Editor’s note: I haven’t done a lot of recreational writing as of late. This past winter most of my writing has been technical, professional, writing. In the process a co-creator suggested a section on climbing history. For numerous reasons, it took me a while to get there but I generally didn’t want to retell the same story. Eventually these few paragraphs emerged as a means to help provide context to some of the stories that are more widely known in climbing culture.
In talking about climbing history, it’s easy to center the story of the privileged few who helped bring climbing to where it is now. It is easy to center it on a place, such as Awahanee (home of the “Golden Era” of climbing) or Animal Village (birthplace of U.S. sport climbing) and elevate a culture of “firsts” that supports colonial ideals. The argument that those things are important is a strong one. Those stories are also known.
But climbing has existed in many contexts for as long as humans have been humans. 250,000 years ago, a group of Homo naledi (a line of now-extinct humans) climbed through deep cave systems in South Africa to bury their dead in a burial chamber. Modern cavers find the moves to be on the low end of today’s technical climbing scale but difficult nonetheless. The modern humans who migrated northward left more traces of technical climbing as they traveled. (1, 2)
In a culture where “first” ascents are revered and conquering the cliff is common, language works toward erasure of Indigenous people, their values, and their culture. Indigenous climber, writer, activist, Joe Whittle, in Alpinist 62 writes: “The claiming of a first ascent or the planting of a flag on a mountain that we view as a sacred relative resembles any other flag that colonists have planted on Turtle Island. We have held these spaces as places of worship since the beginnings of human history, even as others have arrived to try to establish ownership over them”(3).
In North America, hard technical climbing allowed Ancestral Puebloans to protect their food and themselves from raiders. A yucca rope discovered in Bears Ears is dated at over 700 years old and offers insight to some of the earliest known climbing tools. Replicas of the rope were pull tested to 456 pounds (¾” diameter) and 233 pounds (¼” diameter) and while they lacked stretch and would likely snap under a dynamic load, were super good enough for people pulling on to make upward progress or moving their “haul bags” of goods up and down the cliffs. (4)
To support the illusion of a “terra incognita” the erasure of Indigenous cultures from the history of North American mountaineering was essential. “There’s hardly a piece of ground in the United States that wasn’t first mapped with the help of Native American guides. . . Numerous mountaintops across the continent, including technical ones, contain traces of Indigenous passage. Nimi’ipuu hunters roamed the basins and crags of the Wal’wa-maXs in search of Bighorn sheep for millennia. US Forest Service archaeology teams have documented evidence of early spiritual sites on some of the summits there, and I’ve found arrowheads above 9,000 feet (5). Yet the role of Indigenous mountaineers and their knowledge of “unclimbed” terrain is largely invisible in mainstream accounts—acknowledging it would mean admitting the farce in the idea of “American wilderness”(6).
“Throughout the decades and in my personal experience,” Diné climber and guide, Aaron Mike reflected, “there has been a culture in climbing that tries to nullify existing law on sacred lands, specifically on the Navajo Nation. Climbers drill fresh bolts and pay to poach sacred formations behind excuses like “good intentions” or “having a Native friend.” These illegal actions are a modern-day conquer-and-destroy mentality that fails to respect indigenous sovereignty and deteriorates the credibility of potential sustainable rock-climbing efforts” (7).
Climbing’s past and present is filled with racist, xenophobic, and transphobic transgressions. From the monumental to the everyday. The first protection/progress/aid bolts used in climbing were placed by a non-Indigenous party on an ascent of Tse Bit’a’ii (“Rock with Wings” aka, Shiprock)(8). Every June, climbers ignore a requested ban on climbing Mato Tipila (Devil’s Tower), a tower with spiritual significance to many Indigenous cultures of the Great Plains (9). In 2021 a climber bolted over 1000-year-old petroglyphs (10). Every route name that needs to be redacted and every racist “the rock doesn’t see color” comment on the internet supports a culture of intolerance, ignorance, and exclusion.
Dom Davis, at The American Climbing project helped give some context to climbing history. That “this sport is dominated by white cis-hetero, able-bodied men, . . . is a byproduct of the era that climbing was developed. During the time that the Fred Becky’s and Yvon Chouinard’s of the world were logging FAs, Black folks weren’t allowed in National Parks. We were taking Freedom Rides, escaping lynch mobs, marching on Washington, fighting for our right to be treated as equals, and trying to have access to education. So, it’s safe to say that scaling a mountain in a place where we weren’t even allowed to be was not on the list of our priorities”(11).
Briana Mazzaloni-Blanchard of Indigenous Field Guide and the Red River Gorge Climber’s Coalition agrees: “In climbing, a lot of the first ascensionists were white men, but that’s in part because of access to these spaces. They weren’t discriminated against. They were legally allowed to be there”(12). She’s referring, in part, to Jim Crow laws barring Black Americans from many state and national parks, and discrimination that minority groups still face in public parks and recreational spaces. Consider that when John Muir ascended the so-called Cathedral Peak and Half Dome in Awahanee in 1869, the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery) had been ratified only four years earlier.
Len Necefer, a Diné climber and the founder of NativeOutdoors, notes, that “while there is much respect for those early climbers and all they’ve done for the lifestyle and sport over the years, “they also did an incredible amount of damage. [The founders] are applauded for their achievements, but not necessarily [noted] for their faults. That’s history…but it’s a mixed bag”(13).
2) There is an obvious tension between this theory of evolution and the ensuing paragraphs that talk of Indigenous cultures, each with their own creation story. In All the Real Indians Died Off, authors Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote: “the problem about the land bridge theory for American Indians is that it contradicts their own origins story that have been handed down orally. . . Science is too often ready to discredit..other ways of knowing reality.” (p.16–17).
5) The Wind River’s also tout their share of Indigenous high altitude dwellings and stories of mountains, climbing, and cultures.
6) Alpinist 62; see Footnote 3.
8) Tse Bit’a’ii is a monolith in Northwestern New Mexico, situated on the Navajo Nation. At that time, controversy about the placements centered on the “engineering” of a route, not whether non-Indigenous people should be climbing a formation that is central to the Diné people’s creation story and is the home of the Bird Monsters.
9) Mato Tipila is the Lakota name for what was renamed Devil’s Tower in 1906. Other Indigenous Peoples in the region have other names for this place. As a footnote to the footnote: “On February 2, 2023, Sen. Cynthia Lummis (WY) introduced S. 267 in the United States Senate. The purpose of the bill is to retain the name Devil’s Tower for both the geologic feature and the populated place.” It has not advanced in the Senate. https://www.nps.gov/deto/learn/historyculture/devils-tower-proposals-to-change-the-name.htm