The golden age of rock climbing

Black and white photos capture the people behind the humble beginnings of the sport.

  • Gwen Moffat was the first female mountain guide in Great Britain. She is also known for her crime novels and barefoot climbing, and for deserting the British Army during World War II.

    Jim Herrington
  • It is likely that no climber has ever made more first ascents in a single decade than Layton Kor. His exploits put Colorado on the map as a climbing destination.

    Jim Herrington
  • Tom Hornbein is a physician who helped pioneer high-altitude climbing with expeditions to the Himalayas and Alaska. He helped design the oxygen masks used on the 1963 American Everest expedition.

    Jim Herrington
  • Pertemba Sherpa climbed Everest during the first ascent of the southwest face in 1975. He helped Sherpa climbers to become not only supporters of Western expeditions, but respected mountaineers in their own right.

    Jim Herrington
  • Sir Christian Bonington has received a mountain of honors, including knighthood, and the Lawrence of Arabia Medal of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. Bonington started climbing at age 16 and was still making first ascents half a century later.

    Jim Herrington
  • Decades ahead of her time, Sonia Livanos was instrumental in the exploration of the Dolomites and the Calanques in the 1950s and 1960s. With few women climbing then, it is likely that nearly all of Livanos’s ascents were first female ascents.

    Jim Herrington
  • After climbing the Calanques with his brother, Robert Gabriel joined forces with Georges Livanos to become the best French team in the Dolomites in the decade following World War II. He is quoted as saying “If I killed myself in the Calanques or on easy ground, I would dare not go out any more.”

    Jim Herrington
  • Royal Robbins’s legendary skill as a free climber and his vision for clean climbing, where the climber leaves little impact on the rock, were instrumental in eliminating the hammer from everyday climbing. His philosophy initiated the development of the environmental ethics of modern outdoor sports.

    Jim Herrington
  • Pat Ament is an award winning filmmaker and an author of nearly 40 books. Ament pioneered some of the first 5.11 routes in Colorado and California, and helped bouldering become a sport in its own right.

    Jim Herrington
  • Jim Bridwell had the first one-day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He established many A5 big-wall aid climbs and became the first to climb the complete southeast ridge of Cerro Torre.

    Jim Herrington
  • The author, Jim Herrington.

    Sara Zmudzinski

 

If you flipped through Jim Herrington’s The Climbers without reading the title, you might not realize that the subjects defined rock climbing and mountaineering. In black-and-white photographs, aging climbers pose, wearing oxygen masks or sitting underwear-clad in their kitchens. By capturing its figures modestly, The Climbers humanizes the “golden age” of climbing, when skill made up for feeble gear and mountains weren’t dressed with bolts and chalk dust. The book opens with a simple portrait of Glen Dawson, who ascended Mount Whitney in 1931. Subjects vary in age and fame: Some, like Reinhold Messner, are clothed in celebrity, while others, like French mountaineer Sonia Livanos, climbed more quietly. According to Greg Child’s introductory essay — climber Alex Honnold also contributes a foreword — the golden age was simply “decades of innocence, exploration, and experimentation … uncertain, like the outcome of a good climbing adventure.” Herrington’s resolute images ask for a long stare — much like a mountain in the distance.