The history of rock climbing is actually much longer than we would think. Since rock climbing is a popular modern adventure sport, many assume that it is a recent phenomenon. Furthermore, there are many people who don’t bother about the history of rock climbing at all.

Yet, this sport has an extremely long history. Indeed, its origins go back to ancient times. It’s long history is a testament to humans’ love of the adventurous and breaking boundaries.

Ancient Origins of Rock Climbing

While rock climbing has become a recent popular sport, it actually has a long history. There is a lot of ancient evidence surrounding this. For instance, ancient humans built many settlements on top of cliffs for protection. This meant that early humans could climb those cliffs.

Steps for rock climbing in Chaco Canyon
Source: GentleArtOfWandering

However, this was a very different sort of rock climbing from the one we know today. Rather than using elaborate tools for daring climbs, these rock climbers were more practical. Many ancient settlements would carve steps and ledges into rock faces. For instance, Chaco Canyon in America has a number of steps cut into it. These date to the 12th century. Native American tribes in the region had carved them out of the rock face.

This state of affairs remained constant until the medieval times when some innovations began to take place. In parts of England, for instance, people started tying themselves to ropes to collect bird eggs from high cliffs. This use of tools to assist in climbing marks a turn away from earlier forms of climbing.

Mont Aiguille, an important peak in the history of rock climbing
Source: Wikipedia

However, the most famous predecessor of modern rock climbing is Antoine de Ville from France. In 1492 he climbed Mont Aiguille, a 300-meter rock tower, on the orders of the king. He used many techniques to accomplish this. In particular, he used technology which was normally used in battles to scale castle walls. This is the first known use of advanced technology for climbing. It is also one of the first instances in which climbing is not done for practical purposes but for its own sake.

People began to build on this ancient history of rock climbing and revitalized it. This happened primarily in the 18th century and led to the birth of modern forms of rock climbing.

Early History of Rock Climbing

The modern history of rock climbing dates back to the late 18th century. This was when mountaineers scaled Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps, in 1786. This led to many further expeditions. People began to develop a craze for rock climbing. Mountaineers also developed new techniques and technologies due to this popularity.

Mont Blanc was scaled in 1786
Source: Savoie-Mont-Blanc

Thus, in the 19th century there was an explosion in its popularity. Many countries surrounding the Alps, especially Germany, invested in it. This was done to develop new ways of rescuing those stuck in the Alps. States thus invested in rock climbing to ensure the security of citizens. As a result, the Alps were an important mountain range for experimentation.

Mountaineers began to adapt native Alpine technology for climbing. For instance, shepherds in the Alps used axes and alpenstocks, which were staves with metal tips. These were helpful for navigation and climbing. Mountaineers combined the two into the ice-axe. They also started using ropes to secure their ascent. The development of pitons, bolts, and slings was also in this period.

Cathedral Peak is another milestone in the history of rock climbing
Cathedral Peak, Source: SummitPost

These innovations soon spread across the world. People began to use them to scale peaks and make on-sight attempts. Many famous peaks were scaled in this period. In America in 1869, John Muir scaled the Cathedral Peak at an elevation of 3,327m. Six years later, George Anderson scaled the nearby Half-Dome.

In England, people experimented with climbing in the Lake District. W. P. Haskett Smith, referred to as the father of the sport, started his career here. His ascent of the Naples Needle in the 1880s is a historic event in rock climbing. There were also experiments in Asia by the British. Oscar Eckenstein, for instance, held rock-climbing competitions among natives in Karakoram Range in the 1890s.

Modern Rocking Climbing

The 20th century saw major developments in rock-climbing. These changed the history of rock climbing forever. Changes were made to the design of the piton in 1910 and rappelling was developed in Austria in the same year. In the preceding decade, many people had climbed the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. This influx of people into a single area had caused the formation of many mountaineering clubs.

The Elbe Sandstone Mountains were integral the modern history of rock climbing
Elbe Sandstone Mountains, Source:

In 1914, Paul Preuss developed free-climbing and began to lay down rules for it. This led to the codification of many techniques. In the 1920s, the Underhills formalized many techniques. They were a prominent mountaineering couple. They introduced European techniques to America. This led to an increase in technical knowledge. The sport thus started to be codified and gain an official status.

This was also the time that people began to make many important ascents. This was thus an important period in the history of rock climbing. People experimented with tougher peaks and harder routes. In 1916, Ivan Berg climbed the Cave ArĂȘte Indirect in England. It is classified as E1 under the British grading system. Many climbs in the 5.8 to 5.10 grade range also took place. In 1918, Emmanuel Strubich climbed the Wilder Kopf in the Elbe Sandstone mountains. This was the hardest climb at the time.

The difficulty of the climbs increased after the two World Wars. This was because there were many technological developments during this period. Carabiners had new designs and people started using newly-invented nylon rope. Because of this, people broached the 5.10 difficulty limit. In 1945, Chris Preston climbed the Suicide Wall in Wales with a rating of 5.10d. In 1949, Peter Harding made the first 5.11a ascent in Demon Rib in Derbyshire, UK.

Contemporary Developments

Since the 1950s, people have only broken more difficulty records. Every decade has seen a new record being set in the history of rock climbing. Thus, in 1964 Fritz Eske climbed Konigshangel in the Elbe Mountains. It had a difficulty of 5.11b. This was overtaken in the 1970s by people like Mick Fowler and Ron Fawcett. They climbed various peaks in England. These had ratings from 5.12b to 5.12c.

Adam Ondra, a legendary climber
Adam Ondra, Source:

The recent record is by the legendary climber Adam Ondra. He climbed Change in Flatanger, Norway in 2012. This is a 5.15d route. It broke the previous records which were also held by him. Many people have followed suit. In fact, because of social media, climbing has become more well-known and competitive. People now attempt to outpace each other for the toughest routes in the world. People like Chris Sharma and Ashima Shiraishi are rising names in this new phase in the history of rock climbing.

The increasing difficulty is only one aspect. Many rock-climbers and mountaineers also take professional photographs. They are also experimenting with documentaries. For instance, Jimmy Chin is a famous climber who has also made critically acclaimed films. This has increased the popularity of the sport. Many of these climbers have large followings on social media. Rock-climbing has thus become a popular adventure sport.


The history of rock climbing is long and ancient. It began with the basic human need for survival. However, it also appealed to a natural instinct for exploration. As a result, people innovated which led to new techniques and technologies. These had many positive social impacts. For instance, the new knowledge could be used for rescues in the Alps.

This history of rock climbing has led to the current popularity of the sport. It is all over social media and photographs of beautiful views flood Instagram. It is now an excellent adventure sport to explore the world and also stay fit. Rock-climbing organizations and competitions have increased its popularity further.

This is, however, not the culmination of the sport. It is continuously evolving. The long history of rock climbing is evidence of this. It provides a constant outlet for human competitiveness and a desire to explore. This will ensure that it remains relevant for years to come.