Hangdog Days—the Book, the Story Behind the Story, and a Guy Named Alan Watts.


April 23, 2019

The full title of the book says a lot. “Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14.” In it author Jeff Smoot weaves an intricate story around some of the characters he hung around with during with during the “hangdog days” era of arguments, fistfights, and even death threats that were part of the painful birth of modern sport climbing. At the center of the controversy, local Alan Watts, was one of the revolutionaries that pushed back against the climbing traditionalists of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to use another approach to get American climbing routes up to the coveted 5.14 grade.

Establishing routes traditionally was done from the ground up, with any necessary bolts placed on lead from a stance or with the aid of a hook. This worked great, for say, granite, as found in Yosemite. Smith Rock was another story with its steep faces forged from crumbly volcanic rock. In Yosemite, climbers had a moral objection to “hangdogging” and bolting on rappel because they went against the traditional ground-up ethic. At Smith, Alan realized that the blank faces could be climbed, and that the only practical way to protect them was to bolt them on rappel. He wasn't restricted by the ground-up ethic, and so climbing flourished at Smith while it stagnated in Yosemite. What were once called face routes became sport routes (established on rappel). Blasphemy to most of the climbing community back in the day.

By 1980, Smith Rock was considered pretty much climbed out. (Jeff) Thomas and his generation had snagged all of the low-hanging fruit, and unless you were going to start drilling bolt ladders up blank faces, it seemed everything worth climbing had already been done. There were still unclimbed cracks here and there, but they tended to be what one would now describe as “chossy”—filled with brittle, friable flakes and loose rocks. But Alan Watts was eager to establish new routes, so he climbed these lines anyway. Instead of following Thomas’s (traditional) ground-up approach, however, Alan would rappel down a potential climb, clean off the loose rock, and place any necessary bolts in advance of the lead.
— Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14

While a lot of history has been told on the period of the 70s, in such films as “Valley Uprising,” as well as from the ‘90s forward, Smoot saw a major gap in climbing story-telling—the beginning of American sport climbing in the 1980s. And he had tons of material to fill the gap from his freelance writing for Rock and Ice, Climbing, and Mountain magazines, and other publications over the years. Plus he was on the scene both in Yosemite, Smith Rock, and other hot spots during these eruptions against established climbing ethics, hanging with the “hangdogs.”

Alan Watts, rebel with a cause, at Smith Rock in 1986.  This image and header image courtesy of Jeff Smoot.

Alan Watts, rebel with a cause, at Smith Rock in 1986. This image and header image courtesy of Jeff Smoot.

The author is still waiting to digest the years of editing to read the final publication.  Image courtesy of Jeff Smoot.

The author is still waiting to digest the years of editing to read the final publication. Image courtesy of Jeff Smoot.

Smoot calls his initial manuscript the “Gone with the Wind” of sport climbing, a sweeping historical saga, covering all of the characters, and all the controversy in 230,000 words---his publisher insisted it be cut in half before they would even consider it.

After an seemingly endless cycle of YEARS of editing and rewriting, it wasn’t finished until after it was pitched, and then it was edited and rewritten again. Editors at Mountaineers Books were also sticklers for fact-checking—verifying dates, citing sources, etc. This led back to a pain-staking review of all climbing archives from the mid-1970s through the end of the 1980s.

The result? A 296-page memoir, dedicated to Todd Skinner, and anchored to moments of climbing history at Smith Rock, Yosemite, and elsewhere. The characters speak for themselves, from traditionalists like John Bachar and John Long, to rebels such as Todd Skinner and Alan Watts.

Included are the Brits, Aussies and others who came from “across the pond” to test themselves against the hardest routes and see what the Americans were up to at Smith Rock, including Jerry Moffatt and Kim Carrigan, who made a mockery of the Yanks by flashing/onsighting many of our hardest routes, sometimes in tennis shoes. For a while anyway. You’ll need to read the book to see how it all unfolded, but here’s a tease:

East Face  route on Monkey Face.  Image by SmithRock.com

East Face route on Monkey Face. Image by SmithRock.com

Alan Watts on  East Face,  Monkey Face in the fall of 1984.   Image by SmithRock.com.

Alan Watts on East Face, Monkey Face in the fall of 1984.
Image by SmithRock.com.

When I returned to Smith Rock in the summer of 1985 to rendezvous with Alan Watts for a trip to the High Sierra and Yosemite, the Aussies were gone and the place was insufferably hot and back to its usual neglected state...I arrived in the early afternoon and found the park vacant as usual—not a soul in sight except a tourist family huddled in the shade of tree in the picnic area, two resident magpies picking food scraps out of a garbage can, and a trio of vultures circling in the thermals...By early afternoon the next day we were pretty much packed and ready to leave but for one bit of unfinished business. Alan wanted to have one more go at the ‘East Face’ of Monkey Face...By the mid-1980s, several of the original aid routes had been free climbed, but the ‘East Face’ so far had not succumbed. Following an incipient crack up a vertical-to-overhanging wall, this A3 line was one of Alan’s long-standing projects, his current nemesis. Over the past year of effort, Alan had pieced together the moves section by section, bolted the line sparsely, and worked it to the point that his fingers were inflamed with tendonitis. Free climbing this route was his obsession, and he could not leave for Tahoe without giving it one last try.

”I don’t want to come back in two weeks and find out some hotshot Brit has come and climbed it,” Alan said. “I am NOT the best climber in the world, as you know.” He had watched Australian climber Kim Carrigan flash the first pitch during his visit that spring and had reason to be concerned.

”Kim gave it a good shot,” Alan continued. “If he’d worked on it for a solid week, I think he might have pulled it off. What if Jerry Moffatt shows up tomorrow?”

”I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” I said. “Who would come here? This is still a pile of crap as far as the climbing world is concerned. It’s just not on anybody’s radar.”

”It will be.
— Excerpt from '"Monkey Off My Back," Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14

When asked what his expectations are for “Hangdog Days” Jeff Smoot grinned through the phone and answered—“I wrote it, there it is, enjoy it.”

Adding, “While I hope it’ll become a New York Times bestseller and win a Pulitzer prize, in all sincerity I would love for people to find it entertaining and informative.”

We know you will.


Jeff Smoot has always lived close to his outdoor passion, although he admits he spends too much time behind a desk these days. He has written several outdoor guide books, including an updated edition of Rock Climbing Washington (Falcon) due out in Spring 2019.

He lives in Seattle, where he practices law as little as he can get away with and volunteers at Camp Long, supporting outdoor education and opportunities for disadvantaged and underserved youth.

Author, Jeff Smoot  Image courtesy of Mountaineers Books

Author, Jeff Smoot
Image courtesy of Mountaineers Books