Updated: Jul 13
Every climber is an individual with their own story, passions and motivations. Collectively, the climbing community has some shared values: adventure, thrill, challenge, creativity, competition, athleticism, flow, fun and community, to name a few. And for those who love to climb outdoors, they may value the sense of connection it brings them to their natural environment. Supporting what is a truly unique challenge to both mind and body, these common values have driven the sport of climbing into previously unthinkable frontiers, into massive and seemingly ever-growing popularity, to the point where we now see Olympic athletes competing in climbing events, as well as cities full of climbing gyms, catering to children, amateurs, corporate team building, recreational as well as serious competitive athletes. Aside from the likely additional increase in popularity of the sport after its debut at the Olympics, what is next? What will the new frontiers in climbing be? What will the future of climbing look like?
In a series of five articles, we explore some of the ways the sport of climbing intersects with the issues of environmental breakdown and climate change: what climbing might look like on a hotter planet, how indoor climbing gyms are pivoting to be more sustainable, how famous climbers use their platforms for advocacy and how climbers' diets can contribute to the problem and the solutions.
This first piece is an exploration of what we have inherited from the rich history of climbing, and how the sport has been shaped into its current form - by climbers and climbing communities who largely shared those same values, as well as the growth of indoor gyms. Has indoor climbing also embraced the environmental ethic that was central to climbing during its development and can harness and nurture the love for climbing - and the values that connect us as climbers - to protect our planet too?
The historical emergence of bouldering
Conventional historical accounts would have us believe that climbing has its origins in Victorian mountaineering in the French Alps. However, we know as humans that we only have to look up to have a desire to climb. People have always climbed rocks, mountains and cliffs. Anthropologists point to our rock climbing roots beginning in Africa millions of years ago and evidence of early human technical climbing in caves and on cliffs can also be found in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Climbing grew and flourished amongst our ancestors as an essential activity connected to our place in our environment, as well as a way of navigating and exploring it, long before it became a hobby in western societies.
The growth of recreational climbing in Europe from the start of the 20th century is relatively well documented. Less well documented were developments elsewhere in the world, although we know (sometimes from European records) that there were also significant achievements in climbing elsewhere on what are now known to be the highest peaks in the world. Jumping ahead to more recent history, we can see that recreational climbing has been pushed in many different directions, partly spurred by developments in gear technology and partly by the competitive spirit of climbing. The movie Valley Uprising gives a fascinating, if somewhat US-centric, account of some of the significant developments in tactics, techniques and technology-driven by different climbers and groups, from the 1940s to more recent times, at Yosemite National Park, USA. It also gives an account of how developments in climbing as a sport in the US emerged in part from associations with influential personalities, often as part of a counter-culture, sometimes involving hallucinogenic drugs and always involving risk, rebellion and innovation. Despite many diverse influences, there was a common theme: an appreciation of nature and the environment and a desire to protect it.
The sport of climbing that we love and recognize today (especially bouldering, and top rope) has its roots firmly in this history and was shaped by the developments in the latter half of the 20th century. In other words, we owe our favourite hobby to these pioneers of the sport. But it is also worth asking, have we also inherited the environmental values of our climbing ancestors?
The environmental philosophies of pioneer climbers
A key development in that period was the shift from ‘aid’ climbing to ‘free’ climbing. Climbing for recreation in the early to mid-20th century was dominated by aid climbing, initially using metal pegs hammered into the rock to ascend. In the early 1970s, climbers began to argue this was destructive to nature and advocated for less invasive forms of protection on both free and aid climbs. Others saw reliance on artificial aids as just that: an unnatural way to ascend, an over-reliance on technology as a way to conquer nature. In response, the popularity of free climbing grew, and the dominant ethos increasingly became one of exploring the limits of the human body, relying only upon physical strength and technical ability, the expert placing of hands and feet, using the increasingly high tech equipment for safety purposes only. The philosophy was to accept and respect nature, to accept the pull of gravity, and to work within these key natural boundaries.
The ascent of climbing gyms