sport of climbing mountains, originally combining purposes of exploration and research but increasingly pursued purely for recreation. Mountain climbing can be divided into three types: scrambles, or walkups, requiring no special equipment; rock climbing; and ice climbing.
Climbing as a sport began in 18th-century Europe, with attention focused primarily on Mont Blanc, which was first successfully scaled in 1786. For about a century thereafter (often referred to as the golden age of climbing) climbers—predominantly English—attempted other Alpine summits, guided by local farmers and hunters. By the end of the 19th century mountain-climbing clubs had been organized throughout Europe and North America, and most climbing was being done without guides.
In the 20th century climbers turned their attention to the world’s highest ranges, the HIMALAYAS and the KARAKORAM, (qq.v.). Mount Everest was finally conquered on May 29, 1953, by Sir Edmund Hillary of New Zealand and Tenzing Norkay, a Sherpa native of Nepal. The second highest peak in the world, K2 (formerly known as Mount Godwin-Austen), was climbed in 1954. Such once remote and unknown ranges now attract numerous expeditions every year, with climbers coming from all over the world as the sport grows in popularity. The highest mountains outside Asia lie in South America; many have yet to be climbed.
Rock climbing involves knowledge of rope handling. Climbers use a rope to belay, or secure, one another; one climbs while another holds the rope to protect against any fall or slip. A technique called rappelling is used in descending very steep terrain. The rope is attached in such a way that it can be pulled down after the last climber has used it; descending along the rope, the climbers use the friction thus generated (often absorbed by a mechanical device attached to their bodies) to control their rate of descent. Techniques now used for the steepest rock climbs include the use of chocks, devices that are wedged into crevices in the rock. The rope is attached to these by means of snap rings called carabiners. Vertical and overhanging rock faces may also require use of short ladderlike loops of nylon webbing, attached to the rock by the lead climbers. Following climbers can then use two mechanical ascenders that alternately grip and release the rope as the climber goes up, while standing in attached stirrups.
Rock climbing originated as a means of practicing techniques for ascending high mountains; it has evolved into a highly developed sport in itself. Major centers of activity include Yosemite Valley, Calif., the limestone cliffs of the Shawangunks in New York State; the hillsides, quarries, and sea cliffs of the British Isles; and the Dolomites in northern Italy.
Routes moderately covered with snow can be safely climbed using an ice axe to cut steps, probe crevasses, give balance, and belay the rope. Steeper snow- and ice-covered routes require crampons, devices with 12 or more sharp steel points that are strapped onto each boot. Glacier routes require the use of slings and additional equipment so that a climber who falls into a crevasse may quickly climb or be hauled out.
Although the sport does have risks, and accidents may be of catastrophic proportions, proper training and advanced techniques now ensure relative safety. Climbers often begin by taking lessons through a college group, or from one of the many local clubs in all parts of the world. Others learn from experienced friends or professional guides. Because so many of the early climbing enthusiasts were scientists or writers, or both, the field is unusually rich in descriptive literature. Current trends in climbing favor ascents made by small parties, or even solo climbers, moving very quickly with a minimum of lightweight equipment over direct routes. Summits such as Everest, previously reached only under ideal conditions, are now being successfully gained during autumn and winter months, and without the use of oxygen. Women are playing an increasingly important part in mountaineering, participating in national expeditions and organizing some of their own. J.Po., JOHN POLLOCK
For further information on this topic, see the Bibliography, section 795. Climbing.
An article from Funk & Wagnalls® New Encyclopedia. © 2006 World Almanac Education Group. A WRC Media Company. All rights reserved. Except as otherwise permitted by written agreement, uses of the work inconsistent with U.S. and applicable foreign copyright and related laws are prohibited.