Alaska Climbing

Review by Review
Wednesday 26th July 2006

Alaska Climbing by Joseph Puryear
pub Supertopo

$29.95 239 pages full colour paperback, also available as a downloadable PDF at $29.95 from

Everyone has heard the phrase “knowledge is power” well for climbers heading to the mountains “knowledge is survival”.  This guidebook, the first foray into mountaineering by US based publisher Supertopo, is a superb example of detailed expert knowledge presented in a modern, clear and inspiring package. 

I’ve always been jealous of the amount of information available for rock climbers.  Heading to the mountains has usually involved a lengthy detective trail, plenty of reading between the lines and a lot of luck. Of course that’s been part of the attraction but more than once, slumped on the glacier after a failed approach or naïve attempt I have wondered what it would be like to have a Rockfax for the Himalaya.  Supertopo’s new guide isn’t quite that covering only 30 routes in the Central Alaskan Range but it’s a revelation for information starved mountaineers. 

239 pages in all the guide covers the popular world classics such as Denali’s West Buttress and Cassin Ridge alongside less well known gems like Mount Silverthrone and the Mooses Tooth.  The routes featured cover the full range of difficulty from roughly alpine AD through to ED+ with a good selection of modest objectives for Alaskan first timers.  The choice of routes includes the superb granite alpine rock routes of Little Switzerland and the Ruth Gorge as well as the classic alpine mixed faces and ridges both modest day routes like the South West Ridge of mount Francis up to the big multi-day grandes courses on Foraker and Denali.

The lengthy introductory chapters cover all aspects of an Alaskan visit such as travel, supplies, where to stay etc with a good detailed section on Talkeetna and a superb look at weather - the most specific I’ve seen analysed for one region.  Further chapters on Mountaineering Health by Dr Jim Litch and Safety and Survival by Denali Park Ranger Joe Reichert, both brimful of good common sense advice, lead to the actual route descriptions. Here prepare to be blown away.  Initially I was a little disappointed to see “only” 30 routes described but when you see to what level the author has gone to in providing every bit of info for an attempt it’s amazing.  Take the legendary Cassin Ridge covered over 10 pages including 4 action photos, a topo diagram, a photo topo and a further photo topo detail of a tricky section.  Chapters in the Cassin description include history, strategy, specific hazards, gear, camps, approach, route and descent.  Puryear is well known as a veteran Alaskan climber and his experience from 15 years climbing in the range and eye for detail shines through in these descriptions.  Looking at the routes I’ve climbed Puryear rarely misses a trick including up to date information on hazards and an encyclopaedic knowledge of previous parties approaches and tactics.  At the end of each area chapter there are short descriptions of other recommended routes in the area and even hints on potential new route possibilities.

The other aspect that hits the reader immediately is the wealth of colour photos littered throughout the text, most of them the work of the author.  These are of an exceptionally high standard, illustrating the routes and situations but also inspiring, alarming in the case of the Hunter avalanche and often jaw droppingly beautiful.

The guide is available in traditional book form or as an instantly downloadable PDF from the website  The latter comes with 3 years of free updates – I’m not sure what this entails but it would be nice to hope this might include further routes or mini guides.  It’s traditional in a review to find criticisms to present a balanced approach but I’m struggling here.  Perhaps the only thing is the repro of the photos in my copy could have been a touch better and it would be nice to see the book available with the PDF disc as a package – as I’m sure most would like to print out topo information to specific routes and keep the printed copy as bog-side inspiration.

For British climbers the Central Alaskan range has always offered a notch more challenge than the European Alps and a good stepping stone towards the Himalayas but lack of information has led most to stay at home in Chamonix or stick with the over crowded West Buttress on Denali.  This guidebook blows the secrets of the range open and is an essential purchase for any aspiring Alaskan climber.  In its careful selection of routes, in depth detail and clear and precise advice Joe Puryear’s effort sets a new bar for Mountaineering guidebooks.



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