Mountaineering, or alpinism, is the set of outdoor activities that involves ascending tall mountains.
Mountaineering-related activities include traditional outdoor climbing, skiing and traversing via ferratas.
Mountaineering differs from other outdoor sports in that nature alone provides the field of action—and just about all of the challenges—for the participant.
Climbing mountains embodies the thrills produced by testing one’s courage, resourcefulness, cunning, strength, ability, and stamina to the utmost in a situation of inherent risk.
Mountaineering, to a greater degree than other sports, is a group activity, with each member both supporting and supported by the group’s achievement at every stage. For most climbers, the pleasures of mountaineering lie not only in the “conquest” of a peak but also in the physical and spiritual satisfactions brought about through intense personal effort, ever-increasing proficiency, and contact with natural grandeur.
Humans have been present in mountains since prehistory. The remains of Ötzi, who lived in the 4th millennium BC, were found in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps. However, the highest mountains were rarely visited early on, and were often associated with supernatural or religious concepts. Nonetheless, there are many documented examples of people climbing mountains prior to the formal development of the sport in the 19th century, although many of these stories are sometimes considered fictional or legendary.
In the Andes, around the late 1400s and early 1500s many ascents were made of extremely high peaks by the Incas and their subjects. The highest they are known for certain to have climbed is 6739m at the summit of Volcan Llullaillaco.
The Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic era marked a change of attitudes towards high mountains. In 1757 Swiss scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure made the first of several unsuccessful attempts on Mont Blanc in France. He then offered a reward to anyone who could climb the mountain, which was claimed in 1786 by Jacques Balmat and Michel-Gabriel Paccard. The climb is usually considered an epochal event in the history of mountaineering, a symbolic mark of the birth of the sport.
Mountaineering in a contemporary sporting sense was born when a young Genevese scientist, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, on a first visit to Chamonix in 1760, viewed Mont Blanc (at 4,807 metres or 15,771 feet the tallest peak in Europe) and determined that he would climb to the top of it or be responsible for its being climbed. He offered prize money for the first ascent of Mont Blanc, but it was not until 1786, more than 25 years later, that his money was claimed—by a Chamonix doctor, Michel-Gabriel Paccard, and his porter, Jacques Balmat. A year later de Saussure himself climbed to the summit of Mont Blanc. After 1850 groups of British climbers with Swiss, Italian, or French guides scaled one after another of the high peaks of Switzerland.
During the second half of the 19th century, mountaineering became famous with numerous first ascents. Many English adventurers came to the Alps in search of virgin peaks. The decade 1855-1865 is even considered the “golden age of mountaineering”. In 1865, all the important summits of the Alps were climbed, mostly by English alpinists with French, Italian and Swiss guides.
One of the most dramatic events was the spectacular first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 by a party led by English illustrator Edward Whymper, in which four of the party members fell to their deaths. By this point the sport of mountaineering had largely reached its modern form, with a large body of professional guides, equipment, and methodologies.
The last and greatest mountain range was the Himalayas in South Asia. They had initially been surveyed by the British Empire for military and strategic reasons. In 1892 Sir William Martin Conway explored the Karakoram Himalayas, and climbed a peak of 7,000 m (23,000 ft). In 1895 Albert F. Mummery died while attempting Nanga Parbat, while in 1899 Douglas Freshfield took an expedition to the snowy regions of Sikkim.
By the 1950s, all the eight-thousanders but two had been climbed starting with Annapurna in 1950 by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal on the 1950 French Annapurna expedition. The highest of these peaks Mount Everest was climbed in 1953 after the British had made several attempts in the 1920s; the 1922 expedition reached 8,320 metres (27,300 ft) before being aborted on the third summit attempt after an avalanche killed seven porters.
Beginning in the 1960s, mountaineering underwent several transformations. Once peaks were climbed, the emphasis moved to a search for increasingly difficult routes up the mountain face to the summit, as in the golden age of the Alpine ascents. A notable example was the 1963 ascent of the West Face of Everest by two members of the first American team to climb the mountain. Moreover, vertical or other so-called impossible rock faces were being scaled through the use of newly developed artificial aids and advanced climbing techniques.