As climbing heads into the Olympics, Niall Grimes traces the line from the pioneers of climbing to those stepping out on to the Tokyo mats in full view of the world.
Climbing has movement at its heart. But not just movement over plastic or rock or wood, but a movement in its shape. While its beating heart seems to remain the same, its habits and form are inherently dynamic.
Pass me my telescope.
There! I see it. In 1798, the Rev. William Bingley led his friend, the Rev. Peter Williams, up what is now known as the East Terrace of Clogwyn Du'r Arddu in Snowdonia. Their interest was most likely botanical, but it remains the first recorded rock climb in Britain. Sometime later, in August 1802, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge got in on the act with a perilous descent of Broad Stand on Scafell whilst on a five-day exploratory ramble in the Lake District. Climbing is officially a thing!
But the thing is, things are never as you want them to be. The thing is, things are one way, and you look again and they are different. It’s called change.
June 1886. Walter Parry Haskett Smith stands atop Napes Needle in the Lake District. Smashing the traditions established by Bingly and Coleridge, Walter was motivated not by exploration or science but the search for difficulty. Photos of the climb later taken by the Abraham brothers were circulated and the Needle and its ascent became well known. As such, the thing had become a sport.
WATCH: Leo Houlding on Napes Needle
The ability to change and grow has always been one of the great strengths of our activity. Decade on decade, while the passion and joy of climbers across the grades has remained constant, the sport has developed new directions and disciplines.
It’s all been there over the centuries. In 1900, JW Puttrell demonstrated his aerial dynamics of the Monkey Jump at Wharncliffe, and thus invented parkour as a form of climbing. Not long after that, he soloed the first ascent of Stonnis Crack at Black Rocks, giving it the grade of Ordinary. When his contemporaries later top-roped it, they found the climb so severe and dangerous that the climb was deemed to be unjustifiable and was left out of guidebooks to save lives. Thus was invented the Sandbag.
On October 31, 1915, HM Kelly and Ivar Berg both managed to top rope the magnificent High Neb Buttress at Stanage and knew they would return to lead the climb. Kelly rose early one morning to snag a lead but arrived to find Berg topping out, solo, having bivouacked at the base. Take that! And thus was invented competitions.
So much change, always new ideas, but a line runs through these events and these moments. A line of passion. A line of heritage, where each new group has a look in awe and respect at what has gone before and thinks – and what can we add to these great climbs? How can we breathe new life into this sport? This is the line.
The line ran through climbers in the 1950s and 60s as they pegged and bolted their way up steep faces. It ran through climbers in the 70s as they climbed past these pegs and bolts and called their game free climbing. The climbs they did were unimaginable to the climbers of the 60s, but only achieved because of them.Each generation changed the game utterly. But often it was the same players playing it.
September 26, 1984, Ben Moon, having placed seven bolts, succeeded on the first ascent of Statement of Youth on Lower Pen Trwyn. Bolts for free climbing made traditionalists froth, yet Moon’s hero had always been the Welsh pioneer from the 30s and 40s, Colin Kirkus.
Sport climbing had arrived, and was the dominant cutting edge until Johnny Dawes led The Indian Face, October 4, 1986. The line ran through Jerry Moffatt three years later as he swung to victory at the Leeds climbing competition in 89, the first real competition in the UK. Only a few years earlier, Jerry had been on subsistence rations at Stoney Middleton and climbing for his life on Cloggy. His victory had the most ardent traditionalists rubbing a little tear of joy from their eye.
WATCH: Steve McClure climb Hubble
Then bouldering came along and went from a warm-up thing, to a thing people dedicated their lives to. Indoor climbing came along and took the paradigm from ‘climbing/indoor climbing’ to ‘climbing/outdoor climbing’. And a hundred other events besides.
Now, the line is about to run through another event. Between August 3rd and 6th, 2021, climbing debuts at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. As someone who loves and cares about climbing, this is a massive event. Showing the world our sport that has been 150 years in the making.
Is it perfect? Is it how I would want it? The truth is, it doesn’t matter what I think any more than a teenager would ask their parents what music they should listen to or what style their jeans should be. It’s not my line to push. It’s Ondra’s and Garnbret’s and Megos’ and Nonaka’s and Coxsey’s.
Climbing appearing at the Olympics is the latest of the many momentous events that have gone to make climbing what it is and that line that runs through climbing runs though the competitors.
And while I couldn’t be on Broad Stand in August 1802, or Napes Needle in 1886, or High Neb on October 1915, or Lower Pen Trwyn in 1984 or Cloggy in 86, I know where I am going to be on August 3rd, 2021. I’m going to be sat on the sofa watching the light shine on the latest reinvention of our beautiful sport.
Coleridge, Haskett-Smith, Puttrell and Berg are all going to be sat on the sofa beside me, shouting
“Go on, Shauna!”
WATCH: Shauna Coxsey: becoming a World Champion
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