mountain climbing

Mountain climbing is the practice of climbing to elevated points for sport, pleasure, or research. Also called mountaineering, it is practiced throughout the world. 1


There are three types of mountain climbing. In the easiest, trail climbing, participants merely hike along trails to the top of a particular mountain. The trails generally are not very steep, and the mountains are relatively small. Rock climbing takes place on steeper slopes and larger mountains. Participants generally have to ascend on hands and feet, employing special equipment that may include thick rubber-soled boots or other special shoes, rope, and steel spikes, known as pitons, that are driven into the rock as an aid to climbing. Ice climbing is generally required only on extremely high mountains whose peaks are above the timber line. Equipment used in ice climbing includes the ice axe and attachable boot spikes, known as crampons, that are used on hard ice or snow. 2

Famous Ascents

Almost all the famous ascents have involved rock and ice climbing. The first significant achievements in mountain climbing were the ascents of Mont Blanc made by Jacques Balmat and Michel G. Paccard (1786) and by Horace B. de Saussure (1787). The ascent of other Alpine peaks, including the Ortles (1804), Jungfrau (1811), Finsteraarhorn (1812), and Mont Pelvou (1848) soon followed, and much useful information was gathered by geologists and topographers. 3

Modern mountain climbing may be dated from the ascent of Switzerland’s Wetterhorn (1854). This feat was followed by a decade in which the popularity of mountain climbing grew tremendously, sparking the founding (1858) of the Alpine Club, in London, and the launching (1863) of its publication, the Alpine Journal. An elite class of professional guides soon established itself, and techniques for snow, ice, and rock climbing were developed to the point where highly hazardous ascents were possible for the experienced. This so-called golden age of mountain climbing came to an end with the conquest of the Matterhorn, the last of the great Alpine mountains, by Edward Whymper (1865). 4

As the Alps became familiar, climbers ventured to other mountainous areas. The English Lake District, Wales, and the Scottish Highlands offered climbing challenges of all degrees of difficulty. William C. Slingsby led the way to the Norwegian mountains; Douglas W. Freshfield was one of the pioneer climbers in the Caucasus, soon followed by Albert F. Mummery. In Africa, Kilimanjaro (1889) and Mt. Kenya (1899) were climbed; the duke of the Abruzzi explored the Ruwenzori group in 1906. In the United States, Grand Teton in the Teton Range was climbed in 1872. In the 1860s and 70s Clarence King and John Muir ranged through the Sierra Nevada. In Alaska, Mt. St. Elias was climbed by the duke of the Abruzzi in 1897; Mt. Blackburn and Mt. McKinley were ascended in 1912 and 1913, respectively. In South America, Whymper climbed Chimborazo (1880) and Aconcagua and Tupungato (both: 1897). Gongga (Minya Konka), in China, was climbed in 1932. 5

The most challenging of all have proved to be the mountain systems of the Himalayas. Conway of Allington explored the Karakorum range in 1892; in 1895 J. Norman Collie, C. G. Bruce, Geoffrey Hastings, and Albert Mummery attempted Nanga Parbat, but the effort was given up after Mummery’s disappearance on the mountain’s western face. It was not until 58 years later that Nanga Parbat was climbed by Herman Buhl. In 1950, Maurice Herzog scaled Annapurna. The three towering giants—Mt. Everest, K2 (Mt. Godwin-Austen), and Mt. Kanchenjunga—were conquered in the 1950s: Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to ascend Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, in 1953; an Italian team led by Ardito Desio climbed K2 in 1954; and in 1955 a British expedition led by Charles Evans surmounted Kanchenjunga. With the Chinese claim of an ascent of Gosainthan in 1964, the world’s ten tallest mountains, all in the Himalayas, were finally conquered. Two other notable events in mountaineering were the scaling (1961) of the south face of Mt. McKinley and the winter ascent (1961) of the north wall of the Eiger in the Alps. 6

Mountain Climbing Clubs

Many mountain climbing clubs have been formed, notably the Schweizer Alpen Club, Club Alpino Italiano, Club Alpin Français, the Himalayan Club, the Alpine Club (London), the Alpine Club of Canada, and the American Alpine Club. Most of these render valuable service by building and maintaining shelter huts and providing information concerning topography, routes, and mountain craft. 7


There is a rich and extensive literature of mountain climbing. See E. Whymper, Scrambles amongst the Alps (1871, 6th ed. 1936, repr. 1966); D. W. Freshfield, The Exploration of the Caucasus (2d ed. 1902); H. W. Tilman, The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937) and Mount Everest, 1938 (1948); H. E. G. Tyndale, Mountain Paths (1949); W. R. Irwin, ed., Challenge: An Anthology of the Literature of Mountaineering (1950); Sir Arnold H. M. Lunn, A Century of Mountaineering, 1857–1957 (1958); J. Bernstein, Ascent (1965); S. Styles, Foundations of Climbing (1966) and On Top of the World (1967); A. J. Huxley, ed., Standard Encyclopedia of the World’s Mountains (1969); F. Fleming, Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps (2000).

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