“The House of Memory” by John Freely, reviewed by Gregory Crouch for the WSJ

Here’s “Beholding Hell Before Age 20,” my review of The House of Memory by John Freely in The Wall Street Journal on March 16, 2017.



(Clicking the picture below should enlarge the story to reading size.)

Here’s the full list of the 27 books I’ve reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, and others.

More on the Electoral College

Building on yesterday’s post about why we have the Electoral College.

This comes out of the Electoral College Facebook thread I started. (Lots of interesting commentary within.)

I get that people don’t think it’s fair that Presidential votes in one state seem to be worth more than Presidential votes from another state. But guess what? IT’S TRUE! They are. In order to help illustrate why, I’m going to post a grossly oversimplified string of arguments from the Constitutional Convention when the framers were trying to settle on a system of government that would make it possible for 13 individual, independent states to surrender power to a federal government:

BIG STATES: We should elect presidents based on a nationwide popular vote.

SMALL STATES: NO! We don’t have many people. That would  subject us to the tyranny of the big states. All states are equal, we should elect presidents based on one vote per state.

BIG STATES: NO! We have many more people and will contribute much more to the national treasury. That would subject us to the tyranny of the small states.

ALL STATES: What do we do? It is clearly in all of our best interests if we can form one unified country so that we can live in peace, secure the blessings of liberty, and enjoy the incredible benefits of free commercial intercourse between us. Perhaps we can find some compromise that allows us to join together?

And after much discussion, they design a system called the Electoral College that gives the votes of the small states a slightly larger weighting in the national presidential election and the big states a slightly smaller weighting.

SMALL STATES: Well, this is still kind of a drag for us because we still don’t have a very big say in Presidential elections, but it’s better than it was and the BENEFITS OF UNION should be pretty huge. I guess we can live with this.

BIG STATES: Yeah, it’s kind of a drag for us, too, but because we still have the great preponderance of Electoral College votes and the BENEFITS OF UNION greatly outweigh the cost to us of a decrease in the weight of our votes in national presidential elections, we can live with it, too.

ALL STATES: Great! Let’s ratify this thing.

The Electoral College is part of THE ORIGINAL COMPROMISE that made it possible for 13 independent states to come together and form THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

Feel free to revise it–if you can get three-quarters of the states to agree.

So how does the Electoral College do that, and how large are the distortions caused? My friend Anna Birdy Ball asked that question. She lives in South Dakota, I live in California, and therein lies an excellent example:

First, the how:

Each state gets one Electoral College vote for each member it has in the United States Congress. So, 2 senators from each state, which every state gets regardless of its population, plus the number of members of the House of Representatives as determined by the US Census conducted every ten years.

Since every state has at least one member of the House of Representatives and two senators, no state has less than 3 votes in the Electoral College (including Washington, DC).

The key to bumping up the influence of the small states (and diluting the power of the big states) in the EC is those senatorial votes because the +2 given to the small states is much more proportionally significant than the +2 for the large states.

Back to Anna’s example (using statistics from the 2012 election):

There are 538 Electoral votes in the United States. South Dakota has three of them. So South Dakota has a .0055 say in the Presidential election. (Six tenths of a percent, rounding up; note that this is a lot less than the 1 vote per state method, which would give SD a 2% say.)

In  2012, SD had 528,621 registered voters, out of 146,311,000 registered voters in the United States, which means that South Dakota would have had a .0036 say in a popular vote Presidential election. (Four-tenths of a percent, rounding up.)

As for California, we had 11.8% of the registered voters (again 2012), and our 55 EV’s were worth 10.2% of the EC total. And since 270 EC votes are all that are needed to push a candidate over the top, California has fully a 20% say in the election of a President. (Holy cow, that’s a lot! Even if our per capita votes are weighted slightly less than those in South Dakota and other small states.)

So South Dakota electoral votes are worth 33.33% MORE in the Electoral College system than they would be in a popular vote presidential election (the difference between 4 tenths of a percent and 6 tenths of a percent), and California’s votes are worth about 10% LESS than they would be in a nationwide popular vote election. Which feels just about right in terms of what is the maximum “bump” large states would be willing to allow small states to have and the maximum “dip” they would allow their own votes to suffer because they still have a relatively large share of the national total.

And even with the distortions intentionally caused by the Electoral College, California has more than 10% of the say and South Dakota has less than 1%.

(Hopefully, I’ve done the maths correctly.)

BTW: Alaska, North Dakota, Washington, DC, Vermont, and Wyoming all have smaller populations that South Dakota. They are all 3 EV places, so their electoral votes will be proportionally more “heavy” than South Dakota’s in the above example.

The Electoral College–why we have it

In my social media feeds this morning, I’ve seen a lot about how we should replace the Electoral College system for electing Presidents with “the popular vote.” It’s point #5 in Michael Moore’s “Morning After” prescription for Democrats.

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that the electoral college system was an essential part of the plan that got the original 13 states to surrender some of their sovereignty to the federal government and ratify the Constitution of the United States. There is NO WAY the small states would have agreed to a popular vote system in 1787 -1789 and there is NO WAY they would agree to it today–its practical effect would be to disenfranchise them in presidential elections.

No electoral college system–no Constitution–no United States of America, simple as that.

Look at our name: we are not “America.”

We are “The United States of America.” The electoral college system (or something like it) was (and is) the only compromise acceptable to both small and large states. Getting rid of a system expressly designed to preserve the voice of small states in Presidential elections is such a non-starter that it isn’t worth wasting energy over.

(For what it’s worth, Abraham Lincoln, often considered our best President, received 39.9% of the popular vote in 1860. You can look it up. They were almost perfectly distributed to translate into electoral college votes.)

“Valley Walls” by Glen Denny, reviewed by Gregory Crouch for the WSJ

Wall Walls cover copyHere’s “Scaling the Walls of Yosemite,” my review of Valley Walls: A Memoir of Climbing & Living in Yosemite by Glen Denny in the September 3 & 4, 2016 issue of The Wall Street Journal.



Here’s a screen shot of the review online (click on the image to link to the review on the WSJ website):

Valley Walls copyThis is the 26th book I’ve reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR Books, and others.

Here’s the full list of books I’ve reviewed.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Ryan Jennings

It’s a story I wish I’d never had to write, or not this one, because Ryan Jennings was a great story, but here it is, “Life Interrupted,” in the new issue of Rock & Ice magazine (October 2016, No. 237) about hardman, family man, and all around great guy Ryan Jennings, with whom I once spent a long weekend at Devils Tower in 2002. Sadly, this past December, Ryan was killed by the collapse of an ice pillar outside of Redstone, Colorado, leaving behind a wife, Robin, two children, Beck and Brooke, a mother and father, two sisters, a host of friends and climbing partners, and one of the best alpine-style first ascents ever accomplished in North America.


Few people have ever known how to get so much love, friendship, and outrageous enjoyment out of life as Ryan Jennings. By the time we lost him, Ryan had probably forgotten more about having fun than most of us will ever learn.


My profound thanks and sympathies go out to Robin Jennings, Alex Jennings, Kevin Cooper, and Robbie Williams, all of whom gave generously of their time and emotional honesty. Without their help, I couldn’t have written this story. Alison Osius and Duane Raleigh of Rock & Ice also deserve thanks for their editorial contributions and guidance.

Filmmaker Tyler Young brought Ryan and I together that weekend we spent  at Devils Tower to make a short film for National Geographic about George Hopkins, a record-setting parachutist who, in October 1941, landed on top of Devils Tower to win a $50 bet–and then couldn’t get down. In a classic piece of all-American weirdness, the ten day effort to rescue Hopkins shared headlines all over the country with stories about the searing heatwave baking the East Coast, the Dodgers battling the Yankees in the World Series, and Operation Typhoon, the German Army’s assault on Moscow. (Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a story about the rescue, “The Sensational Hopkins Affair,” that appeared in Rock & Ice in June 1997, No. 79.)

Click on the photo below to check out the video Tyler made about the rescue that weekend:

Newreel copy

There are a few nice shots of Ryan in Tyler’s video, some of me huffing and puffing up the classic Durrance Route, and some fantastic newsreel footage of the rescue, including a clip of Hopkins actually landing on the summit. (Just after 2:30.)

One episode in “Life Interrupted” deals with Ryan and Kevin Cooper climbing Shaken, Not Stirred above the Ruth Gorge of the Alaska Range–and nearly getting killed on the way down. There’s probably a bit of a connection between that climb and our Devils Tower weekend. Jim Donini and I had made Shaken, Not Stirred’s first ascent a few years before and I remember talking to Ryan about it while we were lounging around on the column tops at the Tower waiting for Tyler to set up his next shot. I posted photos and stories from the first ascent of Shaken, Not Stirred in 2013. Great route.



(On the left, that’s Kevin Cooper’s 2003 photo of Ryan a few feet below Englishman’s Col at the end of the route; on the right, Jim Donini in 1997. Photos taken from close to the same spot.)

And since a few climbers will probably read this post, here’s one about the first ascent of another classic alpine route Jim and I did together, this one in Patagonia: A Fine Piece, pictures and stories from the first ascent.

I tried to talk Ryan into climbing that one, too. ;-)

This didn’t make it into the Rock & Ice story, but this is BY FAR my best Ryan Jennings story, one I’ve been threatening to write for 12 years…

Gregory Crouch - Right Mate, Let's Get On With It

It has happened before…

… Fortunately, in those days, the good citizens of San Francisco took it as an enormous joke.

Emperor Norton copy“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton… declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the first day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.”


Norton I, Emperor of the United States
(San Francisco Bulletin, 17th September, 1859)

Here’s his wikipedia entry

The Sharp End by Katie Ives, featuring Enduring Patagonia

Delighted to see a discussion of Enduring Patagonia right at the beginning of “The Sharp End,” Alpinist editor Katie Ives’s front-of-the-book editorial, in her summer 2016 issue (No. 54).

(Click on the image to read it enlarged.)

FullSizeRenderMighty fine to share the page with Alex Honnold, Colin Haley, Kelly Cordes, and Rolando Garibotti. I’d love to learn what Alex Honnold thought of his EP read. What he and Colin have accomplished in Patagonia in recent seasons leaves me slack-jawed in astonishment. (.oot, nytaroB gerG yb otohp a fo lleH)

EP Kindle edition
Kindle edition
Enduring Patagonia paperback

“Continental Divide” by Maurice Isserman, reviewed by Gregory Crouch

Continental Divide Cover copyHere’s “Climb Every Mountain,” my review of Continental Divide: A History of American Mountaineering by Maurice Isserman in the May 1, 2016 issue of The New York Times Book Review.



Here’s a screen shot of the review online (click on the image to go to the review on the NYT website):

Continental Divide review copy

David M. Shribman, executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, reviewed Continental Divide for The Wall Street Journal in “High Society.” Very different POV than mine.

Here’s the full list of books I’ve reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR Books, and others. (This is the 25th.)