The Incredible History of Rock Climbing as a Sport

With the explosion of rock climbing popularity, it might be hard to imagine that this sport got its official start less than a hundred years ago.

While the history of rock climbing can be traced back hundreds of years, the sport as we know it didn’t come about until the mid-twentieth century.

Join us as we trace rock climbing from its humble origins to its European birth and eventual rise to popularity. Along the way, we’ll also learn about some of the pioneers of the rock climbing world as well as some of the sport’s biggest landmarks.

Early Forms of Rock Climbing: China & France

It’s nearly impossible to tell when humans first began what may be considered rock climbing. Historical paintings and evidence suggest that humans have been climbing mountains since at least 400 BCE, but it’s likely the practice predates even this.

But rock climbing in its earliest forms wasn’t done for sport—it was done from necessity.

Records for early rock climbing efforts are sparse, but they grow in number starting in the fifteenth century.

The fifteenth-century Chinese painting Poet on a Mountaintop by Shen Zhou, for instance, depicts an elderly man standing atop a mountain (which can only be inferred that he climbed).

History of Rock Climbing

Likewise, Antione de Ville of France also contributed to rock climbing history by climbing two rock towers, Mont Inaccessible and Mont Aiguille, in 1492.

It was nearly three hundred years later that the predecessor to modern rock climbing was born. In 1786, climbers made the first ascent of Europe’s famous Mont Blanc. This nearly-16,000-mile ascent marked a milestone in modern mountaineering.

Over the next two centuries, mountaineering continued to grow in popularity, especially in Europe, but the practice had yet to develop into the rock climbing of today.

Importantly, at this time, the sport relied on the thrill of reaching a mountain’s peak—making it distinct from the practice of rock climbing. Indeed, the goal of mountaineering was to reach the summit, and it would be quite some time before these attitudes would change.

Rock Climbing Begins to Take Form

It’s no surprise that mountaineering would eventually give birth to the modern sport of rock climbing. As both sports involve the climbing of rock edifices, it was only natural that an eventual splintering of the mountaineering faction would occur.

Most experts agree that this division first came about in the late nineteenth century, as some mountaineers began to focus less on reaching the peak and more on the climb itself.

Scientific developments played a large role in the shifting of attitudes toward recreational rock climbing. By this point in time, mountaineering had become an appreciably popular form of entertainment, and researchers began to invest more time into developing rock climbing equipment.

As differing types of ropes and bolts made rock climbing safer and more effective as the nineteenth century waned on, mountaineers across Europe would bring about the official beginning to the sport of rock climbing.

The birthplace of rock climbing as a sport is generally attributed to the following areas:

  • Italy

Georg Winkler went to international acclaim in 1887 for bringing the sport of rock climbing to Italy as he climbed the Dolomites in Saxony.

Winkler’s actions sparked interest in rock climbing in his local area and helped grow the practice throughout Italy.

  • Great Britain

Great Britain may be seen as the official birthplace of the sport of rock climbing by some, as W. P. Haskett Smith, known as the Father of Rock Climbing, became a national phenomenon for climbing the Napes Needle in 1886.

Smiths’ accomplishment predates that of Winkler by only a year, but that’s enough to attribute the official birth of rock climbing as a sport to the British.

Rock Climbing Becomes Its Own Sport

Due to the accomplishments of Smith and Winkler, rock climbing began to be officially practiced as a distinct hobby throughout many areas of Europe. It would be another thirty years before the practice would start to gain any sort of traction in the United States.

Importantly, during this time, rock climbing began to consistently diverge from its parent sport of mountaineering. The focus of rock climbing focused more and more over the climbing itself, without establishing an end goal—such as reaching the peak—in mind.

Thirty years after the introduction of the sport of rock climbing into the United States, the practice had finally built enough of a reputation to distance itself from mountaineering in the public’s eye.

The 1950s witnessed an explosion of rock climbing popularity, as new grading systems, techniques, and equipment helped bring the sport to previously-unseen levels.

As public interest continued to rise across the globe, rock climbing became increasingly safer, as researchers worked to produce upgraded equipment.

Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, rock climbing saw a meteoric rise in popularity and respect. During this time, the sport underwent a period of rapid development, as techniques and practices were refined to hone the practice.

Because of the free flow of ideas and of the popularity of rock climbing, the first indoor rock climbing wall was built at The Ullswater School in England in 1960.

The production of this rock-climbing wall changed the face of the sport forever, as it gave aspiring athletes a new method of competition. Additionally, it provided a training ground for experienced climbers who looked to practice and hone their techniques in a safer setting.

Throughout the early 1960s, indoor rock climbing walls continued to spread through British schools, with the Meadow Boys Club building the first wall specifically designed to train new climbers in 1962.

At this point, competition among rock climbers began to heat up, as individuals now had new ways and incentives to practice their skills.

It wasn’t until 1964 that the rock climbing walls of today came to be. Prior to this, walls were more-or-less rudimentary and didn’t provide for the natural climbing experience of the outside world.

Don Robinson sought to change this in 1964 by creating a wall that would have extrusions to simulate the climbing experience individuals would find in the wild.

Robinson’s careful design incorporated a range of possible rock climbing motions into the wall’s build to make it more suitable for climbers.

The final wall, housed at Leed’s University, proved groundbreaking for the sport of rock climbing. Now, athletes could better train and stay in shape, while the sport of rock climbing itself had a game-changing new addition.

The importance of Robinson’s invention cannot be understated in the rock climbing world. Because he was able to start his own wall manufacturing company, Robinson helped distribute these newly-designed walls across Europe, creating a dramatic increase in European interest in the sport of rock climbing.

As it was since the early days, however, the United States lagged behind its European counterparts in the rock climbing movement.

Though rock climbing did see a golden era in the US during the 1960s and 70s with the Yosemite Climbers, it wasn’t until 1987 that climbing gyms were finally exported from Europe to America.

Yosemite Rock Climbing begins in the sixties

It was at this pivotal moment in history that sports climbing officially began.

With new walls and equipment being constructed to continually improve indoor climbing gyms, the sport of rock climbing began to take off. More convenient and safer than ever, rock climbing increased in popularity in the United States quite rapidly.

Not as quickly, however, as it did in Europe.

The European desire to participate in the sport of rock climbing continued to outpace its American counterpart, as millions across Europe looked to take part in a growing trend.

Rock climbing remains a popular sport throughout the West even today. With rock climbing ranges now available across the Western world, the sport continues to grow in accessibility and in appeal to people in many countries.

150 Years of Siberian Rock Climbing History deserves an honerable mention… (Free Solo)

Timeline of Major Events

Let’s recap what we’ve learned with a timeline of some of the most important events in the history of rock climbing as a sport.

  • Prehistory – People began climbing rock edifices as a means of transportation
  • 15th Century—Shen Zhou (1427-1509) paints Poet on a Mountaintop
  • 1492—Antione de Ville climbs Mont Inaccessible and Mont Aiguille
  • 1869—John Muir becomes the first to ascend Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park
  • 1875—George Anderson becomes the first to use bolts to climb Yosemite’s Half Peak
  • 1886—W.P. Haskett Smith climbs the Napes Needle in Great Britain to officially start the sport of rock climbing
  • 1887—Georg Winkler ascends the Dolomites to bring rock climbing to popularity in Italy
  • 1920—Rock climbing as a distinct sport reaches the US
  • 1960—The first indoor rock climbing wall is built in England
  • 1962—The Meadow Boys Club in England builds the first wall to train new climbers
  • 1964—Dan Robinson builds first modern indoor climbing rock wall
  • 1964—The first official rock climbing guide for Yosemite is released
  • 1970s—Robinson mass markets the walls, sending a craze through Europe
  • 1973—Modern sports climbing begins in Europe with Kurt Alberts redpointing technique
  • 1987—The indoor rock climbing gym comes to the US
  • 1987—Rock climbing as a sport more-or-less recognized internationally

Influential Figures in the Rock Climbing Industry 

The history of rock climbing is filled with several important and influential figures—but only a select few have been directly involved in its evolution to becoming its own distinct sport.

Though we’ve talked about some already, check out five of the most influential individuals in the field of sports rock climbing:

  1. W.P. Haskett Smith—Smith’s title as the Father of Rock Climbing in England cannot be ignored—nor can the fact that he helped spark the first rock climbing craze in Europe.
  2. Dan Robinson—Robinson’s work to build indoor climbing walls revolutionized the sporting aspect of rock climbing and helped solidify its sports status in the late twentieth century.
  3. Kurt Alberts—A climber from Germany, Alberts got his start in the early 1970s and became famous for leaving red dots along pitons he didn’t use on the mountains he climbed. This technique, which later came to be known as redpointing, is believed to have inspired others across Europe to follow competitively in his footsteps. In effect, Alberts helped highlight the sporting aspect of rock climbing and solidified its status as a sport in Europe.
  4. Emilio Comici—Comici doubled as both a successful climber and as an inventor. In the 1930s, he helped create some of the era’s most important climbing tools, such as the step aid ladder and the hanging bivouacs.
  5. Fred Beckey—A German-born American proved one of the most influential mountaineers of the twentieth century. With more first ascents than anyone on the planet, Beckey helped draw the public’s attention to the world of rock climbing, bringing in both media coverage and new, interested talent. His high-profile nature inspired several rock climbers to follow in his footsteps.

The Evolution of Rock Climbing Equipment

Early rock climbers had little in the way of protective equipment, making their feats all the more incredible.

Let’s take a look at a timeline that charts the evolution of rock climbing equipment from its early stages to the present day:

  • 1876—Jean Straton invents the rappel
  • 1910—With rock climbing now growing in popularity, new tools are developed to assist in climbing, including modern pitons and steel carabiners
  • 1930—Pierre Allen creates the first rubber-soled shoes for climbing
  • 1930s—Comici invents solid belays, multi-step ladders, hanging bivouacs, and trail/tag lines
  • 1940s—Steel pitons and aluminum aid ladders invented
  • 1960s—Yvon Chouinard creates his own equipment brand that would later become Diamond Equipment and Patagonia.
  • 1978—Climbing cams invented
  • 1980—Modern climbing shoes are invented

As you can see, by the 1980s, the essential equipment needed to go rock climbing had already been made. Since then, various companies have looked to improve the quality of the gear for safer travels for climbers.

The Bottom Line

Rock climbing has enjoyed fast-growing success as a sport since its humble beginnings in the 1880s. The hard work of dedicated and enthusiastic climbers throughout the twentieth century helped lay the foundation for rock climbing as a sport and also produced much of the rock climbing equipment used today.

With interest in the sport still growing, several climbers will continue to add to its already-rich legacy in the coming generations.  

Climbing Blogger

Zealous boulderer, gear geek and editor. Typically has more flappers than fingers on his hands. Occasionally enjoys the feeling of being scared of heights. Mostly prevents looking down too much, though, and cheers at the invention of climbing chalk.

One thought on “The Incredible History of Rock Climbing as a Sport

  • Hey! An excellent article! I am doing a thesis on climbing and would love to get my hand on your sources for these! Would it be possible to get them via mail?

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