Rock climbing history is lengthy and any serious discussion of it will undoubtedly be a marathon, not a sprint. So, have a seat and a cup of coffee as we delve into the rich and colorful rock climbing history.
People have been ascending to high elevations for food, resources, and other reasons since time immemorial. While communities and settlements at great heights may be found all over the world, and people have been trekking their way to the peaks of mountains and hills for eons out of need, technical climbing as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon.
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The first reported rock climber, on the other hand, did it not for joy or glory, but to fulfill a royal decree. On instructions from King Charles VIII of France, Antoine de Ville scaled Mont Inaccessible, a 300-meter-tall stone tower on Mont Aiguille near Grenoble, France, in 1492. De Ville used tactics that had been used to take over fortresses during wars to reach the top of Inaccessible.
They stayed there for six days and put up three crosses as proof of their climb, which would not be done again until 1834. Even though such an ascent may not seem important now, de Ville’s ascent is important in the history of climbing because it was both a physical achievement and a model for how we talk about mountains and natural areas today.
In his 1757 book, Philosophical Enquiry, Edmund Burke first linked the notion of the sublime with an emotion of awe and horror in connection to the thrill and risk of meeting Nature in its untamed and wild form. A romanticized wildness might be found in a deep abyss, a rainstorm, or at the foot of a jagged mountain peak.
The awe and veneration Burke and other Romantics had for the wild, on the other hand, were not secular views, as the sublime, they claimed, proved God’s great power in the human world. So, the most exciting thing about de Ville’s climb up Mont Inaccessible in 1492 is not the climb itself, but the fact that he put three crosses on the highest point of the tower.
The link between the Romantics’ concept of the sublime and Christian principles is not by chance. As we’ve seen, God is ubiquitous in the Romantic sublime as both a source of awe and omnipotence. While the Romantics popularized the concept of a god-filled sublime, it is not new.
Rather, since their beginnings, Christian conceptions of the wilderness have been connected with sentiments of anxiety and the unknown. Both the Old and New Testaments talk about how wild and untamed places make people feel scared.
Thus, to the Romantics and those who came before them, the idea that anybody would deliberately walk into the mountains and employ physical power to get to the summit of a steep, jagged peak would have seemed ludicrous. Climbing a mountain or, better yet, a cliff for enjoyment would have been completely absurd. So, how did we go from panic, wonder, and fear of mountains in the 1700s to climbing’s modern-day invasion of popular culture?
Climbers rapidly set their eyes on the world’s highest peaks once the Great Trigonometric Survey was completed in the early 1870s. Even though surveyors climbed some of the smaller Himalayan peaks to help them measure the bigger ones, no one had been to the area just to climb until the survey was done.
In 1883, WW Graham of Dent du Geant renown is credited with making the first excursion to the Himalayas specifically for climbing objectives 1883, together with Swiss alpine guide Josef Imboden. Graham eventually went back to the Himalayas with another guide, Ulrich Kaufmann. On their first trip to the Kanchenjunga area, they didn’t get very far before having to turn back toward Darjeeling because Imboden’s health was so bad.
The pair quickly set off for the Garhwal Himal and walked around Nanda Devi, stopping just short of the difficult-to-access Nanda Devi Sanctuary to focus on Dunagiri. Graham claimed to have climbed the peak to a height of 6,920 meters (22,700 feet) before returning downhill due to adverse weather. Graham and his climbing partners reached the top of Kabru, a peak at 7,349 meters (24,111 feet) that was much higher than any other mountain that had been climbed before.
Today, almost no one knows about these summits unless they are interested in climbing history. However, the historical events that drove climbers to their sides eventually set the stage for the decades-long race to the top of the world.
Fortunately for Mallory, that experience did take place. Mallory was asked to join the Mount Everest Committee’s inaugural 1921 British Reconnaissance Expedition, which was planned and funded to study prospective route alternatives up Everest’s North Col. Although the Committee initially supported a summit effort, they subsequently concluded that the expedition’s primary goal should be to study more about the mountain so that a future, more knowledgeable attempt may be made to climb the peak—the pièce de résistance of the climbing world.
Because Nepal was forbidden to Westerners at the time, the peak had to be accessed from the north, via Tibet, so the group set off, first by ship to Darjeeling, then overland for the 300-mile climb to Everest. After a month of traveling, Mallory and the rest of the group survived illness and injuries to reach the snout of the Rongbuk Glacier, where the walking would finish and the climbing would begin.
The crew set up their basecamp at the Rongbuk Glacier and began to work, learning how to navigate the challenging terrain of a Himalayan glacier. On the Rongbuk, 15-meter (50-foot) seracs were abundant, creating a significant challenge for the climbers, who had only previously seen the much more manageable alpine glaciers of the Alps. Eventually, the party was able to set up Camp II at 5,300 meters (17,500 feet) and have an excellent view of the peak, which would be useful on future excursions.
The expedition eventually went home, having completed their purpose of reconnoitering the mountain but without even getting near to the peak. Once they returned to England, plans were already being made for another trip to Everest, this time with Brigadier General Charles Bruce and a well-known soldier and climber named Edward Strutt.
Mallory returned to Tibet in 1922, less than a year after his first expedition to Everest, intending to make a serious summit attempt. Mallory led a party of climbers from the second British Mount Everest Expedition to a record elevation of roughly 8,222 meters (26,980 ft) before turning around due to severe weather. A second group climbing team, headed by George Finch, reached a height of 8,321 meters (27,300 feet) by using bottled oxygen for both ascending and sleeping.
During this second trip, Mallory attempted to plan another summit attempt, but the monsoon had come and thick snow impeded their progress. An avalanche ripped through Mallory’s climbing team as they trudged through waist-deep new snow, killing seven Sherpas along the route. As a result, the expedition turned around and went home.
Not long after returning home, Mallory embarked on a speaking tour of the United States to supplement his income after leaving his job to undertake two Everest attempts. During this period, a New York Times reporter questioned Mallory, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” to which he famously answered, “Because it’s there.”
Mallory would have to wait another two years for another assault on the peak. The British Mount Everest Expedition of 1924 was formed to eventually reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain. Mallory, who was 37 at the time, believed this would most likely be his final attempt at the summit before he was too old.
The mission initially arose from a desire to bring national pride to the United Kingdom by “conquering the third pole’ (the world’s tallest peak), as many Britons had previously attempted but did not succeed in being the first to reach the North and South Poles. Even though they had tried before and failed (the 1921 trip was mostly for research), the Mount Everest Committee was still set on getting the British flag to the top of the world.
Mallory was picked as a climber for the trip once more, this time alongside the youthful Andrew “Sandy” Irvine, who was only 22 at the time. After getting to Darjeeling, the group started the hard walk to the north side of Everest, where they set up different camps so they could try to reach the top.
The first summit attempt, led by Charles Bruce and Mallory, failed to reach 8,170 meters (26,800 feet) but did manage to establish Camps V and IV on the peak. As Bruce and Mallory began their descent, they encountered two other members of the party, Norton, and Somervell, who were on their way up to set a global altitude record of 8,570 meters (28,120 ft), which would not be broken for another 28 years. Norton went blind because of the snow, so they had to turn around and go back down the mountain.
At the same time, Mallory was preparing for another try on the peak, this time with oxygen and young Sandy Irvine. Despite having no prior high-altitude climbing expertise, Irvine was a practical guy who was able to readily fix the oxygen apparatus the couple would employ on the trip. So, on June 6th, the two-headed off up the mountain.
Everything after it is a mystery. The remainder of the expedition received a succession of communications from Mallory and Irvine (brought down the mountain by porters), but their final note arrived on June 7th. By June 8th, they were attempting the summit, and another expedition participant, Noel Odell, last observed Mallory and Irvine ascending the North East Ridge toward the summit through his camera.
They were never seen or heard from again, and whether they made it to the peak before dying on the mountain is still debated. Even though the expedition went home without finding Mallory and Irvine’s bodies, the question of whether or not they were successful was brought up again when Mallory’s body was found on the slopes of Everest by another expedition led by famous climber Conrad Anker, seven decades after the third British Mount Everest Expedition.
Climbers increased dramatically in the Valley and across the world during the 1970s. Furthermore, there was a significant movement in climbing ethics during this period, with an emphasis on clean, free climbing rather than hammering in pitons as one aid climbs up a route. As the Yosemite Decimal grading system got more flexible and climbers pushed the limits of what was possible, the standards for free climbing went through the roof.
Climbers made their first ascents of extremely tough and sustained routes, such as Astroman’s first ascent by John Long, John Bachar, and Ron Kauk, but they also attempted to take previous routes to the next level by climbing The Nose in a day. As Todd Skinner and Paul Piana achieved a team-free ascent of the Salathe Wall in the 1980s, free ascents of aid routes became the standard, and Ray Jardine introduced Spring-Loaded Camming Devices to the forefront of climbing by making ascents of routes previously considered to be impossible.
Climbers sought methods to keep fit and improve even when a major wall climb was out of the question, and sport climbing and bouldering grew in popularity. Having said that, the emphasis in the Valley was still on pushing the limits on large routes. Lynn Hill made history in the early 1990s when she became the first person to free climb El Cap and then repeated the feat a few years later by climbing the granite monolith free in a single day.
Since then, the boundaries have been stretched and pushed far beyond what we believed was conceivable. With their first ascent of El Cap’s The Dawn Wall, climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson set a new benchmark for sustained and demanding climbing. Meanwhile, Alex Honnold has stunned the world by being, well, Alex Honnold, and free soloing routes that would take most of us mere mortals a week to accomplish-all in less than a day, with nothing but a chalk bag between him and the Valley floor.
Rock climbing and mountaineering have come a long way from their humble origins in the Alps’ jagged peaks and North Wales’ rugged hills. Although the equipment has improved and the routes have gotten more difficult, climbers continue to visit the mountains for the same reasons: the pure thrill of adventure and the desire to discover oneself among boundless beauty. Climbing’s boundaries have been challenged, and limitations have been broken. From here, it’s clear that there’s only one way to go: forward and up into the future of climbing.