The history of rock climbing is as old as mountaineering itself. Climbing in the mountains has always involved climbing over rocks and up cliffs. In the early part of the twentieth century, rock climbing began to be practiced as a sport in its own right.
Early climbers in Germany and Great Britain in particular pursued rock climbing with a passion-in part because of the lack of high, alpine peaks in that countries, and climbed at remarkably high standards. By the 1920s, rock climbing as a sub sport of mountaineering was gaining a foothold in the United States.
Many viewed rock climbing as a trivial pursuit when compared to the grandeur and obvious success of standing on a high mountain summit, and it was not until the 1950s that rock climbing began to mature and gain wide acceptance as a sport in its own right. That acceptance helped bring about a surge of interest, and the development of specific techniques and equipment helped raise standards dramatically.
The United States led the way throughout the ’60s and ’70s, to a great extent because of a group of dedicated climbers who made their home in the rock-climbing wonderland of Yosemite National Park and pushed the standards of aid climbing and free climbing.
As the sport of rock climbing matured and standards of difficulty rose, oddly the length of the cutting-edge climbs gradually shortened. In the 1960s the big routes were the multiday wall climbs, and free-climbing standards played a secondary role. But over time, more and more climbers focused on doing harder and harder free routes, then harder and harder individual moves.
By the early 1980s, the most famous climbs were usually short, single-pitch free climbs of fierce difficulty. Later in the ’80s, rock climbing became even more focused on doing hard moves, to the extent that the traditional placement of protection while leading began to be replaced with fixed protection. “Sport climbing” allowed climbers to focus specifically on the gymnastic skills and strength necessary to make the hardest moves possible without worrying about the risk or energy drain required when placing protection.
The advent of sport climbing and its quick acceptance as a legitimate form of rock climbing changed the sport forever and made indoor climbing inevitable. The trend took off faster in Europe than in the United States, and for the first time in decades, the best climbers were not Americans. Europeans, with their cable cars and espresso bars in their mountain huts, took bolted routes to their small crags with vigor. It was so convenient.
Sport climbers committed to only single-pitch climbs. No hardware, other than carabiners and slings, was needed, and the protection and anchors were always in place. Climbers no longer needed to know much about how to place protection, build anchors and safety systems, or get themselves out of trouble.
A pair of shoes, a harness, a rope, a belay device, quickdraws, and a chalk bag were all the tools needed, and belaying was the only skill needed, to go out and rock climb. By the late ’80s, sport climbing took off in America as well. Once that stage was reached, it was not long before the last variable-the environment-also came under the climber’s control and the first indoor walls were built. Now climbers could learn and train without concern about any objective hazards in a climate-controlled environment.
The first indoor walls were crude by today’s standards, and they were initially scoffed at by the hard-core traditionalists as poor substitutes for the real thing. By the late 1990s, the state of the art in climbing walls provided a high-quality medium; even the scoffers were frequently seen pumping plastic. What was once viewed as a fringe sport became mainstream, and everyone seemed to be climbing.
Indoor climbing is not rock climbing, but it is here to stay. For more and more climbers, the first handhold they grab will be one made in a factory. They will learn some of the fundamentals of the sport, build skill and confidence, and then decide to head outside. Thus rock climbing will have come full circle: from a part of mountaineering to a specialty sport all its own, to artificial gymnastics done indoors, and, finally, to a venue through which initiates can learn the basics and then head back out to the mountains.