said, the book's pragmatic nature doesn't extend to discussing negative outcomes in trad climbing. A taboo on the word 'death' is perhaps understandable. I couldn't find a single mention. Even the more colourful name for the overhand abseil knot has been censored (the EDK: 'Euro Death Knot'). But I feel some spelling out of what can go wrong would help reinforce important points. The accident-of-the-month analyses that Rock and Ice Magazine used to run were excellent in that regard.
My only major gripe with the book is that it is too parochial. Commercially this is unlikely to be a problem for its sales as it is squarely aimed at the UK market (the strong pound anyway means that Rockfax may struggle to get it into shops overseas). But it won't serve anyone especially well who wants to export their experience abroad, particularly to North America. It is a sacred article of faith for many UKC regulars that only the British excel at trad but that conviction is unlikely to survive watching the locals cruise up long sustained crack pitches at places like Indian Creek. A few pages on crack tactics (jamming technique itself is fairly well covered) such as cam racking and rationing, planning rests and leading on a single rope belong in this book and are a serious omission. In that respect, it is ironic that the back cover of the book has a striking picture of Didier Berthod crack climbing in Utah.
Towards the end of our road-trip I had appreciated the team's feedback on Trad+ but had a nagging feeling that the definitive verdict had yet to be delivered. Much of the Muscat climbers' conversation revolved around a mythical figure in his 50s, Ray, who'd just moved back to Oman. Ray had a unique first ascent style: onsight trad soloing with a Silent Partner device on routes that he then retro-bolted for the masses. On the penultimate day we learned that Ray would be at the next crag we were visiting. In due course he was pointed out to me on the other side of a canyon, seventy feet up, cleaning a line on top-rope that he'd just led. His 10 year-old son, Jamie, also a keen climber, was belaying. Abruptly there was a shout and sound of rockfall. Ray had dislodged a cluster of boulders that showered onto both of them. He fell whilst Jamie leapt off the belay ledge and swung off across the crag. We were all horrified. Moments later he called down: "Is the rope cut, Jamie?" As a father I thought initially that this was oddly selfish; "Are you OK?" being a more obvious first question. But on reflection I realised Ray was right: he couldn't be much help to his son if the rope had been damaged. Clearly this was a man of gnarl and unusual objectivity whose input was needed for the review. We talked in the afternoon whilst his son and mine (7) disappeared off at Ray's suggestion - to hunt scorpions! Later at the campfire I passed father and son the book. They became absorbed and silent with it, in the style that had by now become familiar. After a while, Ray looked up and, being a terse Scot (is there any other kind?), offered this very concise conclusion:
"Good cartoons ... nice ladies ... I'd buy it"
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- ROCKFAX Deep Water Guidebook Jun-08