A comment:

One little thing that I understand differently: Sport climbing did not evolve from trad climbing (at least not in the modern sense), but more of artificial climbing. Using gear for advancement not only protection was the standard and the revolution was to ditch that and climb on "unclimbable" difficulties by using bolts as protection, which allows to fall (which wasn't an option before).

on my answer here got me thinking. What exactly was the first sport route in the world? When did it get bolted, why and by who?

By sport route I mean free climbing outside with only bolts to protect falls, not aid climbing using bolts or using the odd bolt/piton here and there.

  • 5
    I think this question is a lot like asking, "Who, when and how was the renaissance started?" There isn't one single event that ushered in climbing as a sport, but a series of developments/influential people ranging from the late 19th century until the 1950s.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 17:59
  • Moses. First ever recorded summit.
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 4:59
  • Oh look who commented just before me...
    – ShemSeger
    Commented Apr 3, 2019 at 4:59

2 Answers 2


As far as I know, the "change of paradigm" that led to the birth of sport climbing happened between the 70s and the 80s, and it happened separately in Europe and in the United States.

From the early 1900s to the 50s, rock climbing was mostly seen as a "tool" necessary to reach the summit of a mountain. There was no real distinction between "aid climbing" and "free climbing", too: the goal was to reach new summits and to establish new bold first ascents in the mountains, whatever the means.

Of course, there were those who advocated a purer climbing style, as for example the german Paul Preuss:

In the next few months he made the second ascents of Angelo Dibona's routes on the Croz dell'Altissimo and the Northwest Ridge of the Grossen Ödstein, making a point of not using any of the pitons left by the first ascensionists, thereby putting into practice his desire to climb as his predecessors Georg Winkler and Emil Zsigmondy had: in a pure style, meaning without any artificial aids [...]. Pitons and carabiners were just starting to be effectively adapted for use in the mountains. At first they were just used for protection or securing a rappel line, but then increasingly became used for upward progress, for instance as hand or footholds, or to secure the rope for a pendulum or tension traverse. To Preuss this was nothing less than cheating.

Preuss even wrote a series of principles to express his ethics of climbing, criticizing the use of any artificial mean (including the rope) for the progression.

However, people like Preuss were rare, and most of the alpinists in the world didn't bother about how a summit was reached, as long as it was reached.

The debate about the the ethics of climbing made a return at the end of the 60s and of the early 70s: the advances in technology and the diffusion of the expansion bolt had made possible to climb almost anything, as long as you had enough gear and patience.

The excessive use of bolts and artificial means was strongly criticzed, amongst the others, by Reinhold Messner in Italy, who wrote in 1968 the famous article The murder of the impossible and by Royal Robbins in the USA, which described his ideas in the book Advanced rockcraft (1973).

Adventure and boldness were still considered prominent in rock climbing, and not much stress was put on technical difficulty. Therefore, using too many artificial means was seen as a betrayal of all climbing was about.

Things started to change in the late 70s/ early 80s. In some circles attention began to shift from the heroism of climbing to the technical difficulty. An important step in this process was the invention of modern rubber-soled climbing shoes in the early 80s.

enter image description here

Figure: The Boreal Fire', probably the first modern climbing shoe (source)

In Europe, one of the birthplaces of free climbing was the Gorges du Verdon:

But the Verdon is perhaps best known as a climbing destination—and one of the birthplaces of sport climbing, a genre defined by the use of bolts, drilled into the rock, to protect climbers. By the mid-1980s, the Verdon was the world’s first prominent climbing area to feature, almost entirely, all-bolted routes.

-Exploring the Birthplace of Sport Climbing in Europe’s Grandest Canyon

The two most famous pioneers of sport climbing of sport climbing in Verdon were the two Patricks: Edlinger and Berhault.

I don't know much about the birth of sport climbing in the USA, but this article identifies Smith Rock as one of the birthplaces of this activity:

A 1982 Climbing article mentioned Smith’s shift from aid climbing to free climbing, but the most significant changes had just begun. [...] “We were pushing each other, and once we had done all the existing climbs, we had to find something else to do,” he explains. “There weren’t many cracks left, but there were so many beautiful faces and arêtes.”

The problem was lack of protection, and rather than run it out, Watts began experimenting with rappelling down potential climbs, cleaning loose rock, and hand-drilling a few protection bolts. “It was a big shift, putting up the bolts and making the routes as hard as we possibly could,” says Watts. “We were just trying to raise the standard.” Unlike places like Yosemite Valley and Joshua Tree, where rap bolting had a stigma that led to controversy and even violence, sport climbing was quickly accepted at Smith, mainly because of the area’s isolation. By the mid-1980s, there were dozens of 5.12 and 5.13 routes at Smith, including many that remain popular classics today.

Another important event that marks the birth of sport climbing is the first climbing competition: Sportroccia, in 1985 at Bardonecchia, Italy. The competition took place on real rock, and not on artificial walls like modern competitions.

enter image description here

Figure: Patrick Edlinger at Sportroccia, the first climbing competition (1985) © Marco Maria Scolaris

Other relevant articles:

Sport climbing—today’s most popular form of roped climbing—was a highly controversial practice during its early inception in the 1980s. During this time, sport climbing pioneers such as Alan Watts scoured the walls of Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park to find lines that could be established using bolts drilled into crack-less rock faces.

  • 2
    Great answer, can you add a source of the photo please. Using photos without attribution isn't a good idea as it will infringe copywrite, etc.
    – user2766
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 13:15
  • @Liam You're right. Done it. For the second one I know the author, for the first one I added the link.
    – valerio
    Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 13:20
  • Just to add a UK perspective, 'cragging', or single pitch climbing was popular as a sport in the early 1900s in the UK. JW Puttrell climbed extensively on Wharncliffe crags near Sheffield in the UK. Commented Jan 15, 2018 at 13:39

According to what I can find on Wikipedia and elsewhere, it looks like it was in the 1880s. Before that, bolts had been used as climbing aids.

Best candidate for first climber and route is W.P. Haskett Smith up the Napes Needle in the Lake District in 1886, however most climbers that used artificial aids used them to climb, not just for safety until into the 1920s.

  • Yeah details seems pretty sketchy. I remember watching a film about using bolt sin Yosemite in the 60s but I can't remember if that was the first "sport climb" or not
    – user2766
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 10:39
  • Couple of famous folks in the late '20s made a point of using stoppers etc just as fall arresters. Pigott was the one I remember from a documentary years ago.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 10:41
  • I've slightly tweaked the question to clarify what I'm thinking. Problem is the same as in the linked question (or seemingly climbing in general) what even is sport climbing?!
    – user2766
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 11:13
  • 1
    Yep - I answered specifically with the same view as you, that it counts as sport climbing when bolts etc are only for fall prevention, not climbing.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 11:24
  • From the wikipedia link, it sounds more like free soloing than sport climbing to me: "His most famous climb was his 1886 first ascent of the Napes Needle, which he accomplished, by himself, without any sort of protective devices - eschewing the use of ropes, spikes, and ladders as aids required by inferior climbers."
    – Qudit
    Commented Sep 18, 2017 at 17:56

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