In the history of rock climbing,[a] the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall (and multi-pitch) climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the late-1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

As a free solo exercise with no artificial aid or climbing protection, bouldering remained largely consistent since its origins. Single-pitch climbing generally stopped using artificial aid in the early 20th-century, led by Paul Preuss, so-called "free climbing". Free climbing of Big Walls started before World War I, and was advanced by Emil Solleder in the 20s, Batista Vinatzer in the 30s, and Mathias Rebitsch in the late-40s. Climbing protection was needed for single-pitch and big-wall free climbing, and was inserted into the route while climbing; this is now called "traditional climbing". By the 1980s, French pioneers like Patrick Edlinger wanted to climb rock faces in Buoux and Verdon that had few cracks in which to insert traditional climbing protection. Controversially, they pre-drilled bolts from above on rappel, using battery powered drills, into potential new routes for protection (but not as artificial aid); this became known as "sport climbing". It led to a dramatic increase in climbing standards, grades, and tools (e.g. artificial climbing walls and campus boards), the development of competition climbing (initially dominated in the 1990s by French climbers such as François Legrand), and the "professional" rock climber.

By the end of the 20th-century, the hardest sport climbs were often combinations of bouldering-moves, and some of the best challenges lay in free climbing extreme big walls; this led to greater cross-over amongst the three sub-disciplines. Leading climbers such as Wolfgang Güllich, Jerry Moffatt, Alexander Huber, Fred Nicole, Chris Sharma, Adam Ondra, and Tommy Caldwell set records in several of these disciplines. Güllich and Huber also made ever-bolder single-pitch free solo climbs, while Sharma pushed standards in deep-water soloing; Alex Honnold's big wall free soloing was turned into the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo. In 2016, the IOC announced that competition climbing would be a medal sport in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Female rock climbing developed later in the 20th-century but by the 1980s, climbers such as Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle were closing the gap to the standard of routes being climbed by the leading men. By the 21st-century, Josune Bereziartu, Angela Eiter and Ashima Shiraishi, had closed the gap to the highest sport and boulder climbing grades achieved by men to within one/two notches; Beth Rodden fully closed the gap for traditional climbing grades in 2008 and Janja Garnbret became the most successful competition climber in history with 42 IFSC world cup golds.


The forest of Fontainebleau, the birthplace of bouldering at the turn of the 20th-century.

There are early documented examples of people "rock climbing" to achieve various objectives. The Le Quart Livre [fr] records that in 1492, ordered by his king, Antoine de Ville used castle siege tactics to ascend Mont Aiguille, a 300-meter rock tower, near Grenoble, France.[1][2] In 1695, Martin Martin described the traditional practice of fowling by climbing with the use of ropes in the Hebrides of Scotland, especially on St Kilda.[3]

The first ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, started mountaineering's "modern era"; however it would take another century until the fixed anchors of rock climbing appeared, including pitons, bolts, and rappel slings.[4] By the early 19th-century, "alpine rock climbing" was developing as a pastime; the tools of the alpine shepherd guides (early mountain guides), the alpenstock and woodcutter's axe (later combined as the ice axe).[2]

Although the action of rock climbing had become a component of 19th-century victorian era Alpine mountaineering,[1] a sport of rock climbing (i.e. climbing short rock routes as a recreational activity without any summit objective), originated in the last quarter of the 19th-century, and in four European locations:[1][5] the Saxon Switzerland climbing region in Germany,[6] the Lake District and Peak District in England,[7][8] the Dolomites in Italy,[9] and in the forest of Fontainebleau in France.[1]

19th century

Falkenstein, in Saxon Switzerland where routes above grade 6a (5.10a) were first climbed in 1906.[11]
Vajolet Towers, Dolomites; Torre Winkler, named after Georg Winkler, is the largest tower (centre); and was the start of early big wall climbing[1]


Oliver Perry-Smith (right) freed the first 6a (5.10a) with Perrykante in 1906 in the Saxon Switzerland; a region where the world's first 6a/a+ (Südriss, 1910), 6a+ (Westkante, 1918), 6a+/b (Kuniskante, 1921), 6b (Rostkante, 1922), and 6b+ (Talseite, 1952) would also be freed.[21]




In the 1930s, Emilio Comici (left) and Riccardo Cassin (right, once taught by Comici) pioneered big wall climbing tools and techniques, and set new "hardest-ever" routes in the Alps.



In the 1950s, "Father of Bouldering" John Gill, pioneered modern bouldering and set several new "hardest-ever" grades.[26]
Walter Bonatti's iconic ascent of the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru cemented his status as one of the greatest big wall climbers in history.


Royal Robbins led Yosemite's big wall "Golden Age" from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, minimizing use of aid, unlike his rival Warren J. Harding.[33]


By the 1970s, free climbing was a global sport with many leaders, including Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA, photo left and right)


Wolfgang Güllich became the world's strongest sport climber by the mid-1980s and would set more new "hardest-ever" sport climbing routes than any other climber in history, and revolutionize climbing training techniques.


Alexander Huber and Lynn Hill were two of the most dominant male and female rock climbers of the 1990s, setting new "hardest-ever" records in both sport climbing and big wall climbing.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, sport climber Fred Nicole revolutionized bouldering standards, and set several new "hardest-ever" records.[71]


Chris Sharma and Josune Bereziartu were two of the most dominant male and female rock climbers of the 2000s, each breaking new "hardest-ever" grades on multiple occasions


In the 2010s, Adam Ondra took on the mantle of "world's strongest climber" from Chris Sharma, with Angela Eiter the strongest female climber.
Alex Honnold (left) and Tommy Caldwell (right) made two of the most iconic climbs in history at Yosemite, both of which became Netflix films


See also


  1. ^ Rock climbing does not include general mountaineering or ice climbing-related disciplines such as alpine climbing (although it does include Alpine big wall climbing), or mixed climbing
  2. ^ The two principal uses of pitons on an ascent are as protective safeguards (not used for actual hand or footholds - climbers refrained from putting weight on them except in the event of a fall) and as direct aid (used to physically assist in ascending a steep or overhanging slope rather than merely as protection). Climbers like Paul Preuss and Geoffrey Winthrop Young argued strongly against direct aid, but others of that era, including Hans Dülfer and Tita Piaz, advocated using such devices as artificial aids in order to climb otherwise unscalable walls. After World War I most European climbers chose to employ artificial aid when necessary. However, from the beginning days of rock climbing as a sport, through the 1940s, another form of artificial assistance was at times employed by teams of two or more climbers: the shoulder stand. From our current perspective, it seems odd that many of those climbers who strenuously objected to hanging on a piton found the shoulder stand to be quite acceptable. Occasionally, historical climbing photos, (e.g., [1]) illustrate this strategy, which arose from the perception that ascending a route was a team effort, with two climbers constituting one natural climbing unit. Something to keep in mind when reading of very early climbs in the 5.8 to 5.10 range.


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