Rock climbing’s exposure to popularity, it might be hard to imagine that it got its start less than a century ago. Although rock climbing dates back hundreds of years, the sport as we know it didn’t begin until the mid-20th century. Rock climbing has always been the most interesting sport, so it’s time to have a ride on the Time machine!
Discover the humble beginnings of rock climbing, as well as its European birth and eventual popularity. We’ll also learn about some of the sport’s biggest landmarks as well as some of its pioneers.
Early Forms of Rock Climbing: China & France
It is difficult to determine when humans first began rock climbing. The earliest known paintings and evidence suggest humans climbed mountains as early as 400 BCE, but it’s likely the practice dates even further back than that.
However, rock climbing wasn’t invented for sport-it was invented out of necessity.
Records of early rock climbing efforts are sparse, but they increase in number starting around the fifteenth century.
In the fifteenth-century Chinese painting Poet on a mountaintop by Shen Zhou, for instance, a man is depicted standing atop a mountain (which only implies that he climbed it).
The frenchman Antione de Ville, who climbed Mont Inaccessible and Mont Aiguille in 1492, also contributed to rock climbing history.
Almost three hundred years after that, the predecessor to contemporary rock climbing emerged. It was in 1786 that climbers ascended Europe’s renowned Mont Blanc. The nearly-16,500-mile climb marked an important milestone in the development of mountaineering.
For the next two centuries, mountaineering became increasingly popular, especially in Europe, but it had yet to develop into rock climbing as we know it today.
During this time, the sport was distinguished from rock climbing by its emphasis on reaching the peak of a mountain. At the time, the goal of mountaineering was to reach the summit, and it would be quite some time before these attitudes changed.
The Birth of Rock Climbing
There is no surprise that mountaineering would eventually give rise to rock climbing. Mountaineering and rock climbing involve climbing rock formations, so splintering of the mountaineering race was expected. To know about types of climbing, check out this article.
This division first surfaced as mountaineers started to place greater emphasis on attempting the climb than on achieving the peak.
In the shift in attitudes toward recreational rock climbing, scientific developments played a significant role. In this era, mountaineering had become a popular form of entertainment, and researchers began to focus more attention on developing rock climbing equipment.
The different types of ropes and bolts used by mountaineers across Europe would introduce the sport of rock climbing as the nineteenth century came to an end.
According to general consensus, rock climbing as a sport originated in the following areas:
When he climbed the Dolomites in Saxony in 1887, Georg Winkler received international acclaim for bringing rock climbing to Italy.
Winkler with his actions sparked interest in rock climbing in his local area and helped grow the practice nationwide.
- Great Britain
Rock climbing may be considered to have originated in Great Britain, as W. P. Haskett Smith became a national phenomenon in 1886 for his ascent of the Napes Needle.
Although Smiths’ achievement predates Winkler’s by only a year, that’s enough to attribute rock climbing as a sport to the British.
Rock climbing becomes a sport
As a result of Smith and Winkler’s achievements, rock climbing became an established hobby in many parts of Europe. The practice would not gain any traction in the United States for another thirty years.
The sport of rock climbing gradually diverged from its parent sport of mountaineering around this time. During the modern era of rock climbing, the emphasis shifted more and more toward climbing itself, without a clear end goal in mind, such as reaching the peak.
A reputation was finally built on rock climbing in the United States thirty years after the sport was introduced to the country so that it could be distinguished from mountaineering.
Rock climbing popularity exploded in the 1950s as new grading systems, techniques, and equipment brought the sport to new heights.
As rock climbing grew in popularity around the world, researchers upgraded equipment to make it safer. Rock climbing experienced a meteoric rise in popularity and respect in the second half of the twentieth century and it was during this period that the sport underwent rapid development, as techniques and practices were refined to improve the sport.
In 1960, at The Ullswater School in England, the first indoor rock climbing wall was built as a result of the free flow of ideas and the popularity of rock climbing.
The development of this rock-climbing wall changed the face of the sport forever, giving aspiring athletes a new way of competing. In addition, it provided a safe setting for experienced climbers to practice and hone their techniques.
During the early 1960s, indoor rock climbing walls spread across British schools, with the Meadow Boys Club constructing the first wall designed specifically to train new climbers in 1962.
As a result, competition among rock climbers began to heat up, as individuals now had new incentives and ways to hone their skills.
Don Robinson sought to change this in 1964 by designing a wall that would have extrusions to simulate the climbing experience people would find in the wild.
During the wall’s construction, Robinson made sure to incorporate a wide range of possible rock climbing motions to make it more suitable for climbers.
This final rock climbing wall, located at Leed’s University, was groundbreaking for the sport. As a result, athletes could better train and stay in shape, while the sport of rock climbing itself had a game-changing new element.
In the rock climbing world, Robinson’s invention cannot be overstated. The fact that Robinson was able to launch his own wall manufacturing company led to an increase in European interest in rock climbing.
Nevertheless, the United States has lagged behind its European counterparts in the rock climbing movement since the beginning.
Although rock climbing saw a golden era in the US during the 1960s and 1970s with the Yosemite Climbers, it wasn’t until 1987 that climbing gyms were finally exported from Europe to the US.
This pivotal moment in history marked the beginning of sports climbing.
Rock climbing took off as new walls and equipment were constructed to continually improve indoor climbing gyms. In the United States, rock climbing is becoming more popular than ever as it is more convenient and safer than ever.
In Europe, however, it did not happen as rapidly.
As millions across Europe participated in a growing trend, European participation in rock climbing has continued to outpace its American counterpart.
Even today, rock climbing is a popular sport throughout the West. Rock climbing ranges are now available throughout Western Europe, making the sport more accessible and appealing to people across the globe. (Free Solo) 150 Years of Siberian Rock Climbing History deserves an honorable mention.
Major Events in Timeline
In the following timeline, we will examine some of the most significant events in rock climbing history.
- During prehistory, people began climbing rock edifices for transportation
- Shen Zhou (1427-1509) painted Poet on a Mountaintop in the 15th century
- During 1492, Antione de Ville climbs Mount Inaccessible and Mont Aiguille
- During the summer of 1869, John Muir became the first person to ascend Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park
- Yosemite’s Half Peak is climbed for the first time using bolts by George Anderson in 1875
- Rock climbing begins in 1886 when W.P. Haskett Smith climbs the Napes Needle in Great Britain
- Rock climbing becomes popular in Italy with the ascent of the Dolomites by Georg Winkler in 1887
- Rock climbing becomes a distinct sport in the US in 1920
- England builds the first rock climbing wall indoors in 1960
- A climbing wall is built at the Meadow Boys Club in England in 1962 to train new climbers
- Dan Robinson builds the first modern indoor climbing wall in 1964
- A rock climbing guide for Yosemite is published for the first time in 1964
- In the 1970s, Robinson mass markets the walls, causing a craze throughout Europe
- In 1973, Kurt Alberts’ redpointing technique introduces modern sports climbing to Europe
- The first indoor rock climbing gym opens in the US in 1987
- In 1987, rock climbing became more or less recognized internationally
Famous Figures in the Rock Climbing Industry
A number of influential rock climbers have contributed to the development of rock climbing as its own distinct sport over the years, but a select few are directly responsible for this development.
While we’ve already mentioned some, here are five prominent figures who are influencing rock climbing in sports:
- W.P. Hakett Smith – Smith’s title as the “Father of Rock Climbing in England” cannot be overlooked, nor the fact that he introduced rock climbing to Europe.
- Daniel Robinson-Robinson helped boost the prestige of rock climbing by building climbing walls indoors during the late twentieth century.
- Kurt Alberts-A climber from Germany, Alberts got his start in the early 1970s and became famous for attaching red dots to pitons he didn’t use on mountains he climbed. Redpointing, the technique he used later, is believed to have inspired others throughout Europe to follow in his footsteps. Alberts helped establish rock climbing as a sport in Europe by highlighting its sporting aspect.
- Emilio Comici was not only a successful climber, but also an inventor. During the 1930s, he helped develop some of the most important climbing tools of the time, including the step aid ladder and the hanging bivouac.
- Fred Beckey, a German-born American mountaineer, was one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. Beckey, who climbed more first ascents than anyone else in history, helped rock climbing gain media coverage and attract new climbers. He has inspired several rock climbers to follow in his footsteps because of his high-profile nature.
The Evolution of Rock Climbing Equipment
Climbers had little protective equipment when they began, which made their feats all the more amazing.
We can see the evolution of rock climbing equipment from its earliest days to the present day by looking at the timeline below:
- A rappel is invented by Jean Straton in 1876
- The popularity of rock climbing increases in 1910, resulting in the development of new tools, such as steel carabiners and pitons.
- An early rubber-soled climbing shoe is invented by Pierre Allen in 1930
- Comici invents solid belays, multi-step ladders, hanging bivouacs, and trail/tag lines in the 1930s
- In the 1940s, steel pitons and aluminum aid ladders were invented
- In the 1960s, Yvon Chouinard creates the Diamond Equipment company, which later evolves into Patagonia.
- Invention of climbing cams in 1978
- The modern climbing shoe is invented in 1980
By the 1980s, the essential equipment needed to go rock climbing had already been developed. Many companies have enhanced their gear since then to ensure climbers are safer on their journeys.
Since its humble beginnings in the 1880s, rock climbing has enjoyed rapid growth as a sport. Many of the rock climbing equipment used today was developed by enthusiastic and dedicated climbers throughout the twentieth century, which helped lay the foundation for rock climbing as a sport.
In the coming generations, several climbers will continue to contribute to the sport’s already-rich legacy.
Frequently Asked Questions ( FAQs):
When did rock climbing become a sport?
During the 1950s, rock climbing evolved from a recreational pastime to a sport in and of itself. First planned overnight expeditions were completed during the same decade. The first climbing competitions were held in the former USSR in the late 1940s.
Where did rock climbing first become a sport?
Rock climbing’s exact origins are unknown, as is the case with many other sports. At the end of the 19th century, rock climbing was seen as a recreational activity in France, Italy and England, though it played an important role in Victorian mountaineering in the Alps.
Who invented sport climbing?
In the early 1980s, a local named Alan Watts, in Smith Rocks, Oregon, first invented sport climbing.
What do rock climbers use?
To know what rock climbers use, you need to check out this video.