Rockfax and Local Bolt Funds

Me on Flashdance (7a+) Lou Passo, Buis-les-Baronnies, France. Photo by Phil Vickers.

I was recently in the South of France working on a selective guidebook to the sport climbing in the area. There has been a lot debate taking place on the rights and wrongs of guidebooks that are not produced by local climbers. Debate is always healthy, but many of the arguments against books such as the one I am working on are ill-informed, and fail to take in the wider picture. Unlike Alan James, I’ve not bravely engaged in the forum discussions. Instead, I’m going to try and answer the criticism one by one and you can make up your own mind.

Argument 1: Outsider guidebooks damage access.

Obviously an important issue, so I’m happy to look at this first. Knowing where you can and cannot climb requires information that is up-to-date. It really doesn’t matter where that information comes from, so long as it makes it way to the heads of those intending to visit. While it is possible that a more popular guidebook may exclude access information, that is not the policy of Rockfax books. Who in their right mind would spend the time producing a guidebook to an area that was likely to be banned? There are a number of crags where climbing happens, but is not allowed, I’m not putting them in this book despite them being suggested to me. A guide that is better produced, more widely available and in a language that almost all visitors are likely to understand will be updated more often than a locally produced topo, as such it will be a more effective way of communicating access issues than will local topos. Of course, a sign at the parking area of the crag would also work.

Argument 2: Rockfax guidebooks take money away from local topo sales that fund bolting.

Firstly, I am a keen bolter myself. I’ve bolted sectors in Kalymnos and in Wales with bolts paid for with my own cash. I don’t expect to get proceeds from the sales of the Kalymnos guide to pay for my efforts! I climb because I love it. I bolt because I like to produce something that others will enjoy. If I were to take contributions from climbers via guidebooks sales, then I would be under a moral obligation to bolt routes that they will be able to climb – and I want to bolt whatever takes my fancy.

Now let’s look at the money. At the moment, the vendors of local topos are getting nothing from climbers who don’t even know about the area. Surely better to get some money from the climbers who are brought in by another guide? I’m not saying that every person will choose to buy the local topo, but if even one person in a hundred does, it’s better to have 1% of something than 100% of nothing. And is it really reasonable to expect visitors casually travelling from crag to crag to contribute the same amount toward the bolting of an area as local climbers who climb there all their lives? Hardly, especially when you consider that most climbers from the UK are for the most part looking to climb routes in the 5s and low 6s whereas most new areas being developed are in the upper grades.

Selling topos is just one way of raising money for a good cause. Local businesses benefit hugely from guidebooks bringing in climbers from afar, ask them for help. Local clubs have far more vested interest in having their local areas developed and maintained, a fund-raising Christmas dinner could raise money easily. Heck, you could even sell the Rockfax guidebooks and use the profits from that the pay for bolts, it really doesn’t matter where the money comes from, just don’t rely on the proceeds from topos.

Here’s another way of looking at it. If you buy a Rockfax guidebook and go on a climbing holiday. The amount of money the author of that guidebooks gets from your group is probably less than the spare change tip you give to the waiter in the local restaurant on your last night. It is from the pocket of the author that any charitable contribution is taken. Are those offering more profitable services such as local accommodation not in a better financial position to contribute towards bolting?

Finally, the book I am working on will be entirely in English, and I doubt it will even be sold in France, so it’s hardly going to be competing with local topos.

Argument 3: Local topos are perfectly fine.

No, they are not. They are, in general, hard to find, over-priced, restricted to small areas, amateurish, and often plain lazy. Take a look at the Céüse guide, the best crag in the world some say, not one route has more said of it than a grade and a dotted line on a vague graphical representation of the crag, an over-priced lazy piece of work that owes its existence to the fact that there is no other guide, it’s an insult to the crag and those who love it. And you can’t even buy it on I’m not singling out the guide to Céüse, it is one of the better ones. The free market has winners and losers, the reason it is the dominant economic model for the world is that we are all far more winners in the free market than we are losers.

Argument 4: Rockfax guidebooks plagiarise local topos.

That would be flattery. The only information reproduced from (numerous) local sources are the route names and grades, which are originally provided by the first ascentionists. Lists of routes are not protected by copyright law any more than the places on a map, or entries in a phone book. Copyright law affords protection to ‘original’ works as a means to protecting creative products. While there are no legal precedents for cases specifically regarding climbing guidebook information, a very similar situation of a telephone directory consisting of names and numbers in a natural order has been found not to be protected by copyright law by the US Supreme Court in 1991 in the case of Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, in the words of the court: “It is not enough for copyright purposes that an author collects and assembles facts”. All copyright law is based on international convention and so the decisions on one country are very likely to be followed in others. Anyone attempting to sue for copyright infringement due to the act of reproducing route names and grades is sure to lose a lot of money on an utterly hopeless case.

Legal arguments aside, a huge amount of work goes into checking routes and grades, approach descriptions and maps, new photos are taken and grades are checked for consistency, and then all that needs to be turned into a book. A surprising amound of work goes into correcting the errors in local guidebooks.

Talk of Rockfax guidebooks ‘stealing’ from locals is an outrageous statement. An outsider guidebook raises greatly the number of visitors to an area, visitors who need somewhere to stay, something to eat, entertainement on a rest day, they pay airport taxes, road tolls, they buy gear from local climbing shops when they need it. Without guidebooks such as Rockfax, many of these visitors simply won’t know about the areas. To support a monopoly for local guidebook producers benefits the very few at the expense of the very many.

Argument 5: Rockfax guidebooks bring too many people in to areas.

The problem is that there are so few good guidebooks to European sport climbing areas, it’s no wonder that certain places are packed with people, where other areas are under-utilised. I was at Buoux last year and found a large group of climbers operating in the 5s and low 6s. There wasn’t a huge amount for them to go at, while an hour away were empty crags filled with routes in that grade range. Having good quality guidebooks to all the crags will serve to distribute people more evenly, taking the strain off over-used areas.

Furthermore, when climbers come for a climbing trip, they generally take a week off. Most accommodation rents from Saturday to Saturday, so apart from the ‘take it easy’ first day, one-week visitors aren’t even visible at the crags on the weekends when the locals are out becuase they are travelling to or from the area.

Argument 6: Rockfax guidebooks should contribute to local bolting efforts.

Firstly, the proceeds of a guidebook are not that great. Those of us who do it, don’t do it because we want to get rich, I’ve produced three books in four years, and I doubt that the proceeds I’ve received to date have even paid for my camera. There simply isn’t the money in guidebook proceeds to make a meaningful contribution to the bolt funds unless the guide is very cheaply produced, and covers a very small area (meaning you needs to buy lots of them). To get topo guidebooks to all the best areas in the South of France would cost literally hundreds of Euros, would you buy a selective guidebook if it cost more than your rack? Furthermore, who would administer this fund and on what grounds is money allocated? It would be completely impossible to check that money was being wisely spent, and would those placing the bolts want to be paid for their time? If such a fund existed then we would be one step closer to being able to make a charitable contribution to re-bolting areas, but would other manufacturers whose businesses also depend on access to crags similarly contribute?

To conclude, I don’t wish to paint a picture that all local climbers are against this guidebook – One day I was out at the crag, and was approached by a visiting French climber, curious as to what I was taking photos of the crag for, when I sheepishly informed him I was producing a guidebook, he asked me if it was a Rockfax, I said it was and he shook my hand and told me it was about time. I agree.


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