History of rock climbing

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Although the practice of rock climbing was an important component of Victorian mountaineering in the Alps, it is generally thought that the sport of rock climbing began in the last quarter of the 19th century in at least three areas: Elbe Sandstone Mountains in Saxony near Dresden,[1] the north of England including the Peak district[2] and Lake District,[3] and the Dolomites in Italy.[4] Rock climbing evolved gradually from an alpine necessity to an athletic sport in its own right, making it imprudent to cite a primogenitor of the latter in each of these three locales. Nevertheless, there is some general agreement on the following:

  • Heralded as a sport in England in the late 1880s after the (well publicised) solo first ascent of the Napes Needle by Walter Parry Haskett Smith, rock climbing attracted increasing numbers of participants. An early benchmark approaching modern levels of difficulty was the ascent, by O. G. Jones, of Kern Knotts Crack (VS) in 1897. Jones was attracted to the new sport by a photo of the Needle in a shop window in the early 1890s. By the end of the Victorian era as many as 60 enthusiasts at a time would gather at the Wastwater Hotel in the Lake District during vacation periods.[5]
  • Inspired by the efforts of late 19th century pioneers such as Oskar Schuster (Falkenstein, Schusterweg 1892), by 1903 there were approximately 500 climbers active in the Elbe Sandstone region, including the well-known team of Rudolf Fehrmann and the American, Oliver Perry-Smith; their 1906 ascent of Teufelsturm (at VIIb) set new standards of difficulty. By the 1930s there were over 200 small climbing clubs represented in the area.[1]
  • The solo first ascent of Die Vajolettürme in 1887 by the 17-year-old Munich high school student, Georg Winkler, encouraged the acceptance and development of the sport in the Dolomites.[4]

As rock climbing matured, a variety of grading systems were created in order to more accurately compare relative difficulties of climbs. Over the years both climbing techniques and the equipment climbers use to advance the sport have evolved in a steady fashion...

Some historical benchmarks[edit]

  • 1492 : Antoine de Ville ascends Mont Inaccessible, Mont Aiguille, a 300-meter rock tower south of Grenoble, France. Under orders from his king, he used the techniques developed for sieging castles to attain an otherwise unreachable summit. The ascent is described by François Rabelais in his Quart Livre.[6]
  • 1695 : Martin Martin describes the traditional practice of fowling by climbing with the use of ropes in the Hebrides of Scotland, especially on St Kilda.[7]
  • 1786 : The first ascent of Mont Blanc is often referred to as the start of mountaineering’s “modern era”. It took another century before history documents the use of devices similar to today’s fixed anchors: pitons, bolts and rappel slings.

19th century[edit]

Napes Needle, first climbed by W P Haskett Smith in 1886

20th century[edit]


  • 1910 : Hans Fiechtl replaces the attached ring on pitons with an eye in the body of the piton - a design used to this day.[6]
  • 1910 : Otto Herzog designs the first steel carabiner, specifically made for climbing.[6]
  • 1910 : Austrian development of rappelling.[6]
  • 1910 : Oliver Perry-Smith, M. Matthaeus, H. Wagner ascend The Grosser Falknerturm, Matthäusriß in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, 5.9.
  • 1910 to 1914 : Hans Dülfer suggests using equipment to ascend otherwise unclimbable rock, devises dülfersitz rappelling technique.[6]
  • 1914 : Paul Preuss, an advocate of Free climbing, coins the term "artificial aid" to describe the use of mechanical aids to progress up a rock. His rule number four (of six) stated: "The piton is an emergency aid and not the basis of a system of mountaineering."[6]
    Note: 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., [3]) 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.
  • 1914 : Siegfried Herford and companions climb the Flake Pitch on Central Buttress of Scafell (5.9), England's hardest climb at the time.
  • 1916 : Ivar Berg climbs Cave Arête Indirect at Laddow Rocks, Derbyshire, England, the first E1.[12]
  • 1918 : Emanuel Strubich ascend The Wilder Kopf, Westkante in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, 5.10c, the world's hardest climb at the time
  • 1919 : Sees the publication of Guido Rey’s book, "Alpinisme Acrobatique", on the "artificial" techniques utilizing the latest, easily available pitons and carabiners


  • 1920s - 1930s : Robert L. M. Underhill and Miriam Underhill (Miriam E. O'Brien) - One of the early rock star climbing couples. Robert is remembered for introducing European climbing techniques to the west coast of the US through an article in the 1931 Bulletin of the Sierra Club.
  • 1922 : Hans Rost and party ascend the Rostkante on Hauptwiesenstein (5.10d), Elbe Sandstone Mountains, the world's hardest climb at the time
  • 1922 : Paul Illmer and party ascend the Illmerweg on Falkenstein (5.10b), Elbe Sandstone Mountains
  • 1923 : Willo Welzenbach creates the standard numerical rating system for the difficulty of a route (Grades I to VI) [6]
  • 1925 : Solleder and Gustl Lettenbauer climb the Northwest Face of the Civetta in a day, a 3800-foot 5.9 route in the Dolomites, using only 15 pitons for protection and belays.
  • 1925 : Albert Ellingwood and a party of three climb the 2000 foot Northeast Buttress of Crestone Needle (5.7, 14,197 feet).
  • 1927 : Laurent Grivel designs and sells the first rock drill and expansion bolt.[6]
  • 1927 : Joe Stettner and brother, Paul, apply European techniques in the USA on their ascent of the Stettner Ledges on the East Face of Long's Peak.[8][9]
  • 1927 : Fred Pigott's experiments with slinging natural chockstones and later machine nuts, for protection at Clogwyn Du'r Arddu on Snowdon, directly led to the development of the modern Stopper.[6]










  • 2012: June 5–6, Alex Honnold, first to solo (roped) the "Yosemite Triple Crown " (Mt. Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome); it took him 18 hours and 50 minutes.[17]
  • 2012: Adam Ondra climbs Change, Flatanger, Norway, 9b+
  • 2014: January 15, Alex Honnold became the first person to free-solo El Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a climbing route in El Potrero Chico, Mexico.
  • 2015: March 7, Chris Sharma made the first ascent of El Bon Combat at Cova de Ocell near Barcelona, at a proposed grade of 5.15b/c, one of the five hardest routes in the world.[18]
  • 2015: March 17, Ashima Shiraishi climbed Open Your Mind Direct, in Santa Linya, Spain at only 13 years old. Originally rated as a 9a (5.14d), there has been some controversy over the rating due to a broken hold at the end of the route. Some claim the broken hold bumps the rating to a 9a+ (5.15a).[19]
  • 2015: Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are the first to free climb "Dawn Wall", Yosemite Valley, California. (5.14c[20])
  • 2017: February 26, Margo Hayes becomes the first woman to redpoint a 9a+ (5.15a) by climbing La Rambla at the Spanish crag Siurana.[21]
  • 2017: June 3, Alex Honnold free solos the 3,000 foot wall of El Capitan in 3hrs and 56mins[22]
  • 2017: September 3, Adam Ondra climbs Silence in Flatanger, Norway, suggesting a grade of 9c (5.15d)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Goldammer, Albert & Wächtler, Martin (1936). "Bergsteigen in Sachsen", Dresden
  2. ^ Craddock, J. P. (2009-09-07). Jim Puttrell: Pioneer Climber and Cave Explorer (First ed.). Matador. ISBN 9781848761803.
  3. ^ Jones, Owen Glynne (1900). "Rock Climbing in the English Lake District", G. P. Abraham & Sons, Keswick
  4. ^ a b "Bergakrobaten: Die Dolomiten und die Erfindung des Kletterns", Città di Bolzano, Bolzano 2006
  5. ^ Hankinson, Alan (1972). "The First Tigers", J. M. Dent & Sons, London
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Middendorf, John (1999). "The Mechanical Advantage". Ascent. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  7. ^ Martin, Martin (1703) "A Voyage to St. Kilda" in A Description of The Western Islands of Scotland Archived 2007-03-13 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 3 March 2007.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p A History of Free Climbing in America, Wizards of Rock by Pat Ament
  9. ^ a b c d Climbing in North America by Chris Jones
  10. ^ Muir, John (1912). "The Yosemite".
  11. ^ National Park Service. "Devils Tower Study".
  12. ^ Craggs, Chris (2009). "Western Grit", Rockfax, Sheffield
  13. ^ Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 6th Edition, The Mountaineers, Seattle, Washington, ISBN 0-89886-427-5. P. 550.
  14. ^ a b Sherman, John (1994). Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America. The Mountaineers Books. ISBN 978-0-930410-62-9. Retrieved November 24, 2018.[page needed]
  15. ^ a b c "Hard rock climbs - First routes of each grade". stanford.edu. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  16. ^ a b c Spirit of the Age by Pat Ament
  17. ^ Bacon, Sean. "Honnold's Biggest, Baddest Solo Yet". Climbing. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  18. ^ "Watch Chris Sharma Send His Hardest FA: El Bon Combat (5.15b/c)". Climbing.com. Cruz Bay Publishing, Inc. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  19. ^ "Ashima Shiraishi Climbs Possible 5.15". Climbing.com. Cruz Bay Publishing. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  20. ^ "Rock Climb Dawn Wall Free, Yosemite National Park". Mountain Project. Retrieved 2019-01-07.
  21. ^ "Margo Hayes repeats La Rambla, first woman to climb 9a+". Planet Mountain. PlanetMountain. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  22. ^ "Exclusive: Alex Honnold Completes the Most Dangerous Free-Solo Ascent Ever". 3 October 2018.

External links[edit]