Rock Climbing

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Rock climbing is the sport and recreation activity of climbing cliffs; it is closely related to ice climbing—climbing steep snow and ice and frozen waterfalls. Both activities developed in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, in the second half of the nineteenth century. They were seen as off-season practice by alpinists for the summer season of mountain climbing—especially in the European Alps. Rock and ice climbing skills were necessary for the more difficult peaks, and the more difficult routes to the summits. The mountain cliffs, and occasionally the sea cliffs of Britain provided off-season recreation as well as valuable training.

These activities began to become recreational and sporting activities in their own right by the end of the nineteenth century. However, there were more practical precedents for such pursuits. Historically, cliffs were climbed to reach birds' eggs for food, to seek refuge from pursuers, and as part of the process of prospecting for minerals. Scientific endeavors led to more systematic rock climbing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as naturalists searched for botanical life, birds' eggs, and insect specimens, and geologists searched for rock samples and fossils. Some of these pre-recreational ascents were recorded. For example, in 1850 two prospectors, Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph, climbed what is now known as Trap Dike Route on Mount Colden in the Adirondacks.

As with mountain climbing, those engaged in rock climbing in the United States drew originally on European precedent, but the activity developed mostly in isolation. Thus, while techniques for using the rope as a safety device were evolving in Europe, U.S. climbers tended to regard using a rope as a liability, or as unsporting, or they would attempt to figure out its use while engaged in a climb. Guy and Laura Waterman discovered, and in Yankee Rock and Ice reproduced, George Flagg's cartoons of a 1910 ascent of the Pinnacle in Huntington Ravine (White Mountains, New Hampshire). They show Flagg with Paul Bradley, Mayo Tollman, and a Mr. Dennis, in "scenes of two men hauling a less able companion up a steep section and of one man holding his partner roped on the edge of a platform, heaving boulders into the abyss" (Mellor, p. 25).

Climbing Games

Rock climbing and ice climbing are clearly dangerous activities. Without safety measures, the possibility of a fall leading to serious injury or death is ever-present. In order to understand the development of rock climbing in the United States, it is important to understand how a climb occurs, and how a rope is used. Using the rope for safety in climbing involves a system known as belaying, of which there are two types: the fixed belay, and the running belay. Although there are variations on this, a roped climb (on rock or ice) occurs with two climbers, one attached to each end of a rope, moving one at a time. The first climber sets off, reaches a point where it is possible to make an attachment to the rock or ice (a fixed belay), and takes in the slack rope (keeping the rope relatively tight) between the two climbers as the second person climbs. The safety of the second climber is assured in the case of a fall because the first climber is able to hold the second without being pulled off, and before the second falls any distance.

If a climb is longer than the length of a rope (normally about fifty meters), the process continues as the second climber then takes a fixed belay, and pays out the rope to the leader climbing the next "pitch". Although the second climber is usually relatively safe, a fall by the lead climber is much more serious. On the first pitch the leader could hit the ground; on subsequent pitches the leader is likely to fall at least as far below the second as had been climbed above. To prevent this, the leading climber may be protected from a long fall by a series of running belays or "protection"—snap links (karabiners) are attached to the rock or ice by a variety of means, and the moving rope runs through them. Proper belaying techniques by the second climber will ensure that a leader will only fall as far below a running belay as had been climbed above it.

If protection is only used for safety, the technique is known as "free" or "clean" climbing. When protection is actually used by the climber to assist progress, the technique is known as "aid" or "artificial" climbing. Between these two extremes there are numerous micro-variations and various meanings associated with particular styles of climbing. The informal, often local, and continually modified (by rock climbers themselves) sets of rules that govern how rock climbs are to be accomplished are known as "ethics."

In Lito Tejada-Flores' 1967 article, "Games Climbers Play," he points out that "climbing is not a homogeneous sport, but rather a collection of differing (though related) activities [games], each with its own adepts, distinctive terrain, problems and satisfactions, and perhaps most important, its own rules" (p. 23). In his hierarchical typology of climbing games, the first four relate specifically to rock climbing—the bouldering game, the crag climbing game, the continuous rock climbing game, and the big wall game (the first three also apply to ice climbing).

The games are characterized by increasing height and danger, and by the increasing use of equipment. In addition to these games, there has evolved a major distinction between two styles of rock climbing—the more traditional "adventure" climbing and the more modern "sport" climbing.

Climbing Areas in the United States

As might be expected, most rock climbing in the United States occurs where there are mountains. Thus, in the east, there are climbing cliffs ranging northwards from West Virginia along the Appalachian and Adirondack mountains. There are also outlying, and perhaps unlikely, areas such as cliffs along the Potomac River, Ragged Mountain in Connecticut, Quincy Quarries outside Boston, and the sea cliffs around Mount Desert Island in Maine. The best-known rock climbing areas in the east are the Shawangunks and Adirondacks in New York State, and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. In the west, rock climbing areas are far too numerous to mention, although special note should be made of Yosemite and Joshua Tree in California, the climbing areas around Colorado Springs and Boulder in Colorado, and the canyon and desert climbing areas of the southwest. However, it is also possible to rock climb in some places in the United States where there are no mountains, such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Texas.

History of Rock Climbing in the United States

As with mountain climbing, rock climbing in the United States really started to develop in the 1930s, particularly under the influence of such individuals as Harvard professor Robert Underhill and German immigrant Fritz Wiessner. Their widespread introduction of European rope techniques made more difficult ascents possible. Although there had been earlier developments in rock climbing by climbers with European Alpine experience (for example, John Case's climbs in the Adirondacks from 1916; Willard Helburn's ascent of Chimney Route on Mount Katahdin, Maine, in 1919), European rope techniques first became widely used in the U.S. rock climbing community in the 1930s.

The technological (nylon rope and Vibram soles) and experiential developments (mountain warfare and cliff assault training) of World War II, and the post-war increase in income, leisure time, and automobile ownership, all led to a slowly-growing population of rock climbers in the U.S., and the start of a conflict between traditional and new approaches. These conflicts came to a head in California (Tahquitz Rocks and Yosemite) and New York (the Shawangunks) in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of the lack of strength in hemp ropes (strong enough to hold a falling second, but unlikely to hold a falling leader), and limited knowledge of running belays or pitons, a tradition had emerged among established climbing clubs—such as the Sierra Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club—that involved a long apprenticeship as a second climber with an experienced leader, and to strictures such as "the leader must not fall," and "don't climb up anything that you can't climb back down." These traditions imposed clear limits on progress.

However, the availability of the much stronger and safer nylon ropes, and the increasing use of pitons and other means of attaching running belays, meant that younger and more ambitious and able rock climbers were more likely to take the chance of a fall. Royal Robbins's 1952 ascent of the route called Open Book at Tahquitz signaled this shift, and represented a whole new standard of difficulty in U.S. rock climbing. In the United States, the difficulty of climbs is represented by the so-called Yosemite Decimal System (YDS); free climbing is number 5 on the scale, and a climb rated 5.1 is relatively easy. Robbins's climb was the first to be rated 5.9. Given the rapid increase in standards in recent years, early twentyfirst century American rock climbers were waiting for the first climb rated 5.15.

The clash between traditional and new approaches came to a head during the countercultural 1960s. While similar conflicts were occurring in Europe, Canada, and other parts of the United States, the "war" between the "Appies" (more traditional Appalachian Mountain Club members) and the "Vulgarians" (an informal club devoted to hedonism and hard climbing) became legendary. Risks were being taken to accomplish first ascents of more difficult routes, and in Yosemite, rock climbers were embarking on multiday routes on 1,000-meter cliffs that were previously considered impossible. Climbers such as Yvon Chouinard began to develop specialized equipment (such as pitons) specifically for the hard granite of Yosemite. The developments in Yosemite brought U.S. rock climbing to the attention of the international climbing community for the first time, and for a while, California climbers were considered to be world leaders in the sport.

The development of relatively affordable jet travel in the 1960s brought international rock climbers to the United States, and took U.S. climbers to other parts of the world. This led to the exchange of ideas, techniques, equipment, and growing concerns for U.S. climbers. In particular the Yosemite style of hard steel piton was causing permanent damage to rock faces, and environmental conservation concerns led to a search for new safety equipment. The development of chocks, new camming devices, and the increasing use of fixed expansion bolts in some areas, generally replaced the use of pitons. New techniques also emerged, particularly the "French style" of climbing developed on the cliffs of the Verdon Gorge.

As with mountain climbing, competition in rock climbing also involves achieving the first (recorded) ascent of a route on a cliff or ice face, as well as other variations such as first solo or first female ascent. There is also competition for the style or quality of an ascent, which may refer to the speed of an ascent, and to technique and limitations on the use of equipment. However, unlike mountain climbing, formal competition emerged in rock climbing, first in the Soviet Union (speed climbing), later (in the 1980s) in Italy, where climbers attempted to reach the greatest height on routes of increasing difficulty. The first Italian competitions took place on natural cliff faces, but the environmental damage caused to the rock, and by the spectators, led to a rapid shift in many countries to competitions on artificial, usually indoor climbing walls.

These walls had first been developed in the 1960s for instructing novices in safe environments, and for evening and winter training for more experienced climbers. New, more sophisticated walls, with moveable holds to create varying difficulties of ascent, became ideal for competitions, and a Grand Prix professional circuit was established, as well as numerous amateur competitions. A combination of competition ethics with French climbing techniques led to a new style of climbing known as "sport" climbing (as opposed to the more traditional "adventure" climbing). The differences are related to how and when protection is attached to the rock, how the protection is used, and how the ascent is accomplished. These two styles co-existed in the United States in the early 2000s, not always happily, and there was usually local agreement about which style prevailed on local cliffs.

All of these changes were accompanied by rapid commercialization and increasing numbers of participants. Rock climbing continues to predominantly involve white, male, middle-class participants, although there is a rapidly increasing number of female climbers. Although rock climbing is a much older activity than many of the other so-called extreme sports, its inclusion at some extreme sports competitions, and in adventure racing, has added to the public recognition of the activity. Also, the use of rock climbing in advertisements for a variety of products and services, its appearance in popular films ranging from The Eiger Sanction to Mission Impossible, and its association with mountain climbing and the growing interest in that sport occasioned by various ascents of Mount Everest, has generated a great deal of publicity that has attracted new participants. These participants are often from the same social categories (young, middle class, white, predominantly male) found in other so-called extreme sports.

With the growth of indoor climbing gyms in urban areas, there are large numbers of rock climbers who have reportedly never climbed outdoors. The gyms have become a part of the fitness industry, and even some mainstream fitness clubs have introduced climbing walls. Portable climbing walls may be seen at street festivals and fairgrounds, and there are walls on cruise ships and in outdoor equipment stores. The activity is still practiced in various forms, but its recognition as one of the socalled "extreme" sports has brought it to more mainstream attention in the United States.

See also: Extreme Sports, Mountain Climbing


Donnelly, P. "The Great Divide: Sport Climbing vs. Adventure Climbing." In To the Extreme: Alternative Sports Inside and Out. Edited by Robert E. Rinehart and Synthia Sydnor. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Harding, Warren. Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975.

Jones, Chris. Climbing in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

Mellor, Don. American Rock: Region, Rock, and Culture in American Climbing. Woodstock, Vt: The Countryman Press, 2001.

Roper, Steve. Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1994.

Scott, D. Big Wall Climbing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Tejada-Flores, Lito. "Games Climbers Play." Ascent 1 (1967): 23–25.

Unsworth, Walt. Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975.

Waterman, Guy, and Laura Waterman. Yankee Rock and Ice: A History of Climbing in the Northeastern United States. Mechanicsburg, Pa: Stackpole Books, 2002.

Peter Donnelly