A sport, a philosophy, and an art: the history of climbing

Young athletes climb hard routes and boulders in the new Kletterzentrum Innsbruck: that was the essence of the Youth Climbing World Championships that took place from August 30 to September 10. For the first time at an international event, the athletes did not only compete in Lead, Bouldering and Speed, but also in the combined discipline. This is due to the IOCs 2016 decision to includes sport climbing in the programme of the 2020 Olympic Games, where the Combined will be the only discipline. The current events and developments are a good reason to look at the beginnings of climbing, its current state, and how it got to where it is today.

A history of climbing can begin in many places. This one begins with mountaineering, a famous Italian poet, and a riddle: Francesco Petrarca wrote a letter to the Augustine monk Francesco Dionigi of Borgo San Seopolcro, claiming that together with his brother and a few others, he had climbed the 1912 meters high Mont Ventoux in the Provence (France) in 1336. The only goal of the expedition had been, so he said, to reach the summit, something unheard of at the time. This event is often considered as the birth of alpinism. Historians have not been able to shed light on all the details, however. It remains unclear, when Petrarca wrote the letter and how authentic his descriptions are. And was it really him who was the first person to climb a mountain with no other intention than reaching the summit?

One thing is certain. Petrarca's letter is one of the most interesting and intense descriptions of the pull that the mountains exert on humans.
In Petrarca's days, there was no difference between "climbing" and "mountaineering", and it would only be a few centuries later that this would change.

Saxon Switzerland: a crucial stepping stone in the development of sport climbing

Fast forward to 1864: In the Saxon Switzerland in Germany, Gustav Tröger, August Hering, Ernst Fischer, Johannes Wähnert and Heinrich Frenzel, five members of a gymnastics club from Bad Schwandau, climbed an impressive, freestanding tower named Falkenstein. Their motives were purely athletic. Yet, they used artificial means like ladders for upward progress. Ten years later, in 1874, the Mönchstein tower in the same area was climbed by Otto Ewald Ufer and Hermann J. Frick, this time without artificial means. They used the rope and other aid solely for protection. This was the beginning of the success story of free climbing, which would soon be known around the globe.

Free climbing is now the most common way of climbing. In 1913, Dr. Rudolf Fehrmann formulated a set of rules called "Saxon Climbing Rules", that had also been called for by the famous German soloist Paul Preuss. The rules say that gear and ropes can only be used for protection, but not for progress. Artificial (aid) climbing didn't disappear and evolved in parallel. Aid climbing persists on big walls, in particular on first ascents in remote regions, where free climbing is not possible.

In order to qualify and compare ascents, Dr. Oscar Schuster developed a grading system in 1893. Back then, there were three grades (I, II, III). Since, it has seen two major changes (adding IV, V, and VI; and then, making it open-ended). In 2017, Adam Ondra climbed Silence on Norway, a climb for which he proposed XII or 9c.

First competitions in the 20th century. 

In the 20th century, climbing's popularity steadily rises. The emigration of mostly German climbers (in particular Fritz Wiessner) to the US brought Saxon free climbing rules to the States. In the decades that followed, free climbing changed and evolved in the United States and in particular in California. In Europe, free climbing virtually disappeared in the 1950es, only to be resurrected in the late 60es. The writing and the climbing of Reinhold Messner, a South-Tyrolean mountaineer, were very influential and crucial in this regard. Climbing is seen as an art and a lifestyle, in which freedom and experience are key elements. A well-known ambassador of this approach was the German climber Wolfgang Güllich. Climbing reached more and more people around the world. An important stepping stone was the climbing festival in Konstein in 1981, later called the "Woodstock of German climbing" where John Bachar, Wolfgang Güllich and others met and climbed the hardest routes in the Frankenjura.

Competitions emerged in the second half of the 20th century, with mountaineering and speed competitions taking place in the Soviet Union starting in the 50es. The first international competitions came up in the 80es. Bardonecchia and Arco in Northern Italy were home to some particularly prominent early competitions. Sport Roccia in 1985 is usually considered to be the very first international sport climbing competition. Back then, the event was held on rock. Soon, things changed and competitions were held on artificial structures. This was a major change, as the Austrian climber Barbara Bacher emphasized in an interview during the Youth World Climbing 2017: "I have grown up with climbing. We spent a lot of time outside, compared to today there were virtually no climbing gyms. Today, there are more facilities to train in, and people who compete climb inside more and more. There are two worlds, you could say: those who climb outside, and those who climb indoors and compete. Nonetheless, I would say that both can go hand in hand."

The first climbing world championships took place in 1991 in Frankfurt, Germany. François Legrand from France and Susi Good from Switzerland took the Gold medals. Legrand also won the first World Cup. Among the World Cups, the Lead World Cup is the oldest. It first took place in 1991. In 1998, Speed and Bouldering followed. Back then, the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA) was responsible for the organisation of competitions. In order to make sport climbing more autonomous, the International Council for Competition Climbing (ICC), a sub-division of the UIAA, was founded. In 2007, its successor, the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) was founded. It is independent from the IFSC.

The most recent developments in sport climbing.

For the first time ever, climbers will take part in the Olympic games in Tokyo in 2020. This is probably the major development (and challenge) in the last years. In order to prepare the event, the combined event (lead, bouldering, speed) is tested at international events. This was the case for the first time at the Youth World Championships 2017 in Innsbruck.

The history of sport climbing shows how much climbing has changed without forgetting its roots: Climbing outdoors and the freedom that comes with it. Climbing on rocks and in gyms go together, says Barbara Bacher: "For good athletes, climbing outdoors is an integral part of climbing. You have to find your way. Gyms have made things easier, also for training, because a different level is possible. The development is interesting, if you consider where climbing has started and what a path it has taken."

Besides the athletic importance of climbing, it is also a lifestyle, a philosophy, that supports team-building, confidence, and concentration. In schools, climbing walls appear. The children can do sports and train the aforementioned skills. With the Olympics, climbing has reached an important point, but it will change in the future. Young climbers, who's skill we have seen in Innsbruck, will define the development of the sport.

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