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Kevin McLane’s Canadian Rock: What It Takes to Write a Guidebook

Ever wondered what it takes to write a guide book? For Kevin McLane, author of Canadian Rock: Select Climbs of the West, choosing the crags and routes to feature was, for the most part, a methodical process of rating climbs based on predetermined criteria. However, he always left room for the project to evolve based on the other climbers that got involved and made exceptions for marginal, though very special, climbing areas.

Thirteen hundred rock climbs. Seventy climbing areas. More than 800 photos and topos. In other words: a lot of work.

For Squamish-based author Kevin McLane, the first step in starting on his new guide book, Canadian Rock: Select Climbs of the West, was simply to try to wrap his mind around the complexity of such an undertaking. He had been rock climbing in western Canada for 38 years and knew these areas well. He had even written other guide books. But, collecting route information about such a vast region and consolidating it into the 383 pages of Canadian Rock was a task worthy of a 5.13 grade.

So, how did he do it?

The Journey Begins

Canadian Rock features select crags and climbing areas all the way from southern British Columbia to the Alberta Rockies. If you asked McLane how long it took him to write Canadian Rock, the short answer is four years. The reality, however, is that the origins of this guide book began in 1978 when McLane first climbed some of the classic routes in the Bow Valley of Alberta.

McLane took a few more occasional trips to the Bow Valley but it was 17 years before he finally hit the routes in the Ghost Area. This is when the glimmers of an idea to do the guide book began to take root. There was so much great climbing to be done and many climbers didn’t even know that some of these areas existed. It wasn’t until 2006, however, that McLane climbed on the CMC Wall near Canmore, Alberta, and Canadian Rock was born. As the author wrote in the introduction to his book, “inspiration came, commitment followed, and the journey began.”

Why Canadian Rock?

When asked about how he wanted to develop Canadian Rock, McLane’s response was that the how and the why of guidebook writing were always intertwined. If you are developing a guidebook, he said, you need the common ingredients, such as good organization, to get it done. But behind all that there is a why. “You have a motivation to do it,” McLane remarked, “and the motivation will shape how you do it.”

For McLane, a few reasons lay behind the development of Canadian Rock. And while the climbing across Western Canada was great and McLane wanted to help more people to discover it, he had additional motivations. Firstly, Canadian Rock features a lot of types of rock that can be found along the 12 hour drive between the west coast and the Ghost. “Not many climbers are really comfortable on both limestone and granite,” McLane explained. “Ultimately, the climbers that are adept at both are better climbers.” McLane wanted to expose climbers to various types of rock to help them become better all-around climbers.

Secondly, just the fact that it was even possible to get all of the routes into one book was enough impetus to bring the project to fruition. From a Canadian point of view, it has the capacity to put some support into the climbing culture in Canada, said McLane. The author compared the climbing in western Canada to the climbing in the western US. You just couldn’t put the comprehensiveness into a book about climbing in the western U.S. with so many climbing areas spread over a vast distance.

Lastly, McLane mentioned that he genuinely enjoyed developing the book. For the last three years it was his main focus, among other projects on the go. And while Canadian Rock took about one year longer than McLane really would have liked, the result has been well worth the effort it took.

Making the Cut

As there were already comprehensive climbing guide books about some of the regions covered in McLane’s book, he decided to be selective about the climbs to include in Canadian Rock. As part of the selection process, he developed a scorecard and grading system to help him decide which routes and areas to include and which to leave out of the book.

McLane said that two-thirds of the crags in the book were “givens,” but the last third of possibilities were the hardest ones to determine. He used something he called the “Grotto Principle,” named after a fairly popular, though marginal, climbing area in the Rockies. The Grotto Principle helped him to give each crag or climbing area a score in his own way based on general popularity, quality of climbing, and how often climbers returned.

There were some marginal areas, such as Sugar Cube in Banff National Park, which McLane ended up including in Canadian Rock because he believed that by incorporating them it would enrich the experience of the climbers who ventured out to explore them. Fifty pages of the book took a year just to do the authoring, but McLane understood that the book was a vehicle for putting these more obscure routes forward.

McLane also sought out input and advice from other people and visited each of the places himself, though he did not climb each and every route. In this regard, the book evolved through the personalities that were involved. By including a number of climbers, McLane was able to present a clear reflection of what climbers like to climb across the spectrum of all the grades. Both sport and trad routes were therefore included in the book.

An additional step was to also evaluate what these climbing areas could offer in the context of the whole book. All of these steps helped McLane to gain more confidence in saying “yes” or “no” to the climbs under debate.

Filling the Pages

Aside from the challenges of actually choosing which climbs to include, McLane explained that figuring out how to get it all into one book is where the work really began.

“You have to put boundaries on the framework because otherwise you’ll never get to the end,” McLane said. So, as he was self-publishing, he first determined the number in order to give him a context for selection. He decided that the biggest influence on the relevance of the climbing area would be the number of pages it would get in the book. Small jewels, for instance, would get two pages while a climbing area as large as Skaha would get 26. McLane said that the predetermined pages were also strongly influenced by photographs. Alberta ended up with the biggest section even though it has fewer routes than Squamish because the photography is just so great in the mountains.

Building the pages of the book was a challenge all on its own. In addition to spending his life in Corel Draw, Adobe InDesign and other computer layout programs, McLane spend many hours sending documents to climbers familiar with specific regions to ensure the accuracy of the information.

In many cases he also had to get out into the crags to do some climbing of his own. For some climbs, the grade on a route was changed because McLane himself had done the climb and felt that the given grade was an unpleasant sandbag. One reason why he was very cautious is because of the wide range of grading applications between the different climbing areas featured in the book.

Ultimately, McLane felt that climbers would cut him some slack on grades because it is just impossible to have surgical accuracy on thousands of climbs.

A Time Capsule

With all this perspective on the work that goes into writing a guide book like Canadian Rock, Alpinist was curious to ask McLane about his insight into how these books stand the test of time. While this feature was first being authored, for example, Alpinist published a story about Sonnie Trotter’s Sugar Daddy (5.14), a new line up the Big Daddy Overhang in Squamish, British Columbia. The author of the article used Canadian Rock to gain some insight into Trotter`s new route. Instantly, this new guide book, fresh off the shelf, was outdated by Trotter`s accomplishment.

In response, McLane remarked that beyond the new routes that climbers establish, other factors, such as access issues, can void the information in his book. But what is in Canadian Rock already will not date very quickly and someone will still be buying that book 10 or 15 years from now, said McLane. As it is for any guidebook, the day it hits the streets, or the crags, is simply a statement of that moment.

Conversely, when a book goes out of print, McLane reflected that you would lose the community of climbing that surrounded that book. Often people don`t know this or appreciate it until it is not there. “This is a reflection on the difficulty of having that entire mountain culture there in one small package of a guidebook,” said McLane. “The entire known history and recordings are in this one singular object, but that object is very vulnerable to disappearing.”

But for now, Canadian Rock will be a new companion to many climbers hitting the crags in western Canada. And the book itself may generate a new community of climbers, now bonded across a region much wider than ever before.

Sources: Kevin McLane, Canadian Rock: Select Climbs of the West