Mountain Climbing. Encyclopedia of World Sport

Mountain climbing is a unique sport. First, it is one of
only a few completely new sports, those that are not
adaptations and codifications of folk activities. Second,
for the well over 100 years of history it has generally resisted the forces of institutionalization—it has no substantial governing bodies, no written rules, and no
means of enforcing the socially constructed and socially accepted rules that do exist. Despite this, mountain climbing tends to work like most other sports. (See
Rock Climbing for an explanation of the “rules” and
People have been climbing mountains for all of human
history. Precisely when humans began to climb mountains for sport is not clear. The late first generation of
mountaineers selected a specific (and widely accepted,
although clearly erroneous) date, thus creating a myth
of the same order as Abner Doubleday and baseball.According to late first-generation mountaineers C. D. Cunningham and W. W. Abney, author and illustrator respectively of the first history of mountaineering, the
sport began on 17 September 1854. Sir Alfred Wills inaugurated the sport by climbing the Wetterhorn. Rev.
John Frederick Hardy’s (1826–1888) ascent of Switzerland’s Finsteraarhorn in 1857 was another contender
for the first sporting ascent of a mountain. (Neither is
correct.) Who climbed what mountain first matters because the first ascent of a mountain is the most obvious
basis of competition in the sport of mountain climbing.
The end of the 18th century brought a new view of
mountains. The Romantic movement redefined mountains as attractive, sublime places, and ascents of some
well-known summits were included on the Grand Tour.
By the late 18th century, the Age of Reason had motivated some Europeans to begin to climb mountains for
the purposes of natural scientific research.
In the 1850s the practice of visiting the Alps to
climb peaks and cross passes was recognized as a distinct form of activity. In Britain, these people, largely
middle class, came together in 1857 to form the Alpine
Club, an organization that resembled the new scientific
and geographic societies that proliferated in the first
half of the 19th century.
At this point, modern organized sports were beginning to be developed in English public (that is, elite private secondary) schools and universities, and the sense
of athleticism, muscular Christianity, and rational
recreation emerging in the mid-19th century also began to affect the new activity of mountain climbing.
Romanticism, tourism, and science gave people a reason to be in the Alps and to climb mountains. Athleticism turned it into a sporting activity and established
the whole language of conquest that came to characterize mountain climbing; it drove competition for first
ascents; and mountain climbing was justified as moral,
rational, and significant in the development of masculine character.
Thus, the origins of mountain climbing were caught
up in notions of patriotism/Britishness, militarism,
and Empire. The identification of Wills’s ascent of the
Wetterhorn as the first sporting ascent was important
to the British because it was the first significant British
ascent in the Alps (apart from tourist ascents of Mont
Blanc). The date that the claim was made—1887—was
in itself significant. This was at the height of Empire,
and British claims to have initiated the “conquest” of
mountains appeared natural after so much of Earth’s
territory had been claimed (the fact that the Alps were
in the heart of Europe, in the territory of some of the
competitors for empire, only added to the pleasure of
the claim). By that time Britain also saw itself very
clearly as a sporting nation and mountain climbing
was by then identifiably a sport.
Wills’s 1854 ascent of the Wetterhorn marked the
start of a period of sustained mountain climbing in the
Alps. During the next 10 years, culminating in the ascent of the Matterhorn by Englishman Edward Whymper (1840–1911), most of the major summits in the
Alps were climbed for the first (recorded) time.
The real sporting motive for mountaineering did
not appear until the period from 1865–1914. The first
generation of British mountain climbers attempted to
ensure that their form and style of mountaineering became the model for future generations. This included
the following criteria: climbers must be accompanied
by guides; the only equipment permitted were ropes
and ice axes; whatever number was right for a climbing team, two was wrong and one was not even a consideration; taking risks was never acceptable and there was
a clear sense of what was appropriate in terms of route,
weather conditions, and so on; and climbers had to
seek the easiest route to a summit, which subsequent
ascents were expected to follow. (None of these any
longer apply, an indication of major developments in
the sport.) So, after 1865, the only way for the sport to
develop was to climb the remaining major summits in
the Alps, and to seek first ascents in other mountain
ranges. Mountaineering spread to the Caucasus, New
Zealand,Africa, the Himalayas, North and South America, and other mountain ranges such as in New Guinea
and Japan. (Of course, the European climbers took
their Alpine guides with them on their expeditions.)
Alpine clubs were established in all of the European nations and in all of the developed nations where
British/European forms of mountain climbing became
the norm. Only on the West Coast of the United States
(from approximately 1900 to 1930 in clubs such as the
Seattle Mountaineers, the Mazamas, and the Sierra
Club) and in the Soviet Union did a different style of
mountain climbing develop—namely, the mass ascent
of up to 50 and sometimes more climbers.
If this was all that constituted mountain climbing,
there would be no sport. Thus, mountaineering split
into two forms in the 1860s, one based on exploration,
the other on sport. Exploration continues today, with
first ascents of new mountains being made every year
in the Himalayan range, in Greenland and Antarctica,
and in northern Canada.
At the same time, the second generation of alpinists
changed the forms and goals of mountain climbing to
ensure its future as a sport. Some began climbing without guides and developing their own mountaineering
skills (the norm today). They began to ascend minor
peaks in the Alps and other regions and to attribute
significance to these ascents, which were often technically more difficult and dangerous than the major
summits. They sought new routes to the summits of already climbed mountains—almost always more difficult than the original route—and to attribute significance to these routes. They recorded such variations as
the first winter ascent, first women’s ascent, and speed
of ascent, and they began to acknowledge that it was
sometimes necessary to take risks in order to pioneer a
new route.
Chomolungma/Mount Everest illustrate the two
forms of mountain climbing.Attempts to make the first
ascent (between 1921 and success in 1953) clearly fit
into the exploration mode. As with the South Pole,
Everest became the site of a nationalist competition involving the British, and a British expedition was finally
successful in placing a New Zealander—Sir Edmund
Hillary (1919–)—and a Nepali Sherpa—Norgay Tenzing (1914–1986)—on the summit. By October 1992,
485 individuals from 38 countries had reached the
summit of Everest (and there had been 115 verified
deaths of climbers on the mountain). The sport of
mountaineering has also been evident in various new
routes established to the summit, among them the
1975 South-West Face expedition led by the first professional mountaineer, Sir Christian Bonington
(1934–). While no others have the cachet of Chomolungma/Everest, the world’s highest mountain (8,848
meters or 29,029 feet), most other peaks, especially the
more accessible ones, have followed this pattern of development from exploration to sport.
Since the 1960s, mountaineering has become a popular sport. Economic growth in the developed nations
and less expensive means of travel have resulted in a
significant increase in the number of mountain
climbers. Each generation of climbers tends to believe
it has reached the ultimate in what is possible in the
sport, and that no further developments are possible
without taking suicidal risks or so flouting the informal rules of the sport as to be cheating. Each subsequent generation has proved its predecessors wrong by
modifying the rules while still maintaining the sport’s
integrity, and deaths related to mountain climbing have
stayed relatively low. However, the future of mountaineering seems set to continue with expeditions to
increasingly isolated places and more difficult routes to
the summits of previously climbed mountains.