A Mini Biography of Mountaineering

Mountaineering EducationMountaineering, the great game with death, has progressed tremendously all over the world. It has made great strides in equipment and techniques. Mountaineering, an activity which was considered ludicrous once and was undertaken by a very limited number of demented souls, is now being accepted and valued by the majority of people.

The activity started with easy routes, quadra-thousanders, guides, porters, specialization in only one mountain, summer climbing, and without proper techniques and equipment, but now it’s flourishing in its full glory with the craze for the toughest routes, octa-thousanders, solo without oxygen, winter climbing, and hoisting flag of the country on more than one summits.

This mini biography of mountaineering takes you on a short tour of how the activity changed in the last four centuries.


Modern mountaineers scale summits mainly for recognition and pleasure, whereas their forefathers explored mountains for basic reasons such as


  • To find the truth of spirits that existed in these inaccessible terrains.
  • To find suitable places for last rites.
  • To go on pilgrimage because it was believed that higher and tougher the pilgrimage route, higher the merits and higher the chances of getting enlightenment and salvation.
  • To measure geographical territories of the enemies and their strength.
  • To record observations about geology, metrology, and other sciences.


18th Century

  • Mountaineering for the sake of fame or as an athletic achievement began in 1760 when Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, a Swiss scientist, introduced prize money for the maiden ascent of Mont Blanc (4,807 meters / 15,771 feet), the tallest peak in Europe. But there were no climbers. After a quarter a century, Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat climbed Mont Blanc and got the prize money in 1786.
  • Approach through the easiest routes
  • Climb one mountain once
  • Equipment very simple: rope, stick, and axe

19th Century

  • In the mid-nineteenth century, mountaineering was undertaken purely for the joy of climbing.
  • The first ever breed of mountaineering guides, who helped the summiteers in Europe, also emerged in the mid-19th century.
  • All major summits of the Alps were conquered by 1870. These mountaineers wanted more challenges. So, the hunt for new summits and new routes for the existing summits began.
  • Advancing through the easiest routes
  • Popularity of quadra-thousanders (peaks with an altitude of >=4,000 meters)
  • More than one mountain
  • Repeated climbs on the same mountain
  • Equipment simple: rope, nailed boots, alpenstock that is a long wooden pole having an iron spike
  • Introduction of solo mountaineering, winter climbing, traverse
  • Women’s participation in climbing began.
  • The world’s first mountaineering club, The Alpine Club (United Kingdom), was formed in 1857.


20th Century

Around the turn of the 20th century, the European climbers ventured into other mountain ranges of the world: the Andes, the Caucasus, the Himalayas, and the Rocky. The Himalayas were probably the last one to be explored.

1931: First ascent of Kamet (7,756 meters / 25,445 feet)

1936: Maiden ascent of Nanda Devi (7,816 meters / 25,642 feet)

During mid-20th century, Mount Everest, the loftiest peak, was conquered.

Internationalization of mountaineering began.

And number of historic ascents were made in 1950s:

  1. 1950: Annapurna I (8,091 meters / 26,545 feet)
  2. 1953: Everest (8,850 meters / 29,035 feet)
  3. 1953: Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters / 26,660 feet)
  4. 1954: Cho Oyu (8,201 meters / 26, 906 feet)
  5. 1954: K2 (8,611 meters / 28,251 feet)
  6. 1955: Kanchenjunga (8,586 meters / 28,169 feet)
  7. 1955: Makalu (8,463 meters / 27,766 feet)
  8. 1956: Lhotse (8,516 meters / 27,940 feet)
  9. 1956: Manaslu (8,163 meters / 26,781 feet)
  10. 1956: Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters / 26,361 feet)
  11. 1957: Broad Peak (8,047 meters / 26,400 feet)
  12. 1958: Gasherbrum I (8,068 meters / 26,469 feet)

Approaching summits from challenging routes

Scaling the summits in the shortest possible time

Onset of alpine style of climbing

Craze for octa-thousanders (peaks with an altitude of >=8,000 meters)

Climbing on the same peak through different faces

Traversing, solo climbing, winter climbing, solo climbing in winter

Disabled people started climbing and summiting the peaks.

Introduction of high altitude expeditions without supplement oxygen

Beginning of climbing competitions

Rock climbing developed as an individual sport besides being the part of mountaineering

Ever newer and more sophisticated equipment was designed and used viz. pitons, carabiners, friends, jumars, pullies

All women expeditions attempted peaks of all levels and sizes.

Clubs, institutes, and organizations were set up at local, regional, national, and international level. For example, The Himalayan Club was set up in 1928 and International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation in 1932.

Legal side of mountaineering took shape. For example, Himachal Pradesh unveiled Climbing/Trekking Porters (Regulation of Employment) Act, 1977.

Mountaineers mulled over safety standards.

21st Century

Commercialization of mountaineering is in full swing. It has become a business. Mountaineering packages are being marketed like any other service. It is the primary source of livelihood for scores of mountain dwellers who serve as porters, guides, managers…

More women are joining mountaineering.

In the first decade of the century, Edurne Pasaban Lizarribar, a Spanish mountaineer, became the first woman to climb all 14 tallest mountains in the world.

The number of all women expeditions is relatively higher than previous centuries.

Emphasis on alpine mountaineering

Comparatively more training options in private and public sectors

Mountaineering is more popular.

Climbers look for comforts.

Climbing, especially in case of taller peaks, is becoming a mass tourist activity.

Many fold increase in awareness about the activity

Loads of free information is easily available.

High disposable income has also contributed to new craze for conquering the remote vertical world.

Basic minimum standards are being implemented.


But one thing has not changed and probably will never change: Mountaineering is a financially, mentally, and physically costly activity.

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