10 Things You Didn't Know about Sport Climbing's Early Days

10 Things You Didn't Know about Sport Climbing's Early Days

You know those shiny gadgets, techy techniques, and bizzled training facilities we use to hone our sport climbing? Well, guess what: they weren’t invented in a vacuum. A few eureka moments, plus years of refinement, led to the tricks, tools, and techniques we take for granted when we’re out bolt-wrasslin’ today.

1 You can’t sport climb without bolts. Bolts for climbing first appeared in Europe in the 1920s, though in North America, the Scotsman George Anderson had drilled eyebolts for progress and to fix hand lines on his 1875 Half Dome first ascent. In 1939, Raffi Bedayn, David Brower, John Dyer, and Bestor Robinson placed two protection and two anchor bolts on their FA of Shiprock, New Mexico—they used construction eyebolts they’d tested at Pinnacles National Monument, California. And during an August 1946 attempt on Yosemite’s Lost Arrow Spire, John Salathé drilled a bolt for upward progress (direct aid), perhaps becoming the first climber to “dog” on a bolt.

2 Before climbers used cordless hammer drills, hand drilling was the (tedious) game, which partially explains why the first rap-bolted sport routes from the 1980s have minimalist bolting. Things changed in 1987 when Chris Grover, Sean Olmstead, and Doug Phillips used a Bosch Bulldog to equip Smith Rock’s classic 5.13a Churning in the Wake. Grover and Alan Watts, while at a Munich trade show in the mid-1980s, had seen a Hilti poster featuring a power-drill-toting climber in the Verdon Gorge. Back home, they searched for the right tool, eventually talking Phillips, their boss at Metolius Climbing, into buying a company Bosch. “We all hiked down [to the wall] with the drill,” says Grover, “and since Doug paid for it, he drilled the first hole, and Sean drilled the second standing on his shoulders.”

3 Before rope bags, we sportos dragged our cords through the dirt, although some used blue plastic tarps. The first proper rope bag was Scott Frye’s Dirtbag, first sold in 1989, developed after he saw Japanese climbers using a sheet to protect their rope at Smith Rock. Frye had seamstresses sew up 500 units; Dirtbags folded burrito-style, with a webbing-and-buckle closure. Frye sold his bags for two seasons and tried to get REI to carry them, though they told him, “This is too specialized, and no one wants to keep their rope out of the dirt.” Rope bags didn’t go big until the early 1990s, when Metolius Climbing picked up and tweaked the idea, successfully selling units to REI.

4 Beta is key to any well-oiled redpoint, and its origin story can’t be retold enough. Thank the late Shawangunks and Texas climber/wordsmith Jack Mileski, who coined the term around 1981, when films were offered for home viewing in both VHS and Betamax formats. “Let me run the ‘Betamax’ tape for you,” Mileski told fellow Gunkie Mike Freeman metaphorically, describing the 5.12 Kansas City, and then added, “So, Mike, here’s the beta!”

5 A key refinement, the beta map, made its first American print appearance in February 1988 with Christian Griffith’s blow-by-blow topo of the Buoux 5.13c Chouca in his article “Learning to Crawl” (Climbing No. 106). Griffith and Dale Goddard would draw the maps, Griffith recalls, “to deal with the boredom of impoverished rest days... and to compare notes.” When “Learning to Crawl” appeared, says Griffith, “Climbing… in this country was still at a place where you weren’t supposed to hang and work moves.” Thus, the idea of a beta topo “would have been really unique, because Americans would have been embarrassed to admit that they had to try something so much that they’d remember that fine of detail.”

6 Consider making a hard clip by first putting a carabiner on a bolt, then clipping another biner to it, and then slapping in the rope—one method before quickdraws. (The late John Bachar said the Stonemasters, in the early 1970s, called bolted face routes “carabiner climbing.”) We owe thanks to the Colorado climber Jim Erickson for the modern draw. In 1972, Erickson began consistently carrying his four pre-made, nine-inch “UrQuickdraws” that comprised two biners and tied-off 5/8” webbing. Erickson adds that he remembers using similar proto-draws as far back as the mid-1960s in specific instances at Devil’s Lake, in the Gunks, and around Boulder.

7 Rock gyms, by facilitating year-round fitness, have helped us realize 5.15. In America, the first indoor gyms were Seattle’s Vertical Club (1987), the Portland Rock Gym (1988), and the climbing wall at Boulder’s Colorado Athletic Training School (CATS, 1988). But the outdoor Monitor Rock (aka Schurman Rock) in Seattle, built in 1938–’39 by the Works Progress Administration, was America’s first true wall. In the 1930s, Clark Schurman, chief summit guide at Mt. Rainier, started shaping a model of the artificial mountain from clay; his goal was to create a place to safely introduce city slickers to climbing. The beloved 25-foot structure in west Seattle is still well-used.

8 Before gyms, climbers would train, as they still do, on home walls—“woodies,” an English term from the late 1980s. Graeme Alderson, of the Sheffield, England, gym The Climbing Works, recalls, “The first woody that I know about was around 1987–’88; it was wooden holds screwed onto the floor joists in a cellar at Paul Evans’ house in Broomhall.” Alderson says the holds were often carved out of such things as banister rails or dowels.

9 Although whether the fingertip chalk blow actually helps on hard redpoints has yet to be proven, the practice is ubiquitous. The “Euroblow” was in fact popularized by French mega-star Patrick Edlinger in the documentary La vie au bout des doigts (1982), in which we see the trademark blow giving him amazing free-soloing powers, augmented only by filmy running shorts and a red bandana, in France’s Verdon Gorge. Wrote Dale Goddard in a 1988 Climbing piece: “Ever since Edlinger popularized the practice… the French have been conspicuously turning their heads to the side and with a casual expression, blowing their fingertips.”

10 And finally, where would we be without the kneebar—and its attendant leg shaving, stick-um spray, duct tape, and sticky-rubber pads? Perhaps it all started in 1940, with the Sierra Clubber Art Argiewicz and his “Expansion Knee” or “Human Piton.” Realizing that the knee expanded when bent, Argiewicz would stick his knee and other appendages into jam cracks. The blocky, overhanging crags of Sonora, California, and Cave Rock, Nevada, are the likely birthplaces of modern kneebar tech. Tom Herbert, an early driving force at Sonora, recalls using kneepads there by 1989, and remembers being the first climber to glue Stealth rubber to a kneepad. Today’s best-known kneebar capital is Rifle, Colorado, where, in the early 1990s, the Californian Chris Knuth—a Sonora native—began using this knee trickery, in jeans, and the “Colorado etrier” went big.




Previous Comments

Who first invented plastic holds that bolt onto walls?

Charlie Anderson - 01/27/2015 8:54:09

I remembered my aunt telling me about the artificial wall at Simon Fraser University Sport hall. That was in the early 80s.

Lee - 01/27/2015 7:07:54

I don't know when the first European climbing wall went into use, but I well recall climbing at a wall complex in London in 1977. The "euroblow" most certainly predates Edlinger; narcissistic posing with or without chalk has always been a characteristic trait of climbers.

Eric Radack - 11/18/2014 3:24:29

Great read Matt. Thank you.

rolo - 11/17/2014 3:46:16

Then there was the gym at the South Boulder Shopping Center. Steve Ilg worked there in the early 80's and the place became a climber's gym. He glued holds on the split-face block wall on the outside and built a low, but massive concrete poured crack tower. That must have been 82/83.

Edward Gerety - 11/17/2014 10:19:27

I'm pretty sure we had one (power drill) late fall of 1986 drilling at Shelf Rd.

Bob D'Antonio - 09/03/2014 9:16:57

Douglas "Off" White and Lloyd Johnson fashioned an awesome climbing wall on The Evergreen State College campus in 1979. Granite holds bolted to the side of the athletic complex. You could get a pretty awesome pump there; good (5.12) climbers fell off of it all the time.

bvb - 09/03/2014 10:13:17

The "Inland Wall" at the University of MN Duluth was finished the winter of 88-89. It is concrete on wood and mesh frame. Hasn't required any improvement through its life and continues to offer up new and unique movement. 5.easy to 5.11 routes, molded into the concrete. Nothing modular.

Lucas Kramer - 04/16/2014 9:25:08

As the guy who owned the first power drill on the East Coast, in March of 1988 (roughly a year after the first appearance of the power drill at Smith Rock) I showed up with it - a Bosch Bulldog - at the New River Gorge and immediately did a route with my long time climbing partner, Eric Horst, called "Mega Magic 12c". The route name had as much to do with the climbing shoe by the same name as it did with the power drill. Three more routes went in that day as we finished up with "Team Machine 12a". An incredible tool that changed our sport forever. Amazing how the velocity of new routes accelerated with the new equipment and within a month all the other activists at the New - meaning Mike Artz and Doug Reed - had both bought Hilti's. What an amazing time in climbing!

Rick "rico" Thompson - 04/08/2014 7:41:31

Fun stuff - I love Salathe as the first hangdogger! Fits right in with 'vy can't ve chust climb?'. JIm E making draws is a new one on me also.

Chris Lesher - 04/07/2014 9:56:24

Thanks you Matt for these learnings. One question: do you know climbings of pioneer Corky Buchev? Number 1 khazch superclimer! He make many top climes on calcified magnesium cliffs 10 miles south of imperial horse stable. Corky also invent many new gears for climbings, including sports grappling hook!!

Beau Ratk - 04/07/2014 6:18:06

Cornell University has a wall that was built in 1981? Its cinder block with holds cemented into the wall along with an assortment of jams and finger locks. They even bolted it! (they dont let us use them though) great for teaching trad, not so much for gettin noobies on the wall. i believe it was created by DR out of the UK. 30 ft tall and 100 ft long. https://coe.cornell.edu/climbing

Jim B - 08/27/2013 12:40:44

Hey Matt, I think that both Healthworks in Ft. Collins and the Vail Athletic Club had walls in '85 or '86. I called my first climbing comp at the Healthworks: Kevin Gonzalews won it - I think he was 15. I'm pretty sure I was still working for Latok, which I left in September of '86. I'm pretty sure Colin Lantz was second and he was pissed to miss out on 1st place to a kid who stuffed 3 fingers in a mono-doigt for the win. Mal

Malcolm Daly - 04/05/2013 11:29:02