Thank God They Invented It So We Now Don't Have To: the briefest of histories on the death-defying origins of today's commonly-used climbing gear

As I illustrated in my previous post on the history of many climbing terms, climbing's past isn't the neat, sensible topic you'd read in a history book. Our ancestors were a nutty bunch, inventing words and gear on the fly, with little thought as to how much they were affecting the future of climbing, they were so into the now. Without these brave, often impulsive souls making the sport into what they wanted, we would not have many of the gear and phrases we readily have access to today. It's not like Microsoft took an interest in climbing and started cranking out gear marketed towards the dirtbag climbers — every innovation made was made by climbers themselves — every piece of gear was made to fill a specific, often immediate need. It was up to the rest of the climbing community to take the license to run with that idea, build off of it, make it better, and make it available to the climbing public. In the words of the greatest literary figure of our time, "Started from the bottom now we here." Ok, maybe not literary, or even that great, but Drake said that as he ghost-rode the whip in his "Started From the Bottom" music video, and I believe that phrase illustrates my point quite nicely. We started from some creative, crazy guys inventing gear that better allowed them to push the limits, but now climbing is a multi-million dollar industry with brands specifically dedicated to climbing gear, with athletes wholly sponsored by these companies and hoards of people now in the market to buy this gear.

Started from the bottom, now we've got a convertible Jag filled with snow cuz I ghost-rode instead of putting the top up.

Started from the bottom, now we've got a convertible Jag filled with snow cuz I ghost-rode instead of putting the top up.

So now, in no particular order, I have rounded up the best history I could on many of the pieces of gear we use most often in climbing. It's insane to think of what climbers were doing before many of these inventions. Our climbing forefathers were legitimately insane, but thank god they did they crazy sh*# so we can be safer today.

Crash pads:

After John Gill invented the gymnastic sport of bouldering in the 1950s, boulderers climbed largely unprotected, save their spotter, until the introduction of the first commercially available crash pad in 1993. Crash pads had seen many on-the-fly iterations throughout the early years, though, with climbers utilizing everything from couch cushions to duct-taped mattresses as surfaces to land on. Just nab a couple cushions off the couch before a bouldering sesh, and as long as you return them, dirty side flipped down, before Mom got home then she would be none the wiser, and your ankles much less broken. In 1993, John Sherman (inventor of the V-scale) and Bruce Pottenger created the first-ever commercially available crash pad, specifically invented for climbers to fall on. Called the Kinnaloa Sketchpad, the name / idea was given to the duo after they were saw climbers using a 3/4 inch foam mat, with carpet glued to the outside as a landing surface. They called the mat the "Sketch Pad" after "Sketchy Tom," a climber infamously known for looking always on the verge of tearing off the wall while bouldering. I mean, there are definitely worse nicknames, but imagine having a piece of gear named after how imprecise your climbing was.

A climber using one of the earlier forms of the Sketchpad.

A climber using one of the earlier forms of the Sketchpad.

Harnesses: 

The Swami Belt, as showcased by international supermodel Studs McSashay.

The Swami Belt, as showcased by international supermodel Studs McSashay.

Before the use of specifically-manufactured climbing harnesses became mainstream, climbers often used harness systems devised from webbing — that had to be retied every time after you took it off. The Swiss Seat and the Swami Belt were the most commonly used tied harness systems, but had obvious drawbacks in the comfort department, and a mis-tie would mean certain death ... or at the very least a bad fall. The original Swami Belt was just a loop around the waist — better than nothing but incredibly uncomfortable in the event of a fall. Imagine the worst wedgie ever x 1,000. The first ever climbing harness was invented by the Dutch climber Jeanne Immink in the late nineteenth century, but it was not widely used ... probably because she was a girl and other climbers were too busy downgrading everything she did OH SNAP I WENT THERE. Anyways, harnesses did not catch on until the late 60s, after climber Bill Forrest designed a sewn nylon harness that was a one-off of the Swami, and some time later British climber Don Whillans designed a sit harness of sorts that was mass-produced by the climbing company Troll.

The ever-flattering Swiss Seat.

The ever-flattering Swiss Seat.

The first commercially-made Troll climbing harness.

The first commercially-made Troll climbing harness.

Rope: 

The first use of rope probably originated in prehistoric times, when our cave-people ancestors utilized long plant fibers for lashing things together and whatever else those people had going on at that time. The first documented use of ropes with climbing was 1695, in Scotland, when adventurous Scots were climbing high peaks in the pursuit of bird hunting. Nowadays we just go to KFC when we are in the mood for something avian, but the quest for sustenance was a much more dangerous game back then. Much more dangerous than a late-night trip to any inner-city Whataburger, ever. It wasn't until the 19th century that rope usage became mainstream in climbing. Since then, climbing ropes have splintered off into different categories, such as dynamic vs. static, dry-treated vs. untreated, and a great many diameters to choose from. We've come a long way from conveniently lengthy plant fibers, yeah?

Some early roped alpinists simul-climbing. Redundancy is key when protecting yourselves folks ... anchoring yourself to your precariously placed partner only ensures that you'll both die if one of you happens to pitch off.

Some early roped alpinists simul-climbing. Redundancy is key when protecting yourselves folks ... anchoring yourself to your precariously placed partner only ensures that you'll both die if one of you happens to pitch off.

Belay devices:

The Münter Hitch knot, still used today in a pinch — ever dropped your belay device before? Imagine doing that 1,000s of feet up ... how are you going to belay?

The Münter Hitch knot, still used today in a pinch — ever dropped your belay device before? Imagine doing that 1,000s of feet up ... how are you going to belay?

When previously climbers were using body belay systems, like the hip belay, or a knot like the Münter hitch to belay off of, the first ever commercially made belay device was the Sticht Plate. A more primitive version of the ATC, Sticht style belay plates are still made by some companies today. They were replaced with tube-style belay devices, like the ATC in the early 80s, which remained the reigning champions of the climbing world until the invention of the GriGri in 1991. While there are many auto-locking competitors to the GriGri, like the Trango Cinch and the Edelrid Eddy, the good ol' GriGri remains as one of the most popular belay devices today.

"On hip belay!" Widely used by early climbers, the hip belay today elicits the response of "NOPE NOPE NOPE" from many climbers today.

"On hip belay!" Widely used by early climbers, the hip belay today elicits the response of "NOPE NOPE NOPE" from many climbers today.

The Sticht Plate, with an added spring, to keep the device from jamming horribly, which they are very prone to doing.

The Sticht Plate, with an added spring, to keep the device from jamming horribly, which they are very prone to doing.

Carabiners:

Before the introduction of the carabiner to the climbing scene, to attach the rope to an anchor or piece of protection, a climber either needed to tie their rope to the protection, or untie the rope altogether and run it through the fixture. That method was obviously both time-consuming, and extremely unsafe, and the climbing world is lucky that German climber Otto "Rambo" Herzog was the first to introduce the carabiner to the sport of climbing in 1911. The first carabiners, or karabinerhaken, as they were called then, were inspired by pear-shaped metal clips first used by a fire brigade in Munich. In 1957, carabiners specifically made for climbing were introduced to the market.

An early carabiner design from the 1890s.

An early carabiner design from the 1890s.

Climbing shoes:

Some 1940s era PA Boots. Some pretty sweet-looking kicks, right?

Some 1940s era PA Boots. Some pretty sweet-looking kicks, right?

The first shoes ever used for climbing (more alpine climbing than rock climbing at that point) were heavy boots with studded hobnails for traction. In the 1930s, Vitale Bramani invented the earliest form of Vibram rubber by placing rubber studs on climbing boots instead of metal. Soon after, climbers began using shoes with entirely rubber soles almost exclusively. Some climbers even put wool socks over their rubber-soled shoes ... because apparently that improved their traction. Imagine sending the proj with the socks your Grandmother always gives you for Christmas every year covering your climbing shoe. By the 1950s, climber Pierre Allain had invented rubber-soled canvas boots that were widely used by the climbing community. Called PA Boots (after Pierre Allain, duh), these were followed by Eduard Bourdineau's similarly creatively-named EB Boots, which had softer soles and became much more popular. The first company to commercially make climbing shoes was the Spanish company Boreal. Climbing shoes have come a long way from PAs and EBs, but one look at shoes like La Sportiva's TC Pro and you can definitely see the 50s and 60s early shoe influence still alive and well today.

A step up with the EB boots, with softer rubber.

A step up with the EB boots, with softer rubber.

La Sportiva's throwback looking shoe, the TC Pro.

La Sportiva's throwback looking shoe, the TC Pro.

Chalk:

John Gill, credited with inventing the sport of bouldering, also introduced the use of chalk into the sport. Previously used in gymnastics for its drying properties, Gill began using it in 1954. Gill, a former gymnast himself, was well-versed in the use of chalk during many of the challenging releases gymnasts do on the bars. Since he was establishing bouldering as a much more dynamic, gymnastic form of climbing, he saw many parallels between the crazy releases and catches he'd do on the bars, and the slapping and lunging necessary to thrutch up many boulder problems. Eventually, the use of chalk caught on, although many purists did, and still do, look down on chalk because of the stain it leaves behind on the rock. Chalk use made the leap from bouldering to rope climbing when a sport or trad climber was making a particularly dynamic move, but nowadays, chalk is widely used at all times. And not just for its practical purpose, which is drying your hands, but almost as a therapeutic pit stop during a hard climb, to breathe and focus. Also widely used to annoy both friends and gym employees by "LeBron-ing" chalk everywhere during almost every opportunity. Or maybe that's just me.

John Gill bouldering with chalk bag in tow.

John Gill bouldering with chalk bag in tow.

Cams: 

Very similar to today's tri-cams, Abalakov cams were one step above the pitons that were commonly used as protection in the 1930s.

Very similar to today's tri-cams, Abalakov cams were one step above the pitons that were commonly used as protection in the 1930s.

Before the invention of cams, or SLCDs (Spring-loaded Camming Devices), climbers typically protected themselves by hammering pitons in the rock. Which was time-consuming and cumbersome – smacking a piece of metal in the rock at hundreds of feet up, only to have to do that again, and again, and again? Basically like building an Ikea table while hanging on a cliff face. Russian climber Vitaly Abalakov invented the earliest version of a camming device in the 1930s, called the Abalakov cam. Fun fact: Abalakov's other claim to fame was for being arrested in the late 30s for being under suspicion of being a German spy. In 1973 Greg Lowe filed a patent for the first spring-loaded camming device, but it wasn't until 1978 that Ray Jardine mass-produced the first SLCD, called the Friend. And what a friend these devices were to climbing's first trad climbers!

The Friend in one of its earliest iterations. This device is still available today, but it obviously much updated.

The Friend in one of its earliest iterations. This device is still available today, but it obviously much updated.

Quickdraws:

Before the days of quickdraws, climbers would clip bolts by first clipping a carabiner onto the bolt, followed by a runner, then followed by OHMYGOD yet another carabiner, and it was then, and only then that they could clip their rope in for protection. Never complain about a hard clip again, sport climbers ... cuz it could always be worse. Climber Jim Erickson first used the idea of these pre-made carabiner / sling creations on trad climbs, to more conveniently clip into nuts.  He carried about four of these contraptions, called the UrQuickdraw in the early 70s, and these devices soon began appearing on other climbers' racks. Erickson's quickdraw set-up is still used today in the form of the Alpine Draw, created by doubling up a sling and securing it with two carabiners at either end. Alpine Draws are great for their customizable lengths, are are still very commonly used in trad climbing.

An modern Alpine Quickdraw, which looks very similar to Erickson's first quickdraw creation.

An modern Alpine Quickdraw, which looks very similar to Erickson's first quickdraw creation.

Ah, so there you have it! The history of some of the pieces of gear we use most frequently, and some you might never use, but still care about anyways. Who would have known cams were first invented by a spy? And that the first ever climbing harness was made by a Dutchwoman? Well, file all this info under "The More You Know," and be sure to whip out some of this stuff next time you're at a climbing party and are trying to impress somebody with your good ol' fashioned know-how. This is only after your purported "V12 sends" and "friendships with famous climbers" fail, of course.