The Complete History of Rock Climbing

The history of rock climbing begins around 1890 and is broken down into five major periods. Initially reserved for mountaineers, it is developing as an activity in its own right. The first climbing competitions date from 1947.

This evolution is marked by at least two components:

  • the hardware evolves, providing more security and therefore more and more freedom;
  • Competitions that broaden the scope of practice and highlight for example the practice of the block.

Evolution of practice and level

  • 1890 – 1949: European beginnings

Rock climbing was originally an activity that mountain climbers did on their mountain ascents, but with the increasing difficulty of mountain climbing routes, they began to consider it as a means of training. They begin to practice climbing on excursions organized by the first alpine clubs created and climb the walls of the Salève in Haute-Savoie, the Fontainebleau blocks and the Lake District cliffs in England and Dresden in Germany East from the end of xixth century.

At the beginning of xxth century, climbing is growing and many new alpine clubs create particular Germany, France, Italy, England, and the United States. The level climbers progressing quickly despite the still very basic equipment and raw pathways in the 5th degree of scoring quickly opened. In 1903, Siegfried Herford climbed Botterill’s Slab at Scafell in England and Olivier Perry-Smith took Lokomotive Esse to Dresden in Germany. These two routes then reach the limit of the quotation system used at the time and which had been created by Hans Dülfer. Two years later Perry-Smith opens a new level of difficulty with the achievements of Teufelsturm and Spannagelturm Perrykante. These channels will be sorted later in the 6th degree, during the implementation of the rating system proposed by Willo Welzenbach 1925.

At the time, this level is considered the limit of human possibilities in the field of climbing. For years the climbing is practiced in very different ways in different countries, the Alpine clubs then meet in Chamonix in 1932 and found the International Union of Mountaineering Associations (UIAA) to coordinate the actions of the various clubs and manage the problems inherent in the climbing environment. During the xxth century, climbing is growing by the evolution of the equipment and performance of climbers, and increasing difficulties of climbing routes are open over the years.

  • 1950 – 1978: the American craze

By the end of the 1950s, climbing was very popular, especially in the United States, and many climbing rooms are open. In addition, the appearance of new equipment, such as expansion pitons, allows climbing in places inaccessible so far. The first American way in the 6th degree is opened in 1957 by Royal Robbins, Mike, and Jerry Sherrick Gallwas, scoring the ascent of the northwest face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This achievement is the first in a long series of American successes at Yosemite Park, but also in Europe. In 1962, Gary Hemming, Royal Robbins and three of their compatriots opened the American direct to the drus, then in 1965, the directissime always to the Drus. They also open many itineraries on El Capitan like Salathe Wall, (1961) North American Wall (1964) or Mescalito (1974), which are still today references of artificial climbing. At the same time, free climbing develops gradually, following the ethical concept of not damaging the track with too much material and to successfully climb without assistance.

With their experiences on the walls of Yosemite, Americans are advancing the escalation quickly and new levels of quotation are open. In1970, Ron Kauk climbs Astroman, the first track in 7th degree, then in 1972, John Bragg succeeds the overthrow of Kansas City first and finally in 1974, Steve Wunsch who succeeds Supercrack, the first. France is catching up quickly with Jean-Claude Droyer, who opened the first in 1976 and in 1977, and especially Patrick Berhault and Patrick Edlinger who, from the end of the 1970s, perform a large number of premieres at the Verdon and Buoux, as well as several solo ascents.

  • 1979 – 1991: the democratization of climbing

In 1979, Toni Yaniro, a young climber of 18 years, opened the 8th degree realizing Grand Illusion. However, this climb is poorly seen from the middle of the climb because of the method then, used by Toni: each test he leaves the rope snagging thus achieving many tests in roping. This practice, which is common today, is however not often used at this time, because the climbers swear by a very ethical approach of climbing. Three years later, in 1982, the report by Jean-Paul Janssen, Life at your fingertips, is broadcast in the program “Carnets de l’aventure” on Antenne 2 (now France 2). The documentary deals with the passion of Patrick Edlinger for climbing and free solo a great success in France and in the rest of the world up to be nominated for Oscars and promotes discipline to the general public. With this global recognition, climbing is growing more and more, supported by the appearance of spits and pads which allow increasing the safety during the climbs leaving the climber to concentrate more on the technicality and the difficulty of the ways. In addition, many climbing rooms are built in cities and scientific training techniques are developed by Edlinger and Alain Ferrand. However, the world of climbing remains mostly represented by men, except for a few rare exceptions like Catherine Destivelle who realizes the first female 8a in 1986.

During the 1980s, the listing exploded rapidly, especially with Wolfgang Güllich, a young German climber. Having achieved in 1982 the first repetition of Grand Illusion, the open track 8a opened by Yaniro, Wolfgang pushes the level again in 1984 and makes the first ascent of Kanal Im Rücken to Altmühtal which becomes the first 8b in the world. In 1985, he achieved the first Punks in The Gym, then in 1987 the first 8c with Wallstreet. But it’s the Englishman Ben Moon who makes the first track listed 8c + in 1990 with the rise of Hubble in Raven Tor in the United Kingdom. Finally in 1991, after long specific training, Wolfgang Güllich made the rise of Direct Action and evaluated his rating at 8c + / 9a. However many repeaters will eventually assign a rating 9a, making it the first channel in the 9th grade, which is currently the highest degree of difficulty climbing.

  • 1992 – 2000: the feminine escalation and the block

During the 1990s, the rapid increase of the rating calms down, and the world of climbing sees especially many climbers repeating the different routes opened the previous years. The only exception being Akira, a particularly difficult path made by Fred Rouhling in 1995 and that he evaluates to 9b. However, this climb has always been questioned by the climbing community, mainly because of the lack of evidence, even though no one has been able to repeat it. At the same time, with this accelerated increase in the listing and the opening of many new climbing routes at all levels, a new discipline is beginning to develop: the block. Offering a shorter but more technical and difficult climb, the block allows us to work certain sequences of movements without the constraint of the material nor the obligation to climb several meters of walls before arriving at the difficult passage of the way. Some climbers like Fred Nicole spend a lot of their time there, and the level is not slow to increase with the development of the discipline. The sites of Fontainebleau, Hueco Tanks or Cresciano, quickly become the essential places of this practice and see a large number of opening blocks quoted between 7B and 8A. But it is especially towards the small climbing site located in Branson in Switzerland that the world turns. First time in 1992, when Fred Nicole directed La danse des Balrogs, the first block rated 8B in the world, then a second time in 1996, where he succeeded Radja, the first 8B +

The 1990s are also marked by the arrival of women in the high level of climbing. The French Isabelle Patissier made many high-level climbs, especially in the gorges of the Verdon and dominates the competitions with the American Robyn Erbesfield. But it’s mostly Lynn Hill that will mark the climb in 1993, achieving the first free-climbing climb of The Nose on the wall of El Capitan at Yosemite. This 1,000-meter track, divided into 34 lengths, had never been carried out in this type of climbing, thus demonstrating the female potential in climbing. This feat was followed five years later by the first female climb of a track listed 8c, Onky Tonky, directed by Josune Bereziartu.

In November 2000, the difficulty in the block increases again with the rise of Fred Nicole of Dreamtime in Cresciano in Switzerland. It evaluates the rating of this block to which quickly triggers a controversy, including the number of movements that requires this block.

  • 2001 – 2013: The Next Generation

The first climbing competitions date from 1947. At that time, the USSR organized competitions which were the combination of a “route-planning” event, similar to the difficulty, and a speed test where the climbers were insured by a roping rope. These competitions were also mainly reserved for Russian athletes until the 1980s. However, the first modern climbing competition is held on July 7, 1985, on the cliffs of Bardonecchia in Italy. The organizers, Andrea Mellano, a member of the academic group of the Italian Alpine Club, and Emanuele Cassarà, an Italian sports journalist, agrees to the best climbers of that time to participate in a difficult event. Winners are Catherine Destivelle women and Stefan Glowacz in men. The following year, the success is even greater and the final, won by the French Patrick Edlinger and Catherine Destivelle, is followed by several European televisions and more than 10,000 spectators. The same year, France organized the first indoor competition in Vaulx-en-Velin in the Lyon suburb. In 1988, the UIAA officially recognized the circuit of World Series then, in 1989, the World Cup climbing difficulty and speed. Finally, the block makes its introduction in 1998 as a test, then officially the following year. Its become a specialized Hardrock sport.

After this boom, the competition will evolve over twenty years. First appeared outside, the meetings will rather be practiced in the room; this avoids several problems: denaturation of the landscape to accommodate the spectators, size taken to make the track homogeneous or cheat by identifying the path or even trying it beforehand. At first, the meetings are more or less episodic and there is no circuit yet. So the first world championships appear in 1991 in Frankfurt. The world cup circuit where several stages are played each season appears in 1989. During this period, in the early 1990s, the competition is more or less shy of some – especially at the level of the French Alpine Club; indeed the competitive spirit at this time is quite far from the “original spirit” that marks the escalation. Shortly before the beginning of the 2000s, the practice in the competition was structured, at the international level and national level (in France at least) and climbers cling to the regularity of the meetings. In those days people start and believed that rock climbing art.

In 2007, the International Rock Climbing Federation was founded to develop competitions at a global level. A little more than a year later, she was recognized by the IOC for a probationary period of two years, then definitively in 2010. On July 4, 2011, climbing was chosen with 7 other sports, on the list of sports that could integrate the Olympic Games 2020. At an IOC meeting in St. Petersburg on May 2013, climbing is not retained in the last three potential sports for the 2020 Olympiads. The main event rock climbing may be going to start in the olympic.

Evolution of the material

At the beginning of the sport, the first climbers use hemp ropes to ensure their ascent. The Alpine heritage will also see them using the “big” shoes. The first carabineer appears at the beginning of the century but will be improved by Pierre Allain. He introduces the first slipper with a soft sole. In the 1970s, slippers with rubber soles appeared.

The first synthetic ropes and the use of shoulder belts will also improve safety during belaying. The helmets are democratized towards the end of the second half of the 20th century. Also, the invention of crash pads revolutionizes the practice of the block by providing relative safety while increasing the possible height of ascent.

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