So, Adam Ondra is not on this list, and neither is Chris Sharma. We’re pretty stingy with the title “Climbers Who Changed The Game.” And with good reason: If 5.15c changed the sport, then so did 5.15b, 5.15a, and hell, in the earlier part of this century, so did 5.8. That’s a pretty long list. Did 5.15b change the game? A little. But certainly not as much as things like cams, chalk, rap bolts, bouldering, and oh, you know, rappelling. Here’s our list, in alphabetical order.
1. Kurt Albert
As a 19-year-old in 1973, German Kurt Albert started to try to free climb aid climbs in his home climbing area, the Frankenjura. As he passed by pitons he was able to avoid without pulling or stepping on, he would paint a red ‘X’ on the rock. When he was able to free climb the entire route, he would paint a red dot at the base of the climb – a red point, or rotpunkt in German. Albert had invented the practice of redpointing, and many historians point to this as the genesis of sport climbing in Europe.
2. Pierre Allain
In the 1930s, Allain and a few friends developed and championed bouldering in Fontainebleau, where it became something more than just training for climbing. Perhaps more importantly, he invented the first soft-rubber-soled shoes for rock climbing in the 1930s and by the 1950s rock climbers around the world were wearing the shoes, known as “PAs.”
3. Yvon Chouinard
One of the pioneering climbers in Yosemite in the 1960s, Chouinard put up several first ascents with contemporaries and started to promote clean climbing (using removable protection instead of repeatedly hammering pitons into the rock, scarring it). He learned blacksmithing and started to produce his own climbing hardware under the name Chouinard Equipment, the roots of both Black Diamond Equipment and the Patagonia apparel brand. In 1978, he wrote Climbing Ice, a how-to book on the subject that taught thousands of climbers the history and techniques of climbing snow and ice.
4. Emilio Comici
In the early 1900s, Italian Comici invented multi-step aid ladders, solid belays, the use of a trail/tag line, and hanging bivouacs, pretty much the beginning of modern big-wall climbing techniques, using them to climb the 3,500-foot northwest face of the Civetta in 1931.
5. John Gill
When your hands get sweaty and you dip your fingers into your chalk bag before making your next move, you can thank John Gill, who introduced gymnastic chalk to the climbing world in the 1950s. Gill is also considered to be the father of modern bouldering – he wasn’t the first to practice it, but he was the first to focus on it entirely and consider it an art form, refusing to do moves he considered unaesthetic, and putting up problems as hard as V9 as early as 1959.
6. Warren Harding
Over 45 days in 1957, Warren Harding and several different partners put up the first ascent of the most famous climb on the most famous rock face in the world: the 31-pitch, 2,900-foot Nose on El Capitan. Which was kind of a big deal.
7. Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal
In 1950, none of the world’s 14 8,000-meter peaks had been climbed. When Herzog (right) and Lachenal stood on the summit of Annapurna that June, they had not only notched the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak, but they had done it without supplemental oxygen – and no one had even seen the peak, let alone reconnoitered it first. Annapurna, Herzog’s memoir of the climb and descent, became a mountaineering classic, inspiring climbers and armchair adventurers worldwide.
8. Lynn Hill
Climbing news nowadays has plenty of mentions of “first female ascents” on hard routes and mountains all over the world, but one first female ascent stands out in climbing history because a woman took on a climb that no one – man or woman – knew was possible: Freeing The Nose on El Cap. In 1993, over four days, Hill free climbed 31 pitches of The Nose, including the famous 5.14a Changing Corners pitch (which she rated 5.13b at the time). The next year, she returned and freed The Nose in a day.
9. Ray Jardine
A few folks tried to put together camming devices to protect rock climbs in the early 1970s, but Ray Jardine, a climber and former computer programmer, scientifically developed the best, a design with two opposing pairs of cams. Jardine’s design, which he kept secret as long as he could while he used them on hard climbs in Yosemite and elsewhere, eventually were named “Friends,” and the spring-loaded cam design influenced all the cams you use today, whether they’re called TCUs, Camalots, or Aliens.
10. Jeff Lowe
In 1995, Jeff Lowe used his ice tools to hook rock features on a hard roof on a rock and ice route near Vail, Colorado. The route, Octopussy, was the beginning of mixed climbing, one of Lowe’s many contributions to the climbing world, including inventing the modern soft shell jacket. Lowe also put up routes around the world, and in the 1970s, led the push to take big-wall techniques to the sheer sandstone walls of Zion National Park, putting up first ascents of several routes, including the world-famous Moonlight Buttress.
11. Reinhold Messner
Unquestionably the most influential alpinist in the history of climbing, Messner proved that Everest could be climbed without supplemental oxygen, climbed all 14 8000-meter peaks (all without supplemental oxygen), and establishing hundreds of routes – including, in 1968, an alpine route in the Dolomites that would later be graded 5.11d.
12. Jacques Nosley
In 1978, French climber Nosley rappelled into the Verdon Gorge and placed bolts on his way down, then climbed his new route Dingomaniaque. It was the first time bolts had been placed on a route from on rappel instead of ground-up – an event many say marks the beginning of true sport climbing.
13. Royal Robbins
Robbins, a pioneering Yosemite climber of the 1960s, in 1971 wrote the book Basic Rockcraft, a how-to that influenced and enabled an entire generation of climbers, as well as helped spread the gospel of clean climbing using removable protection, a novel idea at the time.
14. John SalathÃ©
As a pioneering Yosemite climber and blacksmith in the 1940s (first ascent of Half Dome’s Southwest Face, the Lost Arrow Spire, and the North Face on Sentinel Rock), SalathÃ© noticed that soft iron pitons didn’t last after being hammered into cracks multiple times, so he fashioned the first steel pitons out of a Ford Model A axle, thus inventing modern pitons. He also developed aluminum aid ladder steps, hooks and a bolt kit, gear that made many of the ascents possible during Yosemite’s golden age, and influenced Yvon Chouinard’s first efforts at making climbing hardware.
15. Jean-EstÃ©ril Charlet Straton
Straton, a Chamonix guide, invented the rappel using double ropes during a failed solo attempt on the Petit Dru in 1876. After many attempts, he finally made the first ascent of the Petit Dru in 1879 with two other Chamonix guides.
16. Alan Watts
In 1983, Watts placed the first bolts on rappel in Smith Rock, bringing sport climbing to America with his route Watts Tots. Smith Rock became the epicenter of sport climbing in the U.S., as Watts put up loads of routes as hard as 5.13d.
17. Earl Wiggins
The beautiful, parallel-sided splitter cracks of Indian Creek are known worldwide for their aesthetics, as well as requiring as many as a dozen of the same size cam to protect a single pitch. Before 1976, no one climbed them, because no one knew if they could be protected with existing gear (cams weren’t available until 1978). But a group of Colorado College guys headed out to the desert with a rack of hexes and nuts, and Earl Wiggins cruised the first ascent of what would come to be known as Supercrack (5.10). He wanted to call the climb Luxury Liner, but it didn’t stick. Indian Creek, however, became famous, thanks to Wiggins’ bold climb.
Photos: Tom Frost (3, 13, 14), Wikimedia Commons (1, 4-9, 11), Ray Jardine (9), Jeff Lowe (10).