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  • Jessica Thompson

The Rise of Rock climbing: An Exploration of Its Origins

We’re very spoiled at Mount Cook to have such easy access to Black Rocks. Just a short walk away, our guests can have a hands-on experience at an iconic climbing site, as well as in our onsite quarry. The most famous route at Black Rocks, Gaia, is a renowned climbing route. It features in the opening of the cult rock-climbing film Hard Grit.

But how, why, and where did people start climbing?

The beginning

The climb of Mont Aiguille in 1492; was the first technical climb. Antoine de Ville ascended the wonder with rope and ladders, a feat not seen again for 350 years!

The ‘Age of Enlightenment’ came in the 1700s with many people yearning to explore they turned their eyes from the seas to the mountains.

In 1760, a scientist called Saussure moved to the Alps. He was enthralled by the idea of reaching the summit of Mont Blanc and offered a reward to the person who could do so. It was 26 years later two locals, hunter Jacques Balmat and Doctor Michel Gabriel Paccard, had done it. There was now a route to the top.

Drawing of Saussure climbing the summit.
Ascension de Mr. de Saussure au Mont Blanc. 1787. Swiss National Library.

The following year with a team of eighteen men, Saussure made his way to the summit. Modern mountaineering was born, and with it, the beginnings of rock climbing.

Soon an influx of new enthusiasts swarmed to the Alps in search of adventure. New techniques were developed to scale the harsh cliffs and snow-covered slopes. Because of this focus, rock climbing started to drift further and further away from its Alpine origins.

Development of a sport

Have you been to the Alps in Winter? It's harsh, and in the 1800s, the equipment wasn’t good enough to cope yet, all the mountaineering, climbing and sports stopped for the winter. So, the English went to the next best place; the Lake District.

The Lake District has been a popular holiday destination for many years. As the most mountainous region of England, it was the perfect place for the English to keep their skills in top condition.

People on Napes Needle, old picture
"Lake-country rambles" (1902). Palmer, William T,. 1877-1954

Haskett Smith started out just exploring local cliffs while living in Wales. He soon made his way to the Lake District and started to attract attention.

His climbing style more resembled modern climbing. It rejected equipment and was noted for having a gymnastic quality.

He did it alone with zero gear for one reason only; the love of the sport. His name was cemented in rock climbing history with his iconic ascent up Napes Needle near Wasdale head.

After this, during the first half of the 20th century, official climbing clubs started to appear. The Fell & Rock-Climbing Club, founded in 1906, published climbing guides for routes across the country, including our very own Peak District, and owns many photographs which were taken by their founders. The Pinnacle Club, founded in 1921, is the only women's national rock-climbing club in the UK.

At the Youth Hostel Association in the 1930s, climbers contributed a sizeable part of the guests. They even started offering climbing courses at the hostels.

Current day

A building with dormitory-style rooms that offers outdoor activities…Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does!

Mount Cook partially exists because of the rock climbers of the past, and we continue that tradition by offering abseiling, indoor rock-climbing and, most importantly, our new natural rock-climbing wall in our quarry.

Want to go further afield? With Black Rocks on our doorstep, it's an effortless trip to experience one of the most iconic rock-climbing sites in the UK.

Person Climbing a Rock face
Our own rock-climbing wall!

It was underneath a mountain that Mount Cook was first conceived. In New Zealand, friends Robin Sibson and Colin Adams were mountaineering. While camping in the shadow of the tallest mountain in New Zealand they decided they wanted to share their love of the outdoors.

July 2016, we opened the doors of our purpose-built centre and almost 7 years later we have hosted 50,000 individuals at our centre.

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Get in touch with our friendly team to find out more on 01629 823 702 or

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