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Attempting to pack the entire history of a single sport, especially one as diverse as climbing, into one 225-page book is a gargantuan task. But in Born to Climb: Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes, Zofia Reych handles it with aplomb.
The book tackles the origins and development of everything from scrambling to mountaineering, bouldering, sport, and competition climbing. In one sense, the book is a summary of the development and popularization of “climbing” and its disciplines, beginning with Francisco Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux in 1336 and leading to the plastic-pulling Olympic competitors of today. But it’s more, because Reych doesn’t just lay out climbing’s history. They offer engaging commentary and analysis on how climbing was (and is) influenced throughout history by myriad aspects of environmental, political, and social factors, from climate change to nationalism, industrialization, classism, racism, gender theory, religion, and more. It’s a compelling and refreshing layer of contextualization.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of Born to Climb isn’t the history or analysis, however, but Reych’s own personal story. They regularly pepper colorful anecdotes from their climbing past into the narrative, with every other chapter swapping between the world’s climbing history and Reych’s own. We read about the early history of the Olympic Games or the first ascent of the Matterhorn, and then in the next chapter, we hear about Reych’s growing up in post-Communist Poland or their friendship with leading British climber Johnny Dawes while living and climbing in England. The result is what would, simply by nature, perhaps become a rather ponderous academic text transformed into a fast-paced, lively overview that kept me turning pages late into the night.
That said, at times, Born to Climb can feel truncated, with monumental steps in climbing history packed into only a handful of pages, but such is the nature of an all-encompassing historical compendium, especially one aiming to make itself as approachable and bite-sized as this one.
The other downside of the structure is that the work sometimes comes off fragmented, reading more like an anthology of standalone essays than a cohesive text. This is true even outside of Reych’s interluding personal narrative, because although Born to Climb generally follows climbing’s progression linearly, from past to present, it also often jumps slightly forward and backward in time, as well as from continent to continent. We go into an overview of Samuel Coleridge’s early 1800s-era Lake District climbing in one chapter, then we hear about Reych experiencing sexism while learning to climb in the Polish Jura, and then in the next chapter, we’re reading about William Windham Senior’s early forays to Chamonix back in 1741. It can be somewhat jarring to keep track of these disparate settings.
Because of this, Born to Climb lends itself best to reading in fits and starts, a chapter here and a chapter there, as opposed to long reading sessions. But although overall flow is at times sacrificed for page-turning engagement, it seems like a savvy move for a longform text in the rapid-fire digital age of today.
For most climbing readers, interest will likely wane as ancient history progresses into recent history and present. Coleridge’s 1818 epic on Scafell Pike (one of the earliest documented “rock climbing” efforts) or groundbreaking interwar ascents in the Dolomites will naturally hold more interest for the modern climber than a recounting of the Robbins and Harding feud, Lynn Hill’s Nose effort, Sharma and Ondra on La Dura Dura or the outcry at speed climbing’s inclusion in the Olympics. We’re all familiar with these scenes, and there’s not a lot new here. I found myself less engaged during these sections, waiting to hear more about Reych’s personal climbing story in the intervening chapters.
However, that’s not a testament to a lack of skill on Reych’s part, but simply one of the downsides of writing a historical text tracking from past to present. In addition, Reych does touch on several counter-narratives often glossed over even in the well-known periods of recent history. Some of these are among the book’s finest passages.
For example, we hear about Bridwell, Long, and Westbay hitting the Nose in a day, along with all the other classic Yosemite highlights, but Reych spends just as much time talking about how the park is situated on Ahwahneechee land, and how the atrocities and abuses perpetrated against these Native peoples are as much a part of (if not more) Yosemite’s history as the long-haired hippies who smoked pot in Camp 4:
“If dirtbagging was the young climbers’ way to distance and differentiate themselves from the consumerist, white man’s society,” Reych writes, “it was equally a result of belonging to that society in the first place. It is no coincidence that most of the volitional hobos of Yosemite ended up becoming academics, writers, or entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the Ahwahneechee struggled to hold on to their homes and identity. One hundred years after the tragic raid [in which the Ahwahneechee village was destroyed by a marauding American militia], hardly any of the Camp 4 residents cared to look just one mile from their campsite, towards small wooden cabins.”
(The Ahwahneechee were relocated to a small settlement by the U.S. Park Service, who even had the audacity to charge them rent. Only those whose family members were employed in the Valley were allowed to reside there, and all inhabitants were eventually forcibly evicted entirely by the late 1960s, and moved to park employee housing.) It’s great to see acknowledgment of these injustices take the stage alongside the feats accomplished by climbers in the Valley at the same time.
One big problem with many works of climbing media, whether film or literature, is that they are either so jargon-filled and technical that they’re borderline nonsensical to the average mainstream reader, and thus inaccessible, or so filled with incessant explanations and hand-holding that they bore anyone with even a basic understanding of climbing’s concepts and principles. None of us want to read about what a “belay” is or be lectured on the difference between leading and following.
Exceptions that bridge the divide are few and far between. Literary works like Into Thin Air, and recent efforts in film, such as Valley Uprising and The Alpinist, come to mind. Born to Climb is another addition to these notable few. The book is neither too jargon-filled to turn away the average reader nor too packed with explanations and redundancies to bore in-the-know climbers.
For the most part, Reych covers the basics and then gets on with it, though the book has a large glossary in the back for anyone who needs further explanation of climbing terms and concepts. The poignant recounting of their journey through climbing and climbing’s history at large will appeal both to a climber and to the average reader simply due to the warm, intimate style with which they manage to ground their recountings in place and time.
In short, Born to Climb is half analysis of how climbing went from Walter Parry Haskett Smith to John Gill to Janja Garnbret, and it’s half analysis of how Reych went from who they were to who they are. Both halves are a worthy read, and largely, both are better for the presence of the other. It’s a beautiful book, and a worthy paean to the eclectic past of our sport, good, bad, and everything in between.
Readers can pick up a copy HERE.