Mountain Climbing

views updated May 17 2018


People have climbed mountains for the whole of human history, and they have done so for a variety of reasons—spiritual, strategic, prospecting and hunting, surveying, and probably simple curiosity. Mountains were climbed in biblical and classical times, and even before recorded history: arrowheads have been found at the summits of North American mountains, a bronze spearhead was found at the summit of the Riffelhorn in Switzerland, and "the ice man"—who died some 5,300 years ago—was discovered close to a pass in the Austrian Alps at a height of 3,210 meters. The sport and recreational pastime of mountain climbing began in the European Alps in the mid-nineteenth century. It grew out of a complex combination of exploration, tourism, and scientific fieldwork, all of which were beginning to take larger numbers of people to the summits of mountains.

Mountain climbing, often called "mountaineering" and sometimes "Alpinism," is the activity of attempting to reach the summits of mountains. The activity is distinguished from hiking or backpacking by the difficulty of the ascent. Many mountain summits are achievable by competent walkers—for example, the Appalachian Trail takes hikers over many summits. Mountain climbing usually involves some rock or ice climbing. A distinction that is often made is that mountain climbing involves the use of both feet and hands, and, in more recent times, these have been combined with the use of specialized equipment and the knowledge of specialized techniques.

The activity has both competitive (sporting) and recreational forms, although the informality of the activity and the absence of institutionalization (no governing bodies, no uniforms, no formal rules, no referees or judges) sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish between the two forms. Competition usually takes the form of achieving (and recording) a first ascent of both the summit of a mountain, and of a particular route to the summit (for example, North Face, or West Ridge). It should be pointed out that there is a particular form of arrogance associated with recording an ascent and claiming it as a "first." Often, mountain climbers have no way of knowing if a previous ascent has been made. However, the activity emerged out of the same colonial ethos of exploration that allowed Europeans to claim that they had "discovered" already inhabited lands such as the Americas and Australia, and to claim them for their own. Variations of "first ascents," such as first female ascent and first winter ascent, may also be recorded. Competition can also take place with regard to the speed of an ascent, and the style of an ascent (style is usually associated with the amount of equipment used, or the tactics that are used to achieve a summit). The vast majority of mountaineering is recreational, and involves following established routes to summits, routes that are often recorded in guidebooks.

Mountains in the United States

The United States is bracketed by two major mountain ranges. In the East, the Appalachian/Adirondack chain is of less interest to mountain climbers. The summits are, for the most part, accessible to hikers (as are the volcanoes of Hawaii); only in winter are some routes to some summits in the Adirondacks and the White Mountains (New Hampshire) of interest to mountain climbers. In the West, between the prairies and the Pacific Ocean, lie a number of major interconnected mountain regions—specifically, the various ranges of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the Olympic Mountains. A large number of the mountains are high enough to have permanent snow cover on the summits, and these and many others are of interest to mountaineers. The western mountain ranges continue northward through Canada and into Alaska, wherein lies the highest mountain in North AmericaMount McKinley at 6,194 meters. To the South, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney in California (Sierra Nevada) at 4,418 meters.

Mountain Climbing in the United States

Many peaks in the United States were climbed before mountain climbers began to record their ascents. Scouts, prospectors, survey crews, native people on spirit quests or hunting, all found their ways to the summits of mountains, and some even recorded their achievements. For example, Josiah Whitney and his survey crew (William Brewer and Charles Hoffman) were making ascents in the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s. Darby Field's legendary ascent of Mount Washington (New Hampshire) in 1642 is unlikely to have been the first ascent, but it has been recorded as such.

The first American mountain climbers were middle or upper-middle class, educated northeasterners, who climbed in the European Alps. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was easier to travel to Europe from the northeastern United States than to the Rocky Mountains. Some Americans, still at this time looking to Europe for their sport and culture, began to follow the new European fashion of mountain climbing. Perhaps the best known of the early mountain climbers was William Augustus Brevoort Coolidge (1850–1926). As a teenager, he moved to Europe for health reasons, with his aunt, Miss Meta Brevoort, and began a mountain-climbing career (often with his aunt) that made him among the leading mountaineers of his day. Perhaps the best evidence of this eastern U.S.–European academic connection lies in the fact that less than six years after the formation of the very first mountain-climbing club, the Alpine Club (UK) in 1857, the Williamstown Alpine Club was formed in Massachusetts in 1863.

The development of the railroads made the western mountains much more accessible by the latter part of the nineteenth century, and western settlement took many interested in mountain climbing to live in states such as Colorado and Wyoming and to the West Coast. The Canadian Pacific Railroad imported Swiss mountain guides to work at their hotels in the Canadian Rockies in the 1890s, and the developments of mountaineering and tourism brought Canadian, European, and American climbers to this region. Yale professors were particularly active in the Lake Louise area, and the death of a former law student, Phillip Abbot, on Mount Lefroy in 1896, is often identified as the first mountaineering fatality in North America.

The early development of mountain climbing in the United States was sometimes characterized by novelty ascents involving local people, and by controversy. When the California survey team in the 1860s declared that the summit of Half Dome (Yosemite Valley) was "inaccessible," it was taken as a challenge completed by George Anderson in 1875—he drilled a series of holes and inserted eyebolts into the smooth rock; his route is close to the modern via ferrata that now leads to the summit. Local ranchers Willard Ripley and William Rogers made the first ascent of the "inaccessible" Devil's Tower (Wyoming) by hammering wooden stakes into a crack leading all the way to the summit. A group of "sourdoughs" with no mountaineering experience set out to achieve the first ascent in 1910, but they are now believed to have reached only the lower North Summit. The mountain was finally "claimed" in 1913.

These achievements are, in many ways, characteristic of the development of mountain climbing in the United States. Despite the early European experiences, mountain climbing in the States often took place in isolation from European developments in terms of technique and safety. The Appalachian Mountain Club was founded in 1876, followed by the Sierra Club in 1892 and the American Alpine Club in 1902. The West Coast clubs, the Sierra Club, the Seattle Mountaineers, and Mazamas (Oregon) developed an approach that involved mass ascents of mountains—a technique unknown in Western Europe, but widely adopted in Soviet mountaineering. These lasted until the 1930s. Similarly, European rope techniques were not well known in the West, and many thought that the use of a rope was unsporting.

This began to change in the 1930s with two key moments. The first was the publication in the Sierra Club Bulletin (1931) of Robert Underhill's article "On the Use and Management of the Rope in Rock Work." Underhill was a Harvard professor who had climbing experience in the European Alps, and had developed European rope techniques while rock climbing in New England. The second occurred when well-known German climber Fritz Wiessner emigrated to the United States in the 1930s. Underhill and Wiessner spearheaded a period of exploration and advances in technique in the period leading up to World War II.

Until this time, there were few mountain climbers in the United States, and the activity was well below the cultural radar. Changes started with World War II, as some U.S. troops received training in mountain warfare, enjoyed the opportunity of climbing in places such as Europe and Japan, and benefited (as did mountaineers around the world) from technological advances that often were a result of wartime efforts. These included nylon ropes, which were much stronger than the previous hemp ropes, and Vibram (rubber) soles for boots, replacing the nails that had been used previously (Vibram soles still replicate the pattern of climbing boot nails).

There were small increases in participation after the war, resulting from an increasingly democratized population (for example, increased income and leisure time, and rapidly increasing automobile ownership) that had the time, money, and means to travel to mountains, and sometimes the benefit of wartime mountain training. This period saw the start of an extended period of exploration and new ascents by U.S. mountaineers in the United States, Canada, and Alaska, and in other parts of the world. The first U.S. ascent of Chomolungma (Mount Everest—8,848 meters) was made by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld in 1963. This climb came ten years after the first ascent, but announced U.S. membership in the "Everest club" in grand style by not only ascending what is now derogatorily termed the "yak route" (the South Ridge), but also by making the first ascent of a new route—the West Ridge—and traversing the mountain.

As National Geographic magazine and newspapers across the country reported on the ascent, U.S. mountain climbing began to come to public attention, and did so at an interesting time in U.S. culture—just as the counterculture was beginning to emerge. Many young people began to travel to wilderness areas, and to take part in new noncompetitive or less competitive (alternative) activities.

This period saw a significant increase in participation, mostly in rock climbing, but also in mountain climbing. The period was also characterized by significant challenges to traditional ways of climbing, and by the beginning of a period of technological advances (related primarily to increased safety, comfort, and convenience, in addition to enabling more and more difficult ascents) that continued into the early twenty-first century.

New fibers such as GoreTex and Thinsulate, safer equipment (improved ropes, carabiners, crampons and ice axes, descenders, and various belaying devices), and the increasing availability of lightweight clothing, equipment, and freeze-dried foods changed the climbing experience. They have also been associated with a rapid period of commercialization and growth in participation since the 1980s. Although mountain climbing is by no means a mass recreational activity in the United States, it has become well established as a part of U.S. culture. The activity is regularly featured on the Outdoor Life Network, in mass-circulation magazines such as Outside and Climbing, and in Hollywood movies. The participants are, for the most part, still male, white, middle class and urban, as has been the case for the last 150 years. The only real change has been the increasing number of female participants since the mid-1980s.

Increasing commercialization resulted in mountain climbing becoming a significant part of the adventure tourism industry. In terms of publicity for the activity, the influence of Jon Krakauer's work for Outside and his 1997 book Into Thin Air cannot be underestimated. His account of the deaths of members of two adventure tourism groups on Chomolungma in 1996 not only sparked a whole publishing wave in what the New York Times has termed "explornography," but also created a new wave of interest in mountain climbing. That interest is also reflected in the corporate world where images of mountain climbing are being used to symbolize achievement and corporate aspiration, and where mountain climbing has become a component of executive leadership and character training courses.

See also: Extreme Sports, Rock Climbing


Coolidge, W. A. B. The Alps in Nature and History. London: Methuen, 1908.

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

Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Villard Books, 1997.

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

Mummery, Albert F. My Climbs in the Alps and Caucasus. London: Fisher Unwin, 1895.

Pyatt, Edward. The Guiness Book of Mountains and Mountaineering: Facts and Feats. London: Guiness Superlatives, 1980.

Unsworth, Walt. Everest. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1982.

——. Encyclopaedia of Mountaineering. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Peter Donnelly

Mountain Climbing

views updated May 14 2018


MOUNTAIN CLIMBING, or mountaineering, the practice of ascending to elevated points or peaks, is historically a quest for the challenges of new routes and peaks. Most often a group sport, mountain climbing requires teamwork and skill. Mountain climbing can be divided into three types with varying degrees of difficulty. Trail climbing or hiking is the least difficult type. More commonly associated with mountaineering are the more difficult practices of rock climbing and ice climbing. Although some rock climbers engage in the more dangerous form of free climbing, most use equipment that may include special shoes, ropes, and steel spikes (pitons) that are driven into the rock to assist the climber. Ice climbing, performed on the highest peaks, uses an ice axe and attachable boot spikes (crampons).

Early attempts to ascend mountain peaks were motivated by scientific, geographic, or spiritual quests, but mountain climbing evolved into a sport by the mid-eighteenth century. By that time, techniques for snow, ice, and rock climbing had developed, and an elite class of professional guides had become established. The Swiss Alps were especially popular with early climbers, but with the successful scaling of the Matterhorn in 1865, climbers began to seek other peaks, turning to the more distant Andes, Caucasus, North American Rockies, African peaks, and finally the Himalayas. In 1852, Mount Everest was determined the world's highest peak, but climbers did not successfully summit Everest until 1953, when the New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the top. The first American to ascend Everest was James Whittaker in 1963.

Mountain climbing became popular in the United States after World War II. American interest in wilderness exploration can be traced to the early eighteenth century. By the nineteenth century, new ideologies about nature,

promoted especially by educated, upper-class East Coast nature lovers and bird watchers, began to develop. They extolled the virtues of wild areas as places to reflect and rejuvenate. This ideology was born of the intrinsic values and scientific curiosities of such places and a reaction to rapid urbanization and industrialization. Nature lovers celebrated the idea of the "noble savage" much as European Enlightenment thinkers had a century earlier.

During the Progressive Era, a "cult of wilderness" emerged, spearheaded by Theodore Roosevelt, that extolled the virtues of rigorous outdoor sports. The Sierra range was explored in the 1860s and 1870s, especially by the naturalist John Muir. Grand Teton, the highest peak in the Teton Range, was climbed in 1872. In Alaska, Mount Saint Elias was climbed in 1897, and Mount Blackburn and Mount McKinley were ascended in 1912 and 1913, respectively.

Between 1947 and 1970 advancements in technology, skill, and climbing routes made the sport accessible to greater numbers of people. By the end of the twentieth century, novice climbers, relying on equipment, technology, and guides rather than individual abilities, attempted dangerous peaks. The results were dramatic losses of life, such as the deaths of clients and experienced guides on Mount Everest in 1996.


Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air. New York: Villard, 1997.

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Reuther, David, and John Thorn, eds. The Armchair Mountaineer. New York: Scribner's, 1984.


See alsoSports .

mountain climbing

views updated Jun 08 2018

mountain climbing Sport and leisure activity that gained popularity in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the mid-1990s even the world's highest mountain, Everest, had been scaled by thousands of people – although the mountain continued to claim an average of three lives per year.

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