The formative years of cutting edge rock climbing: 1981&1982

I always loved climbing history, and especially the early days of sport climbing. Over the next few months, I will be covering the 1980-2000 period of rock climbing, with republishing of an old article by Steve Kelly from Australia (credits below). Hope you enjoy the stories!

1981 came along and the Edlinger put up Medius (7b+) in Saint-Victoire – the hardest route in France. Equalling it though was the efforts of American John Bachar – who cheekily visited the Frankenjura (Germany) and established a new line which he called ‘Chasin’ The Train’ (7b+) – supposedly a reference to the state of Euro climbing versus its American equivalent. (Years later Bachar denounced this claim – saying that it was merely a reference to the well known jazz musician Johnny Cochrane).

Most of the routes (if not all) were being put up in a style known as ‘Yo Yo’ – the accepted norm at the time. This involved no pre-inspection – but climbing up to your highpoint – falling off – then lowering back to the ground (without working the moves) and starting again. The climber left the rope clipped into their highpoint – thereby essentially toproping the section on their next attempt.

First to use what would soon become termed ‘redpoint tactics’ was the German Kurt Albert – who in the same year (’81) had put up Germany’s first 7b+ with Sautanz. His new ethic was to ‘free climb’ routes (in the now standard practice of today) and then mark the base of the climbs with a painted red dot – signifying that they had been ‘freed’.

Kurt Labert on Sautanz (7b+), Frankenjura, 1981.
Photo by Thomas Ballenberger.
Wolfgang Güllich free solo on Sautanz, 7b+, Frankenjura 1986

Strangely, the first nation to really take up this new game were the French, who embraced it whole-heartedly during the early ‘80’s. As a result, the levels of hard climbing took off in France – as now the hard sections of routes were worked – rather than left as ground-up affairs – which led to a massive increase in strength and talent.

Despite this soon-to-be-embraced-revolution, the word was still ‘yo yo’ – and the routes that fell courtesy of this style were very impressive indeed. By the end of ’82 the grade of 7c had all but been consolidated with routes such as Cobwebs (Moorhead), Fenrir (7c – Edlinger, pictured in the first post), La Haine (7c – Berhault) and Little Plum (7c at Stoney Middleton– by a young new comer – Jerry Moffatt).

Jeffy Moffat on the first ascent of Little Plum in 1981. Photo by Geoff Birtles

If you are a total history bum, you might want to go even more in the past and read about the heritage od climbing at Stoney Middleton in the 1970s, with characters like Moffat, Pollitt and many more doing things probably unimaginable by today’s standards of comfort.

Here are articles about Stoney Middleton climbing history, with part III telling the story of Little Plum and the rare photo of a climber during the actual first ascent in the 1980s (something we take for granted today).

Also that year Carrigan claimed the big grade of 8a with India, which was the biggest news to date, and probably still holds that grade today for Carrigan’s original sequence. Law meanwhile quietly put up the much unheralded Slime Time (mainly because he graded it 7b! (now 7c). Carrigan consolidated at the grade with the amazing Ogive (7c) at Bundaleer.

Dave Fearnley grapples with the classic India (28) at Mt. Arapiles. Photo by Mark Sedon.

Meanwhile, Ron Fawcett’s ‘heir apparent’ – Jerry Moffatt – paid his first visit to the States, and promptly flashed one of their hardest routes – Supercrack (7b).

Published with kind permission from Climbing Club of South Australia. Original article from the The BOLFA Newsletter: “A window on the past: The formative years of of cutting edge rock climbing Part 1 (1980-1990) by Steve Kelly”. Note: text was minimally modified for 2020. Images were added with personal pre