By Seth Lightcap

Marty Lewis on Wounded Knee. Photo by Kevin Calder.

In the adventurous world of rock climbing sometimes knowledge is half the battle. Whether you’re an aspiring climber or a seasoned wall rat, having prior knowledge about the details and difficulties of a climbing route can be a vital first step to a successful ascent. Commonly known in climbing lingo as “beta,” such route information can have life and death consequences.

Most climbers are all ears for route beta. Getting lost on the wall or missing a critical protection point can be scary at best and dangerous at worst. Anyone who has ever been lost on a big climb knows the value of pitch-by-pitch information. Also, anyone who has ever gotten lost while trying to descend from a big climb knows the value of detailed information.

For example, the North Dome Gully descent from Washington’s Column in Yosemite Valley sees several rescues a year and has been the scene of a dozen or so tragic deaths. The reason for this is simple—the North Dome Gully descent route is circuitous and confusing and the consequences for getting lost are high. Climbers who turn south too early after initially traveling east can find themselves marooned in a “lost world” of loose, sandy ledges separated by 100 foot cliffs. From here trying to rappel to the valley floor can have fatal consequences as the cliffs get larger and the ledges get smaller and more slippery. Eventually hapless victims end up dangling in space, trying not to rappel off the end of their ropes. Typically this is when they start screaming for a rescue until a random tourist hears them while hiking at the base and relays the message to Search and Rescue.

The way to avoid such scenarios starts with having a good guidebook to the climbing area you are visiting. Guidebooks have improved greatly over the past 20 years, and have made multi-pitch climbing much safer for those who choose to take full advantage of the ascent and descent beta. For example, the 1987 Yosemite guidebook, Yosemite Climbs by George Meyers and Don Reid, offered this for climbers wanting to research the North Dome Gully descent: “Routes that end atop Washington Column necessitate a familiarity with North Dome Gully. The descent down North Dome Gully is the scene of frequent accidents. The trail from the top of the column traverses east all the way to the forested gully and completely above the death slabs. Don’t descend too early; if in doubt and contemplating rappels, keep traversing.”

This sort of brief description was fine for those seeking maximum adventure, but accident statistics show that too many climbers were unclear on just how to get down from Washington’s Column safely.

In contrast, the newest guidebook to the area is much more detailed. Yosemite Big Walls (2nd edition, 2005, SuperTopo) has a full page of point-to-point directions plus an aerial photograph, making the journey down the harrowing North Dome Gully much less ambiguous, and therefore much safer. For those wishing to return home safely after climbing, the current guidebook is as important as any piece of climbing equipment they carry, including their rope.

With all the world-class climbing areas in California, it is fitting that we are also blessed with some of the world’s best guidebooks. Popular areas like Yosemite and the Owens River Gorge demand stellar guidebooks – and the available masterpieces do not disappoint. Two men are largely responsible for the most current and definitive guidebooks to Yosemite and the Gorge: Chris McNamara (SuperTopo Publishing) and Marty Lewis (Maximus Press).

McNamara and Lewis are lifetime climbers who have turned a passion for climbing into businesses built on providing accurate beta to others. Purposefully written with truth, humor, and a climber’s eye, their guidebooks are invaluable references for the climbing community. Despite these common traits, Maximus Press and SuperTopo guidebooks have two very distinct personalities.

“I have lived in the Eastern Sierra for 29 years,” says Lewis. “I always loved climbing guides, so when I started climbing in the Owens River Gorge it felt natural to try to keep track of what climbers were doing, as there was no book.”

Lewis diligently chronicled all the new routes put up in the Owen’s River Gorge, founded Maximus Press and published a pamphlet style first edition guidebook in 1990. He has now gone on to author four books, including 10 editions of the Owen’s River Gorge guide. Emphasizing comprehensive regional information, Lewis’ guides are incredibly thorough resources. “Ninety percent of all routes in an area make the book. Only the most obscure, hard to find, or poor quality routes are omitted,” he says.

McNamara founded SuperTopo in 1999 while still in college at UC Berkeley. Already one of Yosemite’s finest aid climbers, he was frustrated with the lack of up-to-date and thorough information available for popular Sierra routes. In response, he pioneered a new guidebook style that focuses on the complete picture behind only the classic climbs. His first SuperTopo guidebook, “Yosemite Big Walls,” was a huge hit with the big-wall crowd because the guidebook took a more detailed approach to helping climbers ascend multi-day routes on El Capitan and Half Dome without getting into trouble. He has since authored five guidebooks and published other authors through SuperTopo, from Alaska to Nevada.

“The SuperTopo approach is select,” says McNamara. “We feature the best routes and get the information for those climbs by having locals climb every route that is in the book. We emphasize depth of route info and quality control.”

SuperTopo guides highlight the classic routes at epic destinations. Places where there is not enough daylight nor lifetimes to climb everything in sight. In an area as immense as Yosemite, the SuperTopo guide makes finding the best route for your abilities substantially easier. is also a thriving website whose online forum contributes to quality control. “The Supertopo web site really helps because climbers comment on the route info and make corrections,” McNamara says. “When we make second editions it is a great source of feedback.”

Respective to their chosen climbing areas, both Lewis’ comprehensive approach and McNamara’s select approach are very effective. Maximus Press covers regions of the Sierra that are littered with small crags and major formations. Listing every route allows visiting climbers and locals alike to make the most of a limited climbing spot. The common elements the two publishers share are a dedication to accuracy and an articulate grasp on the pulse of the local climbing community.

“The first step in producing a new guidebook is to find someone who loves the area, go climbing, and then find the best local pizza and beer,” says McNamara. On the other hand, he agrees that details like route length and the number of anchor bolts per pitch don’t just appear in the foam of a frosty mug.

Both authors frequently fact-check by climbing the route personally. “For most routes one lap is usually sufficient, but I have done some routes 30 times,” Lewis says. “I’m always thinking about these laps when I’m revising the books.”

The most important beta in a guidebook are the “topo” drawings (short for “topographical”). Topos are line drawings designed to reflect the exact nature of the route. They detail the division of optimal pitches, possible variations, and most importantly, describe subtle rock features that define the route. Climbers routinely bring topos with them on long climbs.

Translating pocketed rock faces and sweeping granite arches into these two-dimensional topo drawings is a major part of the technical work of creating a guidebook. “A topo starts as a hand drawn map,” McNamara explains. “The maps are then traced into Adobe Illustrator for cleanup and fine tuning.”

Once a rough draft of a topo is assembled both authors go back to step one – the locals. “I like to make PDF sample pages of tentative content and get as much local feedback as possible,” says Lewis.

Climbing all the routes in a guide book may sound like amazing hands-on work, but organizing and compiling the details about all those routes is the crux of the production process. “Producing a guidebook is so much work!” McNamara emphasizes. “There are literally thousands of little pieces of information to collect and format: photos, text, line drawings, topos…”

Maximus Press and Supertopo are both known for their clean design, impeccable formatting, and durable construction. Unlike a novel you might read twice, your favorite guidebook may be flipped open a hundred times a week. Binding construction is critical. “Because of the abuse climbing guides receive they just fall apart when the pages are glued together,” Lewis says. Maximus uses a sewn binding. “There are actually little sewn-in threads and glue holding the book together. This type of binding costs a lot more, but is indestructible.”

Aside from spot-on beta and bomber durability, a great guidebook must also inspire climbers to get out there and climb. Breathtaking photos are one of the prime motivators. Images grace all the guidebooks as pictures express difficulty and rock quality in a way that text and drawings simply cannot.

First ascent histories and stories of the climbing pioneers are also rewarding anecdotes included in most guidebooks. SuperTopo specializes in presenting such route history.

“The climbing experience is enhanced by hearing the rich history of first ascents,” says McNamara. “When you read about a first ascent done with minimal equipment in epic conditions by one of your heroes like John Muir or Yvon Chouinard, the climb takes on a whole new light. The climb becomes an experience of walking in the footsteps of a legend.”

No matter what style of rock climbing you enjoy, the benefit of a precise and polished guidebook cannot be overstated. Whether you are visiting a new area or pushing your limits at a favorite crag, being in tune with the best routes, the quickest approaches, and the safest descents will help you climb more and wander less. If you’re climbing with an outdated guidebook, check out the new edition. You’ll surely discover a new route or possibly even a whole new area.

For further information about guidebooks from Maximus Press and SuperTopo, visit them online at and