The arrival of climbing as a medal sport in the Olympics was celebrated by the competitive climbing community, and some others looked on with curiosity if not interest. Although the competitive climbers viewed it as an indication of its validity as an athletic pursuit, climbing, by-and-large, did not reach an evolutionary peak. Born to Climb: From Rock Climbing Pioneers to Olympic Athletes by Zofia Reych had a opportunities to address or refute this evolutionary development, but instead it tells a story that gives too much weight in connecting Olympic climbing to climbing’s very beginnings.
Zofia Reych was born and introduced to climbing in Poland and was introduced to pulling plastic later in the UK. She also studied anthropology and applied it to Born to Climb, published by Adventure Books / Vertebrate Publishing in 2022. Born to Climb was released in 2022, the year after competitive climbing debuted in the 2020 Olympics (which, of course, was delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and actually held in 2021.) The timeliness poised this book to tell a story based around the milestone, which was both why I wanted read it and its flaw.
I enthusiastically sought out Born to Climb to read because I was curious about the author’s lens on just that story. Reych explains, in what could be irony, why climbing was welcomed by the Olympics into the fold as it welcomed snowboarding in after the success at the X-Games. Reych also goes farther back in her research and lets the reader consider the factors that resurrected the ancient games and why it was actually reestablished. There were fascinating discussions on the establishment of sports for the affluent and the workforce in the 1800s, and the economics of the Olympics over the 1900s. It made me a little more cynical about the populism of sports in general.
Climbing, as we know it today, evolved from the 1800s. And ever since then, climbing has varied by different ethics and arguments about pro, various styles ranging from traveling in pairs to big heavy expeditions, and broader categories from alpine mountaineering, ice climbing, trad climbing, sport climbing, bouldering. Climbing was complex in the 1800s, and with the multitude of new branches of climbing categories sprouting in the 20th Century, with their own ethics and styles, have made it even more complicated. Drawing a line from the past to the Olympics made me pick up the book, but there is no straight line, and it made Born to Climb informative but not significantly insightful.
Born to Climb is misleading, in its timing of publishing, and the drive the story takes in telling the adjacent, but not parallel, stories of how climbing and Olympic developed and changed through the 1800s and 1900s. Although Born to Climb states no thesis about the ascension and crowing of climbing as a medal sport, the book is merely a good history lesson mixed with some current day climbing anecdotes, told through autobiographical details.
Reych does an exceptional job of educating the reader about how climbing changed from the Greek and Roman times to the alpine ascents in a pure sporting fashion in the 1800s, and the first rock climb (ropeless, by the way) at Napes Needle in 1886 in Wasdale, Lakes District by Haskett Smith, and all the way to contemporary competitive climbing. If not a thesis, at least a key point she makes in different ways, is that all forms of climbing “stem in a straight line from the ideals and ethics that were born in the Alps in the nineteenth century.” While competitive climbing is the hot topic, what about ice, mixed, and dry tooling climbing?
Reych shed new light for me in her review of the cultural conditions that women climbed in the 1800s. More women climbed than maybe recorded, but those that did were viewed as potentially harming their bodies and could border on vulgarity. Women climbers were part of the “new women,” which was a pejorative term.
While reading I was questioning whether the personal stories Reych sprinkles throughout the book advanced a theme or illustrated other points in the book. It was a little more biographical, which was sincerely charming, but didn’t initially move the story along. But later, it shined insight into contemporary culture around climbing as it entered the Olympic era, for instance when she speaks of a notable climber dying climbing outdoors. She makes herself an example of the current climbing culture, which is descended from the past.
In the end, Born to Climb is well researched, but having read many of the works she cites, I am not sure this was added more to the climbing shelves other than added one celebrating the 2020 Olympics. I appreciate that it embraces and looks to climbing history, searching for a thread from the top of Mont Blanc that isn’t there, other than climbing itself, but I am not buying a copy to give to my friends.
Was this a classic? It was an excellent history. I wished it was available ten years ago, though it couldn’t have been. It might be valuable to some readers, and might be a good reference for a long time, but it won’t compete with sagas of remarkable attempts or biographies of great climbers.
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