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.
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.”
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:
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.