A “Not So” Brief History of Climb

Under Construction.

I’m using this title as a play off of Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” in which he talks in non-technical terms about the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the universe. Well, I’ll be talking about the structure, origin, development and eventual fate of the sport of rock climbing… although I can promise nothing about it being non-technical; in fact, I actually aim to bring out a lot of technical terms, but I will define them.

The purpose of this is to introduce the reader to the history of climbing as well as the engineering, chemistry, physics, methodology, ecology, geoscience, and physiology involved in climbing. Climbing has always been about problem-solving, and the curious-minded are most often drawn to the challenges of rock and ice. My reasoning for this project is as follows.

I was born and raised in the Northern California Bay Area and began rock climbing and mountaineering at the age of eighteen. Growing up, I had always watched my two older brothers go out on their Boy Scout trips to places like Pinnacles, Tahoe, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, and even Philmont in New Mexico. At eighteen, I finally found a Venture Crew Scout troop to join at my local high school. Almost immediately, I fell in love with outdoor rock climbing. Our troop took its first outdoor trip to Joshua Tree in May of 2008, and then later summitted Mt. Shasta in July after most of us had graduated high school.

College came around and I lost the time to climb due to focusing on my degrees in applied physics and mechanical engineering. Eventually, I got into a nuclear engineering graduate program in New Mexico. While in grad school I had a lot of free time (weird, right?), so I rediscovered my love for climbing. Every weekend I would go out hiking or climbing with friends in the areas around Albuquerque, Socorro, or Los Alamos. When I wasn’t climbing, conducting research with Los Alamos National Labs, or studying, I was reading books by Jim Krakauer, John Muir, Steve Roper, Lynn Hill, Steph Davis, and others.

In 2014 I made the decision to leave my PhD program at UNM and move home to California. I worked at Lawrence Livermore National Labs, designing space equipment for my career job, and in the evenings and on weekends I was training at TouchStone Climbing gyms. Eventually, I got back into a new PhD program at ASU that was better-suited for me. I’m currently finishing up now, and climb both indoors (AZ on the Rocks) and outside (all of Arizona) as often as I can.

I’m not a great climber (my only claim to fame is 5th place out of hundreds in a bay area climbing comp many years ago), but I have climbed with great climbers and many inspirational people. I enjoy teaching and exploration, and I especially enjoy when I can combine science and engineering with my passion for the outdoors. Eventually, I hope to one day teach all of this as a University course in general sciences.

While I work on this project, enjoy these links:

Under Construction…


Early Origins: The origins of rock climbing, according to every website or book on the subject, were first documented in China in 400 BC (Or 200 BC, depending on which Wikipedia article they choose to cite). Google search “climbing history” online, and every source will say that there exists watercolors depicting men climbing rocks, yet finding these alleged watercolors becomes difficult. More likely the case, is that there were durable paintings done on walls or silk of men scrambling up and over rock to flee enemies during wartime in China.

Standard climbing history also states that the Anasazis (not just a shoe model name) in the Southwestern United States were prominent cliff dwellers in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico and surrounding areas. The Anasazis were able to carve out cliff faces to create dwellings that could easily be defended during an attack. Rock climbing takes its origins from necessity, spirituality, and just wanting to conquer that which is enormous and immovable.

Alexander the Great, 330BC: One of the first recorded accounts of climbing for competition dates back to the first half of 300 BC, and the reign of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. This account is contained in the pages of the Anabasis of Alexander, written by Arrian of Nicomedia, a military historian in the early years of AD. Arrian wrote the Anabasis of Alexander, using the biography of Alexander by Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s leading generals. A written account of a brutal climbing competition is as follows:

Alexander sent a herald through the camp, offering prizes to scale the rocks; twelve talents (fourteen thousand five hundred dollars) to the first who succeeded, nine to the second, and so on, down to three hundred Darics (eleven hundred dollars); and excited the ambition of many. Of those who were expert climbers, having learned in sieges and mountain training how to scale walls and cliffs, three hundred in number volunteered.

They provided themselves with ropes, took their iron tent pegs, and selecting the most dangerous, because least watched, spot, began the ascent at midnight, by driving the pegs into the crevices of the rocks, or into the ice or frozen ground. The operation was hazardous in the extreme, and thirty of the climbers fell and were killed. The inaccessibility of the ledges is shown by the fact that none of the bodies could be recovered for burial. But by dawn the heights were occupied, and the men made great parade of themselves, waving their white scarfs in token of success.

Modern climbing competitions could be easily compared to the difficulty of this competition. But then why are today’s climbers not falling to their deaths as frequently? The answer of course, is technology and improved climbing techniques. Alexander’s empire may have had fearless men willing to scale walls of ice to win a few pieces of gold or silver, but what didn’t exist in the first half of 300 BC was modern methods of steel manufacturing or other modern technologies. Steel did exist during the age of Alexander, though it was made with impurities in the metal which caused its strength and durability to weaken.

Mont Aiguille and the beginning of Mountaineering, 1492: High atop Mont Aiguille, the birth of mountaineering is said to have taken place. Mont Aiguille, formerly known as “Mount Inaccessible,” was a Goliath to be conquered by Charles VIII of France in June of 1492, though in reality it was his courtiers, Lord Antoine de Ville and a group of a dozen or more others who attained the first ascent of the now 2,085 meter plateau.

De Ville was originally in charge of leading the siege of walled towns, so siege techniques consisting of large grappling hooks, ladders, and ropes were used in the ascent of Mont Aiguille. Once again, the modern sport of climbing has taken its roots from warfare and siege techniques. Just like in Alexander’s great empire, the French used their methods of scaling man-made stone walls in order to conquer mountains. Upon reaching the top of Mont Aiguille, De Ville’s climbing party found a field of grass and flowers, many colored birds, and several small goats (Cite: Clark’s The Alps).

The First Ascent of Mont Blanc, 1786:

John Muir and Cathedral Peak, 1869:

Half Dome, 1875:

The Lake District, The Dolomites, and The Elbe Sandstone Mountains, 1880’s:

Yosemite Valley 1960’s and On:

Climbing’s Modern History:


Yosemite Now:


Future Sections:

  • Types of Climbing
    • Bouldering
    • Aid
    • Top-Rope
    • Sport
    • Traditional
    • Free
    • Solo & Free-Solo
    • Deep Water
  • Grading Systems
    • YDS, EU, FR, Alaskan, V-Scale, B-System, Fontainebleau, Dankyu
  • Physics of Climbing
    • Static (Gravity, Forces, Friction, Tension, Torque)
    • Dynamic (Gravity, Forces, Friction, Tension, Torque, Impact, Elasticity, Fall-Factors, Kinematics, Momentum, Impulse, Energy)
  • Physiology of Climbing
    • Fingers
    • Other Muscles
    • Center of Mass
    • Heart-Rate & Blood Pressure
    • APE Index
  • Engineering of Climbing
    • Active vs. Passive
    • Metal (Carabiners, Nuts, Hexes, Pitons, Cams, Clips, Hangers, Lockers, Bolts, Shear Forces, Fatigue, Friction, Impact, Failure Modes, Stress, Strain)
    • Fabrics (Ropes, Slings, etc. – Chemical degradation, Fatigue, Friction, Knots, Fraying, Stress, Strain, Single Core, Dual Core, Nylon, Kevlar)
    • Rubber (Sticky Stealth, Tribologious Trax, Viscious Vibram, and Forceful FrixIon)
    • Plastics & Composites (Helmets!)
    • Chalk, Balm, & Tape

Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it.

Sir Edmund Hillary

Exploration is a human imperative.

Dr. Lindy Elkins-Tanton

The pleasure of risk is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination… in a word, experience. Climbing in particular, is a paradoxically intellectual pastime, but with this difference: you have to think with your body. Every move has to be worked out in terms of playing chess with your body. If I make a mistake the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing, and possibly painful. For a brief period I am directly responsible for my actions. In that beautiful, silent, world of mountains, it seems to me worth a little risk.

Al Alvarez