History of Rock Climbing



  • @Alan-Rubin

    Much of what Alan says above matches my experience, but I would add one caveat: While it is true that climbing can be just as challenging and exhilarating now as it was 100 or 150 years ago, it is, for almost all climbers, mostly quite safe -- something that was definitely not the case in its early days.

    Yes, one can still go out, push past the limits of safety, and maybe not come home again. But nylon ropes, an incredible array of solid protection devices, clothing that renders weather almost irrelevant, SAR groups that are ready and able to save your ass, and a communication network that can put you in touch with those SAR folks almost no matter where you are...

    So, yes, there are millions of climbers out there enjoying the challenge and exhilaration of rocks and mountains, but I wonder how many of them would be doing it if the safety net were taken away. If the chances of not coming home again went up a hundredfold?



  • @David-Harris The 'much safer' part is definitely true, though even in the 'early days', while all participants were operating at a fairly high level of risk, and some more so than others, there were those who were already developing techniques to reduce those risks--techniques that were often adopted by the majority of practitioners. But even accounting for that significant difference, I still believe that a basic 'commonality' between climbers then and now exists that would have most of us 'speaking the same language' despite the changes that have been wrought over time.



  • One I have yet to see mentioned that may deal with some aspects of climbing culture is The Games Climbers Play, an anthology of essays edited by Ken Wilson originally published 1978. I have the Sierra Clubs book republished edition copyrighted 1980. No clue about any subsequent republications as it does not enjoy a particularly good rep in modern times. Like most such collections, it's more suitable for consumption as an essay here and an essay there than a front to back continuous read.

    Not the comprehensive academic treatment Mr. Gill seeks but maybe still of interest for others hereabouts. 🐕



  • @toby Agreed that "The Games Climbers Play" is a terrific anthology of climbing writing, and probably a good source of historical perspective.

    Ken also published two more equally large anthologies. "Mirrors in the Cliffs", edited by Jim Perrin came out in 1983, and then "One Step in the Clouds", edited by Audrey Salkeld, in 1991.

    "Mirrors" was pretty much "Games, Part II". Lots of great climbing writing. But "One Step" was completely different -- all fiction. Dozens of short stories, a couple of novellas, maybe a play, and two full length novels -- Elizabeth Coxhead's "One Green Bottle" which some consider the best climbing-related fiction ever, and my own "Vortex", which was runner-up for the Boardman-Tasker prize that year.

    Like "Games" both these books provide plenty of historical perspective.



  • David! Thanks for the information. I have Games Climbers Play, & Mirrors in the Cliffs, but did not know about "One Step In the Clouds." Something I need to go looking for with the Holidaze coming. Last week I ordered two copies of "Continental Divide A History of American Mountaineering by Maurice Isserman." Slacker was correct. Amazon vendors are all but giving them away.



  • @FritzRay Well, if you do lay your hands on a copy of "One Step in the Clouds" you'll find in it the novella "Mother Goddess of the World" by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    Before you read that novella, go online and find a copy of Robinson's "Escape From Kathmandu", a collection of four novellas of which "Mother Goddess" is the second. Yes, it can stand alone, but is much better if read in sequence.

    Why am I putting this in the history thread? Because the stories in "Escape From Kathmandu" provide a look into a side of Himalayan climbing that you are not going to find in any mainstream climbing article or book. But which I wish I'd been a part of.

    And, as a side note, in the year in which my novel "Vortex" took second in the Boardman-Tasker prize (Vic Saunders won with "Elusive Summits), "Escape From Kathmandu" didn't even make the short list. It is an incomparably better book than either mine or Vic's, and the publisher submitted it, but the clowns on the B-T committee that year had their heads so far up their serious mountaineering asses that they completely ignored it. Philistines.





  • @FritzRay said in History of Rock Climbing:

    but did not know about "One Step In the Clouds."

    A good history, but pretty hard to read. It is worth having for the history, but in general a sleep inducer.





  • @jgill - I went straight to that chapter the other night and realized that you are mentioned in the footnotes , regarding an email exchange you had with the author in 2014, that chapter was a pretty interesting read.



  • My old friend Jim McCarthy is leading an effort to record on video old timers who were in the climbing game before they vanish from Earth. Jim led the AAC in the 1960s when he was a trial attorney in NYC, and he has been very involved with the organization since. Unfortunately, some of us in this generation - layton, Royal, etc. - are or were fading or have passed before being interviewed. This is being done supposedly under the auspices of the AAC, but I'm not sure how much that really means. The AAC seems to be moving in another direction, with grants for kids who like to climb and competitions. I may be entirely off base about this, and if there are AAC officials who can provide a counter-argument, please do so. I dropped out several years ago.



  • @jgill John, I don't know if you know Steve Grossman, but he has been recording that history for many years. He set up a non-profit, The North American Climbing History Archive (NACHA) and has hundreds of hours of video (as well as some audio) of the recollections of the people you are talking about, many of whom are gone now.

    He also has put a significant collection of equipment from the past, and a huge library of books and other printed material, into NACHA.

    I'll be happy to put you in touch with him if you like -- just message me here on this site.



  • Yes, I know Steve through SuperTopo. Unfortunately, his website has never gotten off the ground, although as you say he has hundreds of hours of recordings. They may just be sitting there, stored away somewhere. If he crops up here he could discuss his project. Jim, on the other hand, has sufficient funds available for his expensive enterprise. Hopefully, the AAC will truly buy into it rather than sending out letters soliciting money for youngsters.



  • @jgill Hello John, While I am not always in agreement with the AAC 'powers that be' and some of their policies, I do think that the Club strives to support climbing in many ways. In light of that, it seems reasonable to assume that the Club's support for Jim's project is 'legit'---and I'm sure that Jim still has sufficient 'clout' to make sure it is. I do that that it would be great for Jim , Steve, you--and others, to pool 'historical resources' so that there is a common and accessible repository of such information available to all who are interested--now and in the future.



  • I've sent Steve an email inviting him to chime in if he wants.



  • " In light of that, it seems reasonable to assume that the Club's support for Jim's project is 'legit'---and I'm sure that Jim still has sufficient 'clout' to make sure it is"

    Apart from preserving the finest mountaineering library in the world, I'm not sure where the AAC is going. But you are correct about Jim's clout ☺ .



  • Here's one for all of you who are interested in climbing history. A short film of the first ascent of one of the first desert towers to be climbed. Agathlan, in 1949. Definitely worth watching. And then worth thinking about as you sort your gear for your next climb.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0K-IwCjUf3w&feature=youtu.be



  • Thank you David for sharing the magic! I thought your essay was great and admit that that same sentiment was what motivated me in the past to post TRs on rec.climbing and Supertopo back in the day as well as publish some photos and writing in the climbing mags 20+ years ago.

    I'm curious what issues did David Brower and Galen Rowell have with your talk?



  • On the recommend of David Harris, I bought a copy of One Step In The Clouds at the end of November. I never got around to it until mid-Feb. & have now waded through all 1,023 pages of fictional climbing stories in it. I commend David for his wonderful & very-readable 198 pg. novel, which is the last story, but one of the best stories in the book.

    Unfortunately, per his below advice, I forgot his advice on Mother Goddess of the World, by Kim Stanley Robinson, but I enjoyed the novella in this book, second only to David's novel.

    I can certainly see why David's novel placed high in the Boardman Tasker awards. I suspect it didn't place first, since it is also a crime detective novel.

    Let me also note the first 286 pages of the book are climbing short stories, & although I enjoyed some, others were certainly sleep-inducing.

    @David-Harris said in History of Rock Climbing:

    Well, if you do lay your hands on a copy of "One Step in the Clouds" you'll find in it the novella "Mother Goddess of the World" by Kim Stanley Robinson.
    Before you read that novella, go online and find a copy of Robinson's "Escape From Kathmandu", a collection of four novellas of which "Mother Goddess" is the second. Yes, it can stand alone, but is much better if read in sequence.
    Why am I putting this in the history thread? Because the stories in "Escape From Kathmandu" provide a look into a side of Himalayan climbing that you are not going to find in any mainstream climbing article or book. But which I wish I'd been a part of.
    And, as a side note, in the year in which my novel "Vortex" took second in the Boardman-Tasker prize (Vic Saunders won with "Elusive Summits), "Escape From Kathmandu" didn't even make the short list. It is an incomparably better book than either mine or Vic's, and the publisher submitted it, but the clowns on the B-T committee that year had their heads so far up their serious mountaineering asses that they completely ignored it. Philistines.

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  • @bargainhunt said in History of Rock Climbing:

    I'm curious what issues did David Brower and Galen Rowell have with your talk?

    Galen's was just a minor harrumph over my comment that, in the period after WW II, the US went through an age of plenty, with a strong economy and work for anyone who wanted it. Which, in general, was true, so I'm not sure what bugged him. And, unlike Brower, he wasn't upset or angry.

    And Brower? Well, he misunderstood what I was getting at with the big change in climbing writing led by Ascent and Mountain. He thought I meant that prior to 1967 there had been no good climbing writing. I tried to explain to him in the Q&A after the address that what I said was not that that the style of climbing writing that he had grown up with and contributed to was bad, but rather that it did not resonate with the bulk of climbers who had come to the rocks and mountains in the post-war period.

    I think that was clear to everyone else in the room, but he never got it.


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