History of rock climbing

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In the history of rock climbing, [lower-alpha 1] the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall (and multi-pitch) climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the 1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).


As a free solo exercise with no artificial aid or climbing protection, bouldering remained largely consistent since its origins. Single-pitch climbing stopped using artificial aid in the early 20th-century, led by Paul Preuss, and later by Kurt Albert, in so-called "free climbing", however, it would not be until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Robbins and Yvon Chouinard would bring free climbing to big wall climbing. Climbing protection was needed for single-pitch and big-wall free climbing, and was inserted into the route while climbing; this is called "traditional climbing". By the 1980s, French pioneers like Patrick Edlinger wanted to climb rock faces in Buoux and Verdon that had no cracks in which to insert traditional climbing protection. They pre-drilled bolts into routes for protection (but not as artificial aid); this became known as "sport climbing". It led to a dramatic increase in climbing standards, grades, and tools (e.g. artificial climbing walls and campus boards), the development of competition climbing (initially dominated in the 1990s by French climbers such as François Legrand), and the "professional" rock climber.

By the end of the 20th-century, the hardest sport climbs were often combinations of bouldering-moves, and some of the best challenges lay in free climbing extreme big walls; this led to greater cross-over amongst the three sub-disciplines. Leading climbers such as Wolfgang Güllich, Jerry Moffatt, Alexander Huber, Fred Nicole, Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, and Tommy Caldwell set records in several of these disciplines. Güllich and Huber also made ever-bolder single-pitch free solo climbs, while Sharma pushed standards in deep-water soloing; Alex Honnold's big wall free soloing was turned into the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo . In 2016, the IOC announced that competition climbing would be a medal sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Female rock climbing developed later in the 20th-century but by the 1970s and 1980s, climbers such as Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle were closing the gap to the standard of routes being climbed by the leading men. In 1993, Hill made the first free ascent of The Nose on El Capitan, one of the most sought-after big wall climbing prizes that had resisted all prior attempts. By the 21st-century, Josune Bereziartu, Angela Eiter and Ashima Shiraishi, had closed the gap to the highest sport and boulder climbing grades achieved by men to within one/two notches; Beth Rodden fully closed the gap for traditional climbing grades by freeing Meltdown, and Janja Garnbret became the most successful competition climber in history with 31 IFSC world cup golds.


The forest of Fontainebleau, in Paris, the birthplace of bouldering at the turn of the 20th-century. Fontainebleau Boulders -001.jpg
The forest of Fontainebleau, in Paris, the birthplace of bouldering at the turn of the 20th-century.

There are early documented examples of people "rock climbing" to achieve various objectives. The Le Quart Livre  [ fr ] records that in 1492, ordered by his king, Antoine de Ville used castle siege tactics to ascend Mont Aiguille, a 300-meter rock tower, near Grenoble, France. [1] [2] In 1695, Martin Martin described the traditional practice of fowling by climbing with the use of ropes in the Hebrides of Scotland, especially on St Kilda. [3]

The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, started mountaineering's "modern era"; however it would take another century until the fixed anchors of rock climbing appeared, including pitons, bolts, and rappel slings. [4] By the early 19th-century, "alpine rock climbing" was developing as a pastime; the tools of the alpine shepherd guides (early mountain guides), the alpenstock and woodcutter's axe (later combined as the ice axe). [2]

Although the action of rock climbing had become a component of 19th-century victorian era Alpine mountaineering, [1] a sport of rock climbing (i.e. climbing short rock routes as a recreational activity without any summit objective), originated in the last quarter of the 19th-century, and in four European locations: [1] [5] the Saxon Switzerland climbing region in Germany, [6] the Lake District and Peak District in England, [7] [8] the Dolomites in Italy, [9] and in the forest of Fontainebleau in France. [1]

19th century

Falkenstein, in Saxon Switzerland where routes above grade 6a (5.10a) were first climbed in 1906. Falkenstein in der Sachsischen Schweiz (Sachsen) Nationalpark.jpg
Falkenstein, in Saxon Switzerland where routes above grade 6a  (5.10a) were first climbed in 1906.
Vajolet Towers, Dolomites; Torre Winkler, named after Georg Winkler, is the largest tower (centre); and was the start of early big wall climbing 2006-Vajolet.jpg
Vajolet Towers, Dolomites; Torre Winkler, named after Georg Winkler, is the largest tower (centre); and was the start of early big wall climbing


Oliver Perry-Smith (right) freed the first 6a (5.10a) with Perrykante in 1906 in the Saxon Switzerland; a region where the world's first 6a/a+ (Sudriss, 1910), 6a+ (Westkante, 1918), 6a+/b (Kuniskante, 1921), 6b (Rostkante, 1922), and 6b+ (Talseite, 1952) would also be freed. Oliver Perry Smith.jpg
Oliver Perry-Smith (right) freed the first 6a  (5.10a) with Perrykante in 1906 in the Saxon Switzerland; a region where the world's first 6a/a+ (Südriss, 1910), 6a+ (Westkante, 1918), 6a+/b (Kuniskante, 1921), 6b (Rostkante, 1922), and 6b+ (Talseite, 1952) would also be freed.




Comici ritratto.jpg
Riccardo Cassin.jpg
In the 1930s, Emilio Comici (left) and Riccardo Cassin (right, once taught by Comici) pioneered big wall climbing tools and techniques, and set new "hardest-ever" routes in the Alps.



John Gill 1968.jpg
In the 1950s, "Father of Bouldering" John Gill, pioneered modern bouldering and set several new "hardest-ever" grades. [26]
Walter Bonatti 1964.jpg
Walter Bonatti's iconic ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru cemented his status as one of the greatest big wall climbers in history.


Royal Robbins 2 by Tom Frost.jpg
Royal Robbins led Yosemite's big wall "Golden Age" from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, minimizing use of aid, unlike his rival Warren J. Harding. [32]


Ron Kauk - Yosemite - 2011.jpg
John Bachar, in Tuolumne, above Yosemite, mid 1980s.jpg
By the 1970s, free climbing was a global sport with many leaders, including Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA, photo left and right)


Bild auf dem Gedenkstein fuer Guellich (retuschiert).jpg
Wolfgang Güllich became the world's strongest sport climber by the mid-1980s, and would set more new " hardest-ever" sport climbing routes than any other climber in history; and completely revolutionize climbing training techniques.


Alexander Huber (2009).jpg
Lynn Hill in Stavanger during world cup in climbing 2015 crop.JPG
Alexander Huber and Lynn Hill were two of the most dominant male and female rock climbers of the 1990s, setting new "hardest-ever" records in both sport climbing and big wall climbing.
Fred Nicole - Portrait Zoom.png
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, sport climber Fred Nicole revolutionized bouldering standards, and set several new "hardest-ever" records. [64]


Chris Sharma (USA).jpg
Josune Bereziartu 2012.jpg
Chris Sharma and Josune Bereziartu were two of the most dominant male and female rock climbers of the 2000s, each breaking new "hardest-ever" grades on multiple occasions


Adam Ondra by PAVEL BLAZEK 2.jpg
Angela Eiter.jpg
In the 2010s, Adam Ondra took on the mantle of "world's strongest climber" from Chris Sharma, with Angela Eiter the strongest female climber.
Alex Honnold - Trento Film Festival 2014.JPG
Tommy Caldwell (2015).jpg
Alex Honnold (left) and Tommy Caldwell (right) made two of the most iconic climbs in history at Yosemite, both of which became Netflix films


See also


  1. Rock climbing does not include general mountaineering or ice climbing-related disciplines such as alpine climbing (although it does include Alpine big wall climbing), or mixed climbing
  2. The two principal uses of pitons on an ascent are as protective safeguards (not used for actual hand or footholds - climbers refrained from putting weight on them except in the event of a fall) and as direct aid (used to physically assist in ascending a steep or overhanging slope rather than merely as protection). Climbers like Paul Preuss and Geoffrey Winthrop Young argued strongly against direct aid, but others of that era, including Hans Dülfer and Tita Piaz, advocated using such devices as artificial aids in order to climb otherwise unscalable walls. After World War I most European climbers chose to employ artificial aid when necessary. However, from the beginning days of rock climbing as a sport, through the 1940s, another form of artificial assistance was at times employed by teams of two or more climbers: the shoulder stand. From our current perspective, it seems odd that many of those climbers who strenuously objected to hanging on a piton found the shoulder stand to be quite acceptable. Occasionally, historical climbing photos, (e.g., ) illustrate this strategy, which arose from the perception that ascending a route was a team effort, with two climbers constituting one natural climbing unit. Something to keep in mind when reading of very early climbs in the 5.8 to 5.10 range.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Grade (climbing)</span> Degree of difficulty of a climbing route

In rock climbing, mountaineering, and other climbing disciplines, climbers give a grade to a climbing route or boulder problem, intended to describe concisely the difficulty and danger of climbing it. Different types of climbing each have their own grading systems, and many nationalities developed their own, distinctive grading systems.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers were focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free climbing</span> Climbing without using aid climbing

Free climbing is a form of rock climbing in which the climber can only use climbing equipment for climbing protection, but not as an aid to help in their progression in ascending the route. Free climbing therefore cannot use any of the tools that are used in aid climbing to help overcome the obstacles encountered while ascending a route. The development of free climbing was an important moment in the history of rock climbing, including the concept and definition of what determined a first free ascent of a route by a climber.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">El Capitan</span> Vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park

El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit along its tallest face and is a popular objective for rock climbers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Huber</span> German rock climber

Alexander Huber, is a German rock climber and mountaineer. He became a professional climber in 1997, and was widely regarded as the world's strongest climber in the late-1990s, and is an important figure in rock climbing history. Huber has set records in several different rock climbing disciplines, including extreme free solos, new hardest sport climbing routes, and bold first free ascents in big wall climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solo climbing</span> Style of climbing performed alone

Solo climbing, or soloing, is a style of climbing in which the climber climbs alone, without the assistance of a belayer. By its very nature, it presents a higher degree of risk to the climber, and in some cases, is considered extremely high risk. Note that the use of the term "solo climbing" is generally separate from the action of bouldering, which is itself a form of solo climbing, but with less serious consequences in the case of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chris Sharma</span> American rock climber

Chris Omprakash Sharma is an American rock climber who is considered one of the greatest and most influential climbers in the history of the sport. He dominated sport climbing for the decade after his 2001 ascent of Realization/Biographie, the world's first-ever redpoint of a consensus 9a+ (5.15a) graded route, and ushered in what was called a "technical evolution" in the sport. Sharma carried the mantle of "world's strongest sport climber" from Wolfgang Gullich, and passed it to Adam Ondra.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Type of sport

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Redpoint (climbing)</span> Type of free climbing

In rock climbing, redpointing means to free-climb a route from the ground to the top while lead climbing, after having previously practiced the route beforehand or after having failed first attempt. Climbers will try to redpoint a route after having failed to onsight it, or flash it. The first successful redpoint of a route, in the absence of any prior onsight or flash, is recorded as the first free ascent (FFA) of that route.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yuji Hirayama</span> Japanese rock climber

Yuji Hirayama is a Japanese rock climber specializing in lead climbing competitions. He won two Lead World Cups, in 1998 and in 2000. He is notable for being the first-ever climber to onsight an 8c (5.14b) route, and for his various speed records on El Capitan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wolfgang Güllich</span> German rock climber

Wolfgang Güllich was a German rock climber, who is considered one of the greatest and most influential climbers in the history of the sport. Güllich dominated sport climbing after his 1984 ascent of Kanal im Rücken, the world's first-ever redpoint of an 8b (5.13d) route. He continued to set more "new hardest grade" breakthroughs than any other climber in sport climbing history, with Punks in the Gym in 1985, the world's first-ever 8b+ (5.14a), Wallstreet in 1987, the world's first-ever 8c (5.14b), and with Action Directe in 1991, the world's first-ever 9a (5.14d).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Josune Bereziartu</span> Spanish rock climber

Josune Bereziartu, also known as Josune Bereciartu Urruzola, is a Basque rock climber. For a decade starting in the late 1990s, she was considered the strongest female sport climber in the world and is regarded as one of the most important female rock climbers in history.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jerry Moffatt</span> British rock climber

Jerry Moffatt, is a British rock climber and climbing author who is widely considered as being the best British rock climber from the early-1980s to the early-1990s, and was arguably the best rock climber in the world in the mid-1980s, and an important climber in the history of the sport.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Free solo climbing</span> Form of climbing without protection

Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of technical rock climbing where the climbers climb alone without ropes, or other protective equipment, only using their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can be fatal. Though many climbers have free soloed climbing grades they are very comfortable on, only a tiny group free solo regularly, and at grades closer to the limit of their abilities.

Beth Rodden is an American rock climber known for her ascents of hard single-pitch traditional climbing routes. She was the youngest woman to climb 5.14a (8b+) and is one of the only women in the world to have redpointed a 5.14c (8c+) traditional climbing graded climb. Rodden and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell were partners from 2000 to 2010, during which time they completed the second free ascent of The Nose. In 2008, Rodden made the first ascent of Meltdown, one of the hardest traditional climbs in the world and the first time in history that a female climber matched the peak of the highest climbing grades.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Adam Ondra</span> Czech climber (born 1993)

Adam Ondra is a Czech professional rock climber, specializing in lead climbing and bouldering. In 2013, Rock & Ice described Ondra as a prodigy and the leading climber of his generation. Ondra is the only male athlete to have won World Championship titles in both disciplines in the same year (2014) and is also the only male athlete to have won the World Cup series in both disciplines.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tom Frost</span> American rock climber (1936–2018)

Thomas "Tom" M. Frost was an American rock climber known for big wall climbing first ascents in Yosemite Valley. He was also a photographer and climbing equipment manufacturer. Frost was born in Hollywood, California, and died in Oakdale, California.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sasha DiGiulian</span> American rock climber

Sasha DiGiulian is a professional rock climber. She won the gold medal at the 2011 International Federation of Sport Climbing World Championships in Arco, Italy, for Female Overall, placed Silver in Bouldering and Bronze in Duel. Sasha won multi-year PanAmerican championships and is a three-time US National Champion. She has climbed over 30 First Female Ascents as well as over a dozen significant First Ascents, including "Rolihlahla" in South Africa, a Big Wall in Brazil in 2016 and The Misty Wall in Yosemite in 2017. In 2011 she redpointed multiple 5.14c (8c+), onsighted two of 5.14a (8b+) and four of 5.13d (8b). In 2013 she was the first American woman to redpoint Era Vella 5.14d (9a), and established the First Female Ascent of Alpine Big Wall route, Bellavista, 5.14b (8c). In 2015, she became the first woman to free climb Magic Mushroom (7c+), one of the most difficult routes on the north face of the Eiger. In 2017 she did the first female ascent of Big Wall in Madagascar, Mora Mora (5.14b/8c), climbing it with Edu Marin in what was also the second free ascent of Mora Mora.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geoff Weigand</span> Australian rock climber and road cyclist

Geoff Weigand is an Australian rock climber and road cyclist.


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