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Reviewed by:
  • Pilgrims of the Vertical
  • Jason Laurendeau
Taylor, Joseph. Pilgrims of the Vertical. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2010. Pp. 368. Notes, acknowledgments, maps, photographs, and illustrations, index. $29.95 hb.

In Pilgrims of the Vertical, Joseph Taylor III offers us an account of the history of rock climbing in central California’s Yosemite National Park, home to such iconic peaks as El Capitan and Half Dome. It would be a tremendous disservice to Taylor, however, to suggest that his principal contribution in this volume is a history of a particular activity in a particular location. Rather, through his examination of rock climbing in Yosemite, Taylor illuminates important shifts in masculinity (and gender relations more broadly), morality, risk, environmental politics, constructions of nationhood, and consumerism that extend well beyond the rock climbing community to tell us something about (principally American) society more broadly. Even this list is not exhaustive, further testifying to Taylor’s socio-historical insight.

Taylor sets the scene with a brief story from his own involvement with climbing. This immediately draws readers into the narrative and reminds us that Taylor knows of what he writes; he has lived it, as it were. And through his insightful analysis in the remainder of the book, he also illustrates that this standpoint epistemology at which he hints in this opening serves him tremendously well. Though he is present in the text, his presence is generally rather subtle and nuanced, adding to the confidence we place in his analyses. The remainder of the book proceeds more or less chronologically, beginning with a consideration of the broader history of climbing prior to Yosemite’s arrival on the climbing “scene.” Though the narrative proceeds chronologically, it is defies the linearity that sometimes accompanies this narrative structure. Taylor deftly moves between concepts and ideas, as he considers, for example, the paradox that we must understand climbing—often thought of as a solitary, even lonely, undertaking—as a profoundly social activity in order to fully appreciate its sociological and historical importance. In addition, Taylor skillfully draws links between various eras, organizations and geographical locations, illustrating, for example, the ways in which Victorian climbers like Robert Underhill influenced the [End Page 526] shape of climbing in Yosemite, and the relationship of small-scale climbing clubs to much larger environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. More importantly, Taylor digs deeper to explore issues that trouble accepted versions of events, such as the sense in which Underhill’s influence has been overstated, even reified, in dominant formal and informal narratives about Yosemite’s climbing history.

In the heart of Taylor’s analysis, he outlines and interrogates the important shifts in the culture of climbing in Yosemite. Taylor draws on an impressive array of primary and secondary materials, including personal correspondence between and with climbers, diaries, meeting minutes, biographies, and scholarly articles. Using these, he guides us along the nearly century-long history of climbing in Yosemite. He discusses the profoundly heterosocial (emphasis on social) character of the Cragmont Climbing Club (CCC) and Rock Climbing Section of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club (shortened to RCS) in the 1930s, and the ambition and drive of their leading members, including Dick Leonard. He then traces the importance of these climbers, and the skills and techniques they developed and refined, on American military strategy and combat missions in WWII. He then outlines the important shift from a club culture to a culture of individualists in the aftermath of the war and the dominant political climate of the time. Taylor then explicates the important shift in 1955, when Mark Powell moved into Yosemite to climb full time. This laid the foundation for future climbers to take up residence in the park and live an existence quite apart from the “mainstream.” It also pushed performance boundaries, which climbers redefined again and again over the coming decades. Throughout these periods, Taylor considers advances in—and debates about the place of—climbing technology, and the impact of this on climbing itself and the culture in which it was embedded.

The breadth and depth of Taylor’s analysis is impressive and prohibits a detailed consideration of the many contributions he offers in the...


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