Jeff Smoot knows he’ll get some flack for this, but he says it anyway: “I think all things American climbing kind of begin and end with Yosemite.”
In many ways, he’s not wrong—those iconic Valley walls hold some of the sport’s deepest history and most indelible moments. But there’s a catch. “Yosemite had kind of this stagnant phase there for a while in the 80s, because it was kind of the last hold out against the incoming sport climber generation,” says Smoot. “From a local’s perspective, nothing really happened in Yosemite during the 80s.”
“From a local’s perspective, nothing really happened in Yosemite during the 80s.”
Of course, that’s not true and Smoot knows it better than most—he was there to witness the massive evolution of style, the constant pushing of boundaries, and the literal and figurative shit-slinging that helped usher in a new era of climbing marked by bigger, badder, bolder routes done within an ever-shifting set of ethics that would make John Muir blanch. And it’s all documented in his new book, Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14.
Smoot, a “semi-retired” lawyer and prolific guidebook author, felt the initial lure of the alpine in the early 70s after devouring Maurice Herzog’s Himalayan classic, Annapurna, as a teenager. He yearned to chase his own “heroic” destiny in the mountains, only he didn’t have the equipment, skills, or knowledge to do so. Nowadays, fresh climbers are baptized daily on chalk-streaked artificial walls across America, but the barrier to entry used to be much more significant.
“If you wanted to be a climber back in the 1970s, you really had to want to do that because it wasn’t convenient. You had to either join a mountaineering club, like the Mountaineers, the Mazamas, or the Sierra Club,” says Smoot. “Or you were an independent climber and had to find some other climber who either as dumb as you and would go out and try climbing hard stuff without really being prepared for it, or find somebody more experienced who was willing to put up with you and teach you things.”
Smoot did all of the above. He signed up for a climbing course at 15, then spent nearly every weekend kicking around the crag looking for fellow newbs to join him on the rope. Eventually his skills and climbing circle grew, and he was soon palling around some of the West’s most iconic climbing areas—Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Smith Rock—with a rotating cast of characters. Chief among these was Todd Skinner, a legend in the sport who notched free climbing first ascents around the world, from Trango Tower in the Karakoram to El Cap’s famed Salathé Wall.
Recognizing a bit of history in the making when he saw it, Smoot chronicled the era extensively, between his work for outlets like Climbing and Rock and Ice, and a short-lived website. Realizing that his collection of wild stories were something more than just that, Smoot spent twenty years working on what would become Hangdog Days, painstakingly filling that massive gap between American climbing’s “golden age”—that time in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s that was dominated by constant innovations in gear, style, and ethics, filled with often-clashing characters like Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, and Warren Harding—and the last few decades, when climbing has gone mainstream with mindblowing feats of perseverance and athletic achievement (see: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell).
Smoot effortlessly weaves his own experiences through a wildly colorful historical record filled with fistfights, sabotaged routes, and even death threats. Oh, and a story that involves literal poop missiles. What he details is an epic clash of us versus them—between the throwback purists who pull their rope between every attempt at a route and the new breed of goal-oriented climbers who will hang on gear, drill bolts, and sometimes even chip holds to create—and send—the route of their dreams, local ethics (and old timers) be damned. But beyond the sensational, Hangdog Days is at its heart a tribute to Skinner and the groundbreaking (and yes, sometimes controversial) ways he helped redefine the sport itself.
Of course, ethical conflicts and controversy still exist in the climbing world. It wasn’t all that long ago that Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk made headlines by chopping bolts from Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route. And more recent complaints center around the impact that the ubiquity of climbing gyms has on safety and crowding issues outdoors. But Smoot thinks that regardless of the sport’s ongoing clashes, his old friend Skinner would have appreciated the continued evolution of climbing’s modern era, overcrowding and all.
“He might be jealous and might want to find his own Dawn Wall somewhere and spend years working on it, which is basically what he was doing right up until the time he died,” says Smoot. “I know Todd would be psyched that this is all happening the way it is. He always wanted more people to have a good time climbing. That’s what he loved to do.”