Rock climbing was born out of the long tradition of mountaineering. It began with mountaineers needing to climb technical areas of rock in order to reach the summit. This led to mountaineers practicing technical climbing in more accessible areas. Eventually rock climbing began being viewed as a sport in it’s own right, rather than practice for mountaineering. The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786 is often considered the beginning of modern mountaineering. From there, it spread across Europe—leading to a race for the summit of the most prominent mountains in Europe. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that people began view rock climbing as an end unto itself. The sport independently arose in Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. It quickly spread elsewhere in Europe and America.
Much of the difficult early rock climbing was done in a style called “aid climbing” this involves using various tools to advance up the rock—this is in contrast to the style called “free climbing” which uses tools only as a form of protection, all advancement up the rock is done purely with the climbers body. The early 20th century saw Europeans develop many new climbing and safety techniques. These new techniques allowed people to climb formations previously believed to be unclimbable. These techniques took until the 1920s to reach climbers in the United States.
Climbing in the United States began gaining more widespread popularity in the 1950s, when a small group of climbers began competing to be the first to climb the big walls of Yosemite Valley. A party led by Royal Robbins became the first people to climb the face of Half Dome. Warren Harding (no relation to the president of the same name) became the first person to ascend The Nose of El Capitan—one of the most iconic routes in the entire world. This competition led to Robbins and Harding vehemently disagreeing about climbing ethics. Harding believed in doing whatever necessary to ascend the rock—Robbins, on the other hand, advocated “clean climbing” a style of climbing that leaves as little gear in the rock as possible. Robbins’ clean climbing ideals eventually won out.
The Golden Age
The 1970s brought in the golden age of Yosemite climbing. A new generation of climbers, nicknamed the “Stonemasters”, took Robbins clean climbing ideals and added a “free climbing ethic”. They spent decades racing to complet the first free ascent of routes up El Capitan and Half Dome. It took until 1993 for Lynn Hill to become the first person, male or female, to free climb The Nose. This is considered one of the most impressive feats in climbing history—one that has only been repeated a handful of times. It wasn’t until 2015 that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were able to free climb The Dawn Wall—an accomplishment that was widely reported in the mainstream media.
As the number of routes remaining to be freed has dwindled, bold climbers have taken to a style of climbing called “free soloing”. Free soloing is the act of climbing a rock face with no rope or protection. The most impressive of these free soloists, Alex Honnold, has free soloed many routes up the Yosemite big walls. Many of these routes were once thought impossible to free climb, but have now been climbed without ropes. These types of audacious accomplishments will continue to be improved upon by the next generation of climbers—ones who have been climbing since they were small children. Rock climbing’s explosion of popularity will lead to a rapid increase of increasingly bolder ascents as a larger pool of climbers compete for an ever smaller number of first ascents.