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.