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A photograph of a man rock climbing

A brief history of rock climbing

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‘Every route is a choreography for me. A creation. I see myself as an artist, and I paint with movement on nature’s canvas.’ If the words of Matt Bush sound a bit pretentious or precious, bear in mind that he’s no ordinary rock climber: he’s a free soloist, which means he ascends rock faces completely alone and without any ropes or safety equipment. The merest slip of the foot would mean certain death. Watching him work is like watching the most high-stakes piece of performance art in the world: a show that makes spectators cover their eyes and clench their sweaty palms in fear.

But just how did we get from the early days of mountaineering to the nerve-shredding, free solo daredevils of today?

The earliest pioneers

It’s impossible to pinpoint when humans started to clamber up looming peaks. It stands to reason the practice began back in the earliest periods of civilisation when travellers and explorers would have to climb out of necessity rather than for pleasure. One of the first confirmed mountaineers in the historical record was Antoine de Ville, a servant in the court of France’s Charles VIII, who conquered Mount Aiguille in the French Prealps in 1492. It was a technically complex climb, involving ropes and ladders, and is generally considered the starting point of what would become known as mountaineering.

Another major milestone came centuries later, in 1786, when two Frenchmen, Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, made the first ascent of Mont Blanc, Europe’s most iconic peak. It was regarded as a stunning accomplishment, not least because the pair did it without ice axes or ropes, on a route which seemed impossible to conquer.

Rock climbing is all about the act of climbing itself, climbing for its own sake

Mountaineering, or ‘alpinism’ became a fully-fledged sporting passion in the Victorian era, with a key figure being Alfred Wills, who reached the summit of the Wetterhorn in the Swiss Alps in 1854. He wasn’t the first climber to conquer the mountain, but his book detailing his adventures in the Alps helped trigger a craze for mountaineering and establish it as a legitimate sport. (That said, he’s best remembered today as the hardline judge who sent Oscar Wilde to jail for gross indecency, saying that anyone who engaged in homosexual acts ‘must be dead to all sense of shame’).

From mountaineering to rock climbing

Rock climbing isn’t quite the same thing as mountaineering. The latter has a much wider scope, encompassing things like orienteering, hiking, skiing and climbing itself. Mountaineering is also associated with the challenge of actually reaching a summit, while rock climbing is all about the act of climbing itself, climbing for its own sake.

A man named Walter Parry Haskett Smith is often thought of as the father of rock climbing, as distinct from mountaineering. Born in 1859 and hailing from a privileged, Etonian background, he came of age well after the Victorian alpining boom, but was more interested in the discipline of climbing itself. His most iconic achievement came in 1886, when he clambered up Napes Needle, a piercing rocky outcrop on the Great Gable mountain in the Lake District. The picturesque quality of Napes Needle, its neat and starkly looming shape, made it an irresistible climb, and his adventure helped put rock climbing on the map.

The kinds of climbing

Over time, various genres of rock climbing have evolved into existence. For a long time throughout the early to mid-20th century, aid climbing was widespread. As the name suggests, this means climbing by artificial means. The climber hammers a metal peg into a crack in the rock and attaches nylon rungs which he or she can then ascend like a ladder, before repeating the process.

However, even back in the earliest days of climbing, many aficionados saw this as a bit of a cop out – an ‘unnatural’ way to ascend. An early alpinist called Paul Preuss dismissed such tools, saying ‘With artificial climbing aids you have transformed the mountains into a mechanical plaything’. A different technique, known as free climbing, eventually became far more popular.

This involves climbing using your own strength only, through the expert placing of hands and feet. Equipment is still used, but only as a safety measure, with a rope harness preventing climbers falling to their deaths. There are various sub-types of free climbing to choose from, including sport climbing (where the route is pre-marked with bolts to which the climbers attach their clips as they go) and trad climbing (where the climbers mark out their own route with their own tools as they go). Trad climbing is unsurprisingly regarded as the more ‘authentic’ kind of climbing, requiring more daring and discipline.

But when it comes to the thorny subject of ‘authenticity', there’s one type of climbing that takes things to controversial heights.

Free soloing: genius or madness?

Free soloing, or climbing without any rope or safety equipment whatsoever, arouses fierce debate in the climbing world. Many believe it to be an utterly irresponsible activity which shouldn’t be encouraged or promoted, given the number of free solo climbers who’ve fallen and died. Others are awe-struck by free soloing, seeing it as the ultimate expression of a rock climber’s art.

Arguably the most famous free solo climber on the planet is Alex Honnold, a mild-mannered American climber whose gentle, doe-eyed appearance belies his steely resolve in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. He became globally known for scaling El Capitan, a towering rock in Yosemite National Park that is seen as one of the ultimate destinations for rock climbers.

As the New York Times put it, climbers would speak of a free solo climb of El Capitan ‘in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel – as a daydream safely beyond human possibility.’

In 2017, Alex Honnold made the impossible daydream a startling reality, conquering the sheer face of the 3,000 ft landmark without safety gear. To those watching, this kind of rock climbing seems magical – a human being seemingly magnetized to the flat expanse of an unforgiving mountain. Yet, in reality, free soloing like this usually requires months or years of preparation, of rehearsal climbs with ropes, and careful mapping out of the wall so the climber can plot out the best route to the top.