Image by Clay Banks

A Brief History of Rock Climbing

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

Rock Climbing did not start out as a sport. It began as a component of Mountaineering in the Swiss, French, Italian, Austrian and German Alps by prehistoric peoples. 16th-century naturalists Conrad Gessner and Horace Benedict de Saussure were the first to scale the Alps to study them. In fact, Gessner wrote about his experience in the Alpine mountains as being "in the theater of the Lord."

I find it hard to believe one can find a more exhilarating experience than standing atop a 13,000 foot peak in Switzerland. It's no wonder the early climbers felt they were that much closer to eternity.... or God...or something divine.

Mountaineering is the set of activities that involves ascending mountains. mountaineering-related activities include traditional outdoor climbing, hiking, skiing, and traversing via ferratas. Indoor sport climbing and bouldering are also considered mountaineering by some. While mountaineering began as attempts to reach the highest point of unclimbed big mountains, it has branched into specializations that address different aspects of mountains, depending on whether the route chosen is over rock, snow, or ice or on level ground. All require various degrees of experience, athletic ability, and technical knowledge to maintain safety. It is still common to venture out and seek the summits of peaks, whether unclimbed or not; this practice is known as peak bagging. There are three areas cited as the birthplace of Rock Climbing and all three are in Europe. Rock Climbing did not take hold in the US until around the mid to late 1800s.

In the 1940s, climbing started gaining wider attention with feats such as John Salathé’s attempt at Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite Valley. During this 1946 attempt, he placed one of the first bolts in the park. In the 1950s, John Gill, now known as The Father of Modern Bouldering, led the development of bouldering. Meanwhile, Warren Harding led a 1958 ascent of the 3,000-foot The Nose on El Capitan, spending 45 days on the wall to reach the summit (the record now stands at 2 hours and 23 minutes!).

Modern Day Rock Climbing

Smith Rock, Oregon

Smith Rock is the birthplace of modern American Rock Climbing, and home to the sports' first 5.14-grade rock-face in the United States. Smith Rock State Park in central Oregon is where it all began back in the 1980s. A climber by the name of Allan Watts, and a few students from the University of Oregon were the first to regularly visit Smith to scale its dangerous routes. As the sport gained popularity, Smith Rock stood out as one of the most difficult and challenging climbs in the US. Of course, this attracted the best and most talented climbers in the sport. The years 1985 and 1986 brought two breakthroughs: Watts free-climbed the full East Face of Monkey Face at 5.13d, then probably the hardest rock climb in North America, and visiting Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Tribout established To Bolt or Not to Be, America’s first 5.14. “It was becoming clear that sport climbing was becoming a whole new branch of the sport. Smith is where sport climbing, in the U.S., really started to thrive.”

By the late 1980s and early ’90s, other major sport climbing areas began to surface, including Rifle in Colorado and American Fork in Utah. “The people that developed Rifle came to Smith Rock, saw what was going on there, and took those tactics back home,” Watts says. Today, Rock Climbing has proliferated to hundreds of places across the US. Major sites include:

Yosemite National Park, California

Red River Gorge Slade, Kentucky

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Zion National Park, Utah

Leavenworth, Washington Acadia National Park, Mt. Desert, Maine

Devil's Tower, Wyoming

Shawangunk Ridge, N.Y.

Today, sport climbing, the child of Rock Climbing is a legitimate sport, but it was not always that way. It has been outlawed in certain areas, some sites such as Yosemite don't allow "bolting." or the use of Pitons. The Piton also called a pin or peg) is a metal spike (usually steel) that is driven into a crack or seam in the climbing surface with a climbing hammer, and which acts as an anchor to either protect the climber against the consequences of a fall or to assist progress in aid climbing. Rock Climbers of the '60s were considered a "fringe" community of insane daredevils.


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