I recently read somebody’s article titled ‘ten climbers who rocked the world.” I was both entertained and a little sad to see that the names were mostly all young climbers of today, and mostly Americans. Even though the young climbers are people I admire (Steph Davis = prolly the coolest/nicest pro climber out there) it’s like someone writing “Baseball Players Who Rocked the World” that consisted of only Pujols, Jeter, and A-rod. Um BABE RUTH anybody? The men and women of climbing’s past are some fascinating characters. I think people should hear about them, too! So I decided to create my own top ten list of climbers I feel rocked the world…and whose names have been nearly forgotten.
I’m not an expert on world climbing, in fact I’m not sure if I could actually say I’m an expert on American climbing, but that’s what I know better so that’s how this list is oriented. So these are ten more obscure names I thought would be interesting to highlight for how they shaped climbing into what it is today.
1. Robert Underhill: The Guy Who Started It All
Seriously, where would climbing be today without Underhill? He introduced important things like the BELAY to America, a wildly outrageous idea in the 1930s. At the time, many climbers resisted the innovations that Underhill championed in his 22-page article On the Use and Management of the Rope in Rock Work. Rope use, knots, belaying, rappeling…where the hell would we be without these? Not climbing 5.5 or 5.13, that’s for sure.
Miriam O’Brien chimneying up! (credit same as above)
Miriam O’Brien was one courageous lady. In a period where women were rarely allowed to participate in expeditions, or worse, saw a climb downgraded once a woman had repeated it (if a woman could do it, how hard could it be?) O’Brien championed the concept of “manless climbing” with all-women ascents in places like the Alps. She did spectacular first ascents in the Dolomites and Aiguille de Roc, as well as climbing the Matterhorn and in the Wind Rivers. It’s no wonder that after climbing together, O’Brien and Underhill fell in love and tied to knot in 1932.
3. John Salathe: Iron Man with Wooden Teeth.
Before Salathe, all the climbs done in places like the Alps used soft iron pitons that were so flimsy that when bashed into harder rock, they often couldn’t be reused. Throughout the Dolomites, pitons were often just left in climbs as fixed pins. In 1945, Salathe, an eclectic swiss climber, vegetarian, and blacksmith, started making different pitons that could actually be used in the hard granite rock of Yosemite. They were made from the same metal used in Ford Axles, and completely changed the game. Oh ya, and he had wooden teeth.
4. Fritz Weisner: the Free Climbing Firestarter
Fritz was a german émigré who completely took North America by storm. An early proponent of free climbing (not using aid), he established many visionary first ascents throughout the country. He’s very dear to the East as he effectively established the ‘Gunks with the first 5.5 in 1935. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Wiessner did 5.7 and 5.8 climbs in the 30s and 40s, absurdly ahead of his time.
5. John Gill : the Father of Modern Bouldering
John Gill was so ahead of his time, nobody knew what the heck to make of him. In the mid 1950s, climbing by himself in the middle of nowhere, he put white arrows on rocks to remind him of what he’d already climbed…and what he’d already climbed were ridiculously difficult problems that NOBODY could repeat. No one in climbing history has ever come close climbing as far ahead of everyone else as Gill did. He is credited with introducing chalk, gymnastic / dynamic moves, and the idea that climbing didn’t have to be up high to be a meditative art.
6. Royal Robbins: Leader of the Golden Age
Tom Frost photo of Royal Robbins – all rights reserved!
I find it weird that I’m even including Royal Robbins on this list of “obscure” names, because every climber should know him, but crazily enough, there are many climbers who know next to nothing of the fascinating story about the sport we love. (Cue: our documentary!) Royal Robbins was the leader of Camp 4 and the Golden Age of Yosemite – his big wall techniques turned the world upside down. It was after Royal Robbins’ repeated the Nose of El Cap in only 6 days in 1960 that the world even heard of American rock climbers. (They’re climbing rocks over there?) Big walls hadn’t been climbed in that style anywhere in the world, and that was the first moment, however brief, that American upstarts could actually be called the best in the world.
7. John Stannard: Sir Falls-a-Lot Will Not Fail
When John Stannard showed up in the Gunks, nobody knew who he was or thought much of this gangly guy. Every day, climbers would see him trying to free climb the route “Foops” which was considered impossible without aid, as it was a hideous overhanging lip. But day after day after day he would try and fall and try, until he finally achieved it! From there, he became an iconic climber of the East, joining the clean climbing movement like Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder) in the West. A physicist, Stannard took the new chocks, nuts, and stoppers that could supposedly replace pitons, and tested them by measuring what size could hold what weight in a fall. Then he started his own magazine that helped Clean Climbing spread throughout the country.
8. Jim Erickson: The 1970s Purest Free Climber
Nobody climbed as purely as Jim. He didn’t use chalk, he didn’t use tape, and if his foot touched a piece of gear or he took one leader fall, he considered it cheating and game over. When he realized that greats like Layton Kor hadn’t done everything around him, he began a spurious free climbing storm that freed many of the most famous lines in Colorado. In 976, in a wild coup, his partner Art Higbee and him, free climbed Royal Robbins’ 1957 Northwest Face of Half Dome. (The most lovely book on Colorado climbing history: Climb! )
9. Bev Johnson: The Renaissance Woman
Bev Johnson in an unidentified magazine article; picture below from El Cap all-woman ascent with Sibylle Hechtel on lead!
There have been many women who have paved the way for others, names like Bonnie Prudden, Elaine Matthews, Diana Hunter, Gerd Thuestad, Ellie Hawkins…Oddly enough, there were more women climbing, at least within climbing clubs, in the 20s and 30s than the 50s and 60s. The 50s was a big crash for women, as norms floated away from independence and resolve, and more towards sitting around, looking pretty. (As History Professor Kerwin Klein put it, look at the sassy heroines in movies from the 30s compared to the Marilyn Monroe helpless sex-kittens of the 1950s.) When girls weren’t supposed to be wearing pants or even doing exercise, Bev Johnson did whatever she wanted, from hitchhiking, dirtbagging it in Camp 4, flying fixed-wing planes, soloing massive Yosemite routes, and doing the first all-women ascent of El Cap with Sibylle Hechtel.
10. Ray Jardine: Controversy & Cams
In the 1970s, while my father was climbing with Ray Jardine, he pulled out a homemade thingamajig with a finger spring and told him to try using it in a crack instead of a hex nut. “Sure, Ray…” was my father’s dubious response. But it turned out Ray’s “Friends” along with other innovators models of camming devices would revolutionize the sport just as much as Salathe’s piton, or possibly as much as Underhill’s belay. Ray would later quit climbing amidst bad vibes and an obsessive stint trying to free climb a route on El Cap where he chipped holds in the rock (Lynn Hill would be the one who would climb the Nose in 1993!) Today, we are still using the same spring-loaded Cams to do the most difficult routes.
There’s plenty more fascinating people, Paul Petzoldt the cowboy climber, Hans Krauss, Layton Kor, Ruth Dyar Mendenhall, Chuck Pratt, Henry Barber, John Bachar, Fred Beckey, Alan Watts, Ron Kauk, Jim McCarthy, Warren Harding, Bonnie Pruden…whose stories are worth a look. Like I said, I just chose 10!
I think that if you climb outdoors (which you should always be aiming, even if you haven’t gotten there yet) your climbing experience becomes so much richer when you understand the story of the sport! That’s a huge part of why we’ve been working on this documentary for the last 4+ years. After, you can really appreciate the efforts of the Sharmas and Caldwells of today and tomorrow. We stand on the shoulders of Giants! (Seriously, did you know an early climbing technique was standing on shoulders?!)
Fellow climbing nerds, let me know if I’ve made mistakes or left out crucial info.