The Forgotten Roots of Rock Climbing
Updated: Mar 25
While most historical accounts of rock climbing begin in Europe in the 19th century, climbing can actually be traced to prehistoric societies around the globe.
Most historical accounts of rock climbing claim that climbing originated in Europe in the late 19th century as a leisure activity of the wealthy.
Walter Parry Haskett Smith, credited as the “father of rock climbing,” is thought to have popularized climbing as an athletic pursuit with his free solo first ascent of the strikingly phallic Napes Needle in 1886. But recent research by anthropologists has uncovered traditions of climbing in prehistoric societies around the globe, including evidence suggesting that early hominids climbed almost before they could walk.
In ancient cultures, cliff climbing was often associated with spiritual traditions such as burial rites, some of which endure to this day. China’s Miao people, colloquially known as “spider-men” for their ancestral practice of free soloing to reach lofty burial sites, now climb to gather herbs used in traditional medicine.
The Igorot tribe of the northern Philippines “bury” their dead in hanging coffins suspended from vertical cliffsides.
Nepalese Sherpa people have lived and climbed in the high altitude environment of the Himalayas for centuries, developing incredible mountaineering abilities. In what is now Colorado, a widely known hub of modern rock climbing, ancient Puebloans lived in cliff dwellings accessible only by scaling the mesas some 1000 years ago. The first cave paintings depicting ropes used for climbing are estimated to be approximately 45,000 years old. Humans, it seems, were built to climb–and we’ve been doing it since long before Europeans started climbing recreationally on holiday.
A Turn Towards Exclusivity
Few climbers today, however, seem aware of these origins. Rock climbing has indeed become an upper-middle-class, disproportionately white activity–and within the climbing community, it’s generally accepted that it’s always been this way. As of 2019, over 80% of climbers in the US were white; under 10% were Asian, under 5% were Hispanic, only 1% were Black and only 1% were Indigenous (Native American). Barriers to entry such as the high cost of gear, gym memberships, and youth climbing programs–as well as the culture of climbing elitism, exclusion and the current lack of representation–discourage many BIPOC from taking up climbing.
The existence of routes and crags referred to by racially or sexually derogatory names further stymies diversifying efforts. The roots of rock climbing as traditional and deeply spiritual ways of connecting with the land often go ignored, and there have been instances of climbers violating agreements with tribal leaders while climbing on Indigenous land such as the Lakota sacred site known as Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. The increasing popularity of the sport has also resulted in strain on many wilderness ecosystems when climbers don’t follow responsible outdoor etiquette.
So what happened? How has rock climbing, once an integral part of many indigenous cultures and a necessary survival skill for prehistoric humans, become a leisure activity reserved for the wealthy and white? And what can we do to honor its roots and welcome all people to reclaim it as an inherently human activity?
Climbing Spreads to the United States
Around the time of Walter Perry Haskett Smith’s aforementioned pioneering ascent, scrambling up ever more daunting and vertical rock faces became a popular athletic pursuit in several areas of Western Europe. Over the next few decades, an already popular sport, alpinism, diverged into the distinct practices of mountaineering and rock climbing, with the latter growing steadily in popularity as it spread to other parts of the globe.
During the first half of the twentieth century, American climbers began tackling increasingly difficult routes, eventually developing yet another distinct discipline of climbing in Colorado–bouldering–focused not on summiting tall cliffs, but completing athletic and technical moves on smaller boulders. John Gill, called the “father of modern bouldering,” is credited with inventing this discipline as we know it. Meanwhile, groups of intrepid dirtbags chased the clifftops in Yosemite (ancestral Miwok land), pushing the limits of both human performance and the gear of the day with feats such as Lynn Hill’s previously “impossible” free ascent of The Nose in 1993. During the 1980’s, the controversial practice of drilling bolts into the rock for protection became normalized, opening areas like Smith Rock State Park (ancestral land of the Northern Paiute people) to bolted “sport climbing”. Chris Sharma’s record-breaking career began in the late 90’s, pushing the limits of sport climbing to unprecedented levels.
For the duration of most of this development, environmental conservation was a relatively new idea, and “leave-no-trace” ethics were unheard of. Indeed, much of the exploration that led to the development of climbing would be frowned upon if it occurred in the same way today. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that climbers became conscious of minimizing environmental impact and switched from pitons, which permanently damage rock, to nuts and cams as protection for trad climbing. In the U.S., awareness of the Indigenous history of the land was just as scarce, leading to exploitative alpine exploration on Native land. It was taken for granted that those who had access to state and national parks and private ranchland–and could travel freely–were the natural demographic to “pioneer” the sport of rock climbing.
The rise of climbing gyms around the world served to popularize the sport further, and provided a quicker and lower-commitment avenue into the sport for beginners. Rather than democratizing the sport, the advent of indoor facilities exacerbated the lack of diversity in the climbing community as a culture of elitism and exclusivity solidified around the mostly white, mostly male elite climbers of the day. Today, the cost of gym memberships, gear, and travel pose a daunting barrier to any prospective climber without considerable means, especially in competition climbing, which involves pricey registration fees and team memberships in addition to travel and training expenses. In this context, it’s not surprising that climbing ended up so white and wealthy.
Fortunately, there has been a recent surge of awareness in the climbing community regarding the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in outdoor sports. Organizations dedicated to diversifying the sport and supporting underrepresented climbers include Climbing for Change, Brown Girls Climb, and Climbers of Color, groups such as Indigenous Womxn Climb and Brothers of Climbing, and events like Color the Crag and the Women’s Climbing Festival. If you’re a climber and you want to help diversify your community, supporting these organizations is a great place to start.
Welcoming new climbers from diverse backgrounds, encouraging climbing gyms to host affinity groups and increase diverse representation in their hiring practices, and listening to (and believing!) the experiences of minority climbers are crucial steps that climbers can take to make the sport more accessible to historically excluded groups. And don’t forget, giving away or selling your used gear is another great way to lower costs and reduce financial barriers to entry into many different outdoor sports!
Ultimately, the endeavor to reconnect climbing with its roots as a universally human activity centers around respect. Respect the land you’re climbing on and its historical inhabitants by making yourself aware of the indigenous history of climbing areas and observing tribal rights and treaties. Respect natural ecosystems and wildlife by staying on trails and minding your environmental impact. Respect other climbers by sharing space at the gym, crag, or boulders, and putting forth an effort to make all humans feel welcome in the climbing community. Historical context has influenced the sport of climbing in ways that contradict its origins, making it exclusive, expensive, and demographically homogenous–but it doesn’t have to be. Climbing in its purest form is something we can and should all have equal opportunity to enjoy.