What is the history of rock climbing?

Back in the day, anyone who tended a flock like this likely spent time schlepping up mountainsides. See more pictures of Italy.
©iStockphoto.com/seraficus

Tom Cruise's opening sequence in the movie "Mission: Impossible II" is a pretty good example of what people picture when they imagine extreme recreational rock climbing. But folks haven't always considered scaling vertical rock faces as smashing good fun.

Throughout history, people have been faced with obstacles. Sometimes the obstacles came in the form of repressive dictators or lean growing seasons, but at other times, they were direct and tangible -- take mountains, for example. Before cars, trains and airplanes, if someone wanted to travel from one side of a mountain range to the other, it was a lot trickier than simply navigating sharply winding roads. Welcome to the world of hoofing it.

Speaking of hooves, to uncover early incarnations of mountaineering you simply need to determine which historic professions would have required people to putter around near the summits of mountains. Shepherds are a good example: In order to follow their flocks of sure-footed sheep, shepherds were often forced to cover terrain that others would have bypassed for flatter lands. By doing so, they picked up the basic skills needed to manage the steep slopes, as well as developed the rudimentary gear to make the task easier.

Pinpointing the exact inception of any sport is tricky, however, especially when you figure in the hometown pride factor -- athletic enthusiasts love having a claim to fame, and similar ideas often develop simultaneously in separate locales, leading to competing claims. Plus, there's the matter of determining what event truly counts as a definitive start. For instance, when does a shepherd's trek turn into sport? When he leaves the flock to the care of his sheepdog and ventures off for little side jaunt? There's certainly been a lot of gray area as rock climbing evolved and entered its current recreational incarnation. Further complicating the question are others: What exactly is rock climbing? And how closely is it related to mountaineering? What different styles can it be broken down into?

But this isn't the history of some ponderous intellectual game like chess; this is rock climbing! A sport renowned for its extreme physical challenges and surging adrenaline rushes. On the next page, we'll take a look at some of the early adventurers in the world of rock climbing.

Rock Climbing as a Sport

Rock climbing has kindled the  passion of many over the years.
Rock climbing has kindled the  passion of many over the years.
©iStockphoto.com/Abenaa

Two men sometimes cited as establishing mountaineering's modern age are Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat -- score one for the French -- who scaled all 15,771 feet (4,807 meters) of Mont Blanc in 1786. Soon others followed their lead, scrambling all over the Alps trying to master the lofty summits.

Mountaineering began to capture the imaginations of many at this point, although it wasn't until 1857 that the first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club, came along. But the club's formation still isn't typically considered the dawn of rock climbing as a sport of its own. After all, while climbing a mountain often involves some vertical ascents, there's an awful lot of hiking in there, too.

In order to tackle the cliffs that were encountered during expeditions, mountaineers would often practice on smaller mountains and rock faces to build up their endurance and develop their abilities before setting off for the big leagues. Eventually, enthusiasts increasingly began to enjoy these smaller climbs in and of themselves. There was less danger than on full-blown mountain peaks and less downtime in between thrilling climbs. Plus, suitable ascents were easier to come by since not everyone who wants to get into rock climbing lives within driving distance of the Matterhorn or Mt. Kilimanjaro.

John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, was an early fan of rock climbing. Story has it that in 1869 he was herding some sheep in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite when he meandered over to Cathedral Peak and decided to take a crack at it. Modern rating systems are a matter of endless controversy among rock climbers, but to give you a basic idea, today the climb is generally considered to be around a Class 4 (out of 5) and is not often tackled without a rope.

Over time, rock climbing started to be seen as a pleasurable athletic pastime. From the early activities of pioneering aerial daredevils, it has evolved to encompass a whole slew of rock-related recreation. Recreational rock climbing blossomed in the early 20th century but really came into its own in the middle of the 20th century. A range of developments emerged as it became more popular as a sport. For example, various grading systems were created to rate the difficulty levels of different climbs. Climbing styles were developed based on conditions like the terrain, the use (or lack thereof) of equipment and whether the climbing was done indoors or outdoors.

On the next page get more links to read about the thrill of rock climbing, as well as its perils.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

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  • "Why go Rock Climbing." ABC of Rock Climbing. (12/11/2009)http://www.abc-of-rockclimbing.com/whygorockclimbing.asp
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  • Yager, Ken. "A Short History of Yosemite Rock Climbing." Yosemite Climbing Association. (12/11/2009) http://yosemiteclimbing.org/content/short-history-yosemite-rock-climbing