History of American Sport Climbing


Sport climbing in America has undergone a lifetime of changes during its almost 30 years of existence. What was once considered an ethically questionable practice has not only been widely accepted, but embraced by the climbing community. Sport climbing history is not only a fascinating story—it's unique in that its landmarks remain for our current-day experience. Historical testpieces and groundbreaking routes are accessible to anyone and can be enjoyed by every following generation. It's invaluable to understand the roots of sport climbing history in order to fully appreciate its modern form.

In the early 1980s, a crew of pioneers including the legendary Alan Watts, Chris Jones, and Bill Ramsey scoured Smith Rock State Park for a fresh challenge. During this time, the majority of the aid climbs and cracks had been freed, thus Watt's gaze drifted to the blank faces and stunning aretes that lay in between. Using the much controversial method of rap bolting and hangdogging, Watts created what were likely America's first sport climbs—Watts Tots (5.12b) and Chain Reaction (5.12c)—within a matter of weeks. As the years passed, the introduction of this new routing ethic at Smith laid the foundation for many of America's greatest sport climbing breakthroughs, including the first ascent of To Bolt or Not to Be (America's first 5.14), Scarface (America's first 5.14 climbed by an American), and Just Do It (5.14c).

Although Smith Rock was unquestionably the first internationally recognized American sport climbing destination, the practice of bolting routes spread like wildfire throughout the States. Even classic traditional areas such as City of Rocks and Eldorado Canyon began to see sport routes of their own. As respected sport climbing pioneers like Watts, Christian Griffith, and Todd Skinner pushed the community's understanding of ethics, more and more people warmed up to the idea of entirely bolted routes. Sport climbing continued to evolve throughout the mid-90s, moving through debate about not only the practice itself, but also hold manufacturing and even the concept of the "pinkpoint" vs. "redpoint."

Today, American sport climbing is nearly grown up, and while room for debate still exists, common ethical grounds have in large part been found. Increasing enthusiasm has led to a plethora of destinations across a wide array of rock type and landscape that exists in the U.S. From canopy buried sandstone cliffs of the Red River Gorge to the high desert Bighorn limestone of Ten Sleep Canyon and the alpine metamorphic granite of Wizard's Gate, today, American sport climbing is largely defined by its diversity.

Click here to View Andy Mann's photo essay on the history of American sport climbing.