Two men sometimes cited as establishing mountaineering’s modern age are Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat — score one for the French — who scaled all 15,771 feet (4,807 meters) of Mont Blanc in 1786. Soon others followed their lead, scrambling all over the Alps trying to master the lofty summits.
Mountaineering began to capture the imaginations of many at this point, although it wasn’t until 1857 that the first mountaineering club, the Alpine Club, came along. But the club’s formation still isn’t typically considered the dawn of rock climbing as a sport of its own. After all, while climbing a mountain often involves some vertical ascents, there’s an awful lot of hiking in there, too.
In order to tackle the cliffs that were encountered during expeditions, mountaineers would often practice on smaller mountains and rock faces to build up their endurance and develop their abilities before setting off for the big leagues. Eventually, enthusiasts increasingly began to enjoy these smaller climbs in and of themselves. There was less danger than on full-blown mountain peaks and less downtime in between thrilling climbs. Plus, suitable ascents were easier to come by since not everyone who wants to get into rock climbing lives within driving distance of the Matterhorn or Mt. Kilimanjaro.
John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, was an early fan of rock climbing. Story has it that in 1869 he was herding some sheep in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite when he meandered over to Cathedral Peak and decided to take a crack at it. Modern rating systems are a matter of endless controversy among rock climbers, but to give you a basic idea, today the climb is generally considered to be around a Class 4 (out of 5) and is not often tackled without a rope.
Over time, rock climbing started to be seen as a pleasurable athletic pastime. From the early activities of pioneering aerial daredevils, it has evolved to encompass a whole slew of rock-related recreation. Recreational rock climbing blossomed in the early 20th century but really came into its own in the middle of the 20th century. A range of developments emerged as it became more popular as a sport. For example, various grading systems were created to rate the difficulty levels of different climbs. Climbing styles were developed based on conditions like the terrain, the use (or lack thereof) of equipment and whether the climbing was done indoors or outdoors.