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Electonic climbing guides

Yesterday Mountaineering Ireland released their Donegal Rock Climbing App. This is the first such guide to Ireland, and represents a big step for a large organisation like MI.

The original plan was to release a print guide, but that was shelved relatively recently. At this point the guide was already years late. But this isn’t unusual for an MI guide (and it’s probably fair to say any volunteer produced guidebook).

I spent a good bit of time thinking about the pros and cons of electronic guides when I was deciding what to do once the print copies of Bouldering Ireland ran out. In the end I settled for a downloadable PDF as (1) it was easy for me to generate from my existing InDesign files (2) it can be printed and viewed on any electronic device. A possible downside is that it can be easily shared, but I felt the risk/consequence of this were low, as climbers are a decent lot and the cost price was low.

So some pros and cons of the Donegal Rock Climbing App format:


  • Cheap to producePrinting books can get expensive, having said that MI tend to do reasonably large runs so their unit cost should be pretty low (especially relative to the retail price of their guide – €25). Either way they have to stump up thousands in cash upfront and the less popular books may take a decade to sell out (if they ever do). So producing an electronic guide means they don’t have large upfront costs, well maybe they do, I don’t know many people who would code an App like this for free, but lets assume even if they did pay a developer, it’s still a lot cheaper than printing.
  • Cheap to buyThe App costs €7 which is a lot less than the €25 the previous edition of the Donegal guide cost. This isn’t, however, a like for like comparison as the App is contains 1000 selected routes, while the guide was definitive (I don’t know off hand how many routes it contained). Also Iain Miller (www.uniqueascent.ie), the editor of the App, has made available PDFs of the definitive guides for free on his website (surely they should be on the MI site? Who owns them?). This begs the question why wasn’t the App made available for free, or a nominal cost?
  • Can be easily updatedAn App can be quickly and easily updated to correct mistakes or add new routes.
  • Doesn’t block the release of a paper guide in futureAs there isn’t a huge pile of books sitting in MI offices, the option is open in future to release a paper guide.
  • An electronic guide can do a lot of things a paper one can’tMaybe this is the big reason. A smartphone knows where you are, it can display charts, you can search it, there is effectively infinite space for photos, you could intergrate voting or feedback etc.


  • Most people won’t be able to use itI looked up some smartphone stats for Ireland (check out the very useful www.thinkwithgoogle.com/mobileplanet). In 2012 43% of the population had a smartphone. 39% of those run iOS, on which the App works (there are plans for Android version in the future). So just over 16% of climbers (assuming their smartphone habits are the same as the general population which could go either way I suppose) will be able to use this guide.
  • Smartphones aren’t reliableThey aren’t waterproof, and it would hurt to drop one in the sea. My battery doesn’t last much longer than a day, so if I was camping without a means to charge it I could be stuck after a day or two.
  • No legacyThis is an alternative take of the pro “Can be easily updated”. Paper guides exist long after they are made redunant by a new edition, while electronic guide are simply overwritten, the old version ceasing to exist. This means we lose the guide as a historical document, a representation of a particular place at a particular time. This is a pity I think. And while the wait between paper guides is often long, it caused a build up of excitement and a new wave of development and interest in an area often follows in the wake of a new guidebook. 

My take is that I would of like to see a different approach. A print select guide, with plenty of great photos and interesting asides, with downloadable PDFs (and/or print on demand books) of the more esoteric areas.

What do people think?