history of aid climbing

History of Aid Climbing: From Aiders to Cams

Rock climbing has come a long way from its roots as a means of transportation for mountaineers. Today, climbing is a popular outdoor sport that attracts people from all walks of life. One of the most challenging forms of climbing is aid climbing, which involves using equipment to assist in ascending a rock face. In this article, we’ll explore the history of aid climbing, from the earliest forms of aiders to the modern-day cams.

Early Aid Climbing

The use of aiders, also known as stirrups, was the earliest form of aid climbing. These were webbing straps with loops that climbers could step into, allowing them to ascend the rock face more easily. The use of pitons, metal spikes hammered into the rock, also played a crucial role in early aid climbing. Pitons could be used as handholds and footholds, as well as anchors for rope and gear.

In the early 20th century, aid climbing techniques continued to evolve. Climbers began using bolts, which were more secure than pitons, and began using rope ladders and rope bridges to span gaps in the rock. However, aid climbing was still a slow and cumbersome process, and the tools available were limited.

The Golden Age of Aid Climbing

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of aid climbing, as climbers began tackling bigger and more challenging walls. The big wall era began, and climbers began spending multiple days on the rock face, sleeping in hammocks or tents suspended from the wall.

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New tools were developed to aid in the ascent, including the etrier, a ladder made of webbing straps that could be hung from a piton or bolt, and the skyhook, a hook that could be placed in a crack and used as a handhold. The use of the portaledge, a portable hanging tent, also allowed climbers to rest and sleep comfortably on the wall.

Yosemite Valley became a mecca for aid climbing during this time, with climbers such as Royal Robbins and Warren Harding pushing the limits of what was possible on the big walls of El Capitan and Half Dome.

The Transition to Free Climbing

As free climbing, which involves using only hands and feet to ascend the rock, gained in popularity, the use of aid climbing began to decline. However, aid climbing remained an important part of big wall climbing, and new tools continued to be developed to aid in the ascent.

One of the most significant developments in aid climbing was the invention of the camming device in the 1970s. Cams, which could be placed in cracks and expanded to hold the weight of the climber, revolutionized aid climbing and made it faster and more efficient. However, the use of cams also led to an ethical debate about the role of aid climbing versus free climbing.

Modern-Day Aid Climbing

In modern-day climbing, the use of clean aid has become more common. Clean aid involves using gear to aid in the ascent without damaging the rock, such as using removable protection such as nuts and cams instead of pitons. This approach is more environmentally friendly and less damaging to the rock, and it also requires more skill and technique than traditional aid climbing.

See also  Aid Climbing Etiquette

Aid climbing remains an important aspect of big wall climbing, and new technology continues to be developed to aid in the ascent. For example, drones can now be used to retrieve gear that has been left on the wall, making it easier and safer for climbers to navigate the complex logistics of a big wall climb.


Aid climbing has a rich history that has spanned over a century, and it has evolved and adapted to the changing needs and values of the climbing community. While free climbing has gained in popularity in recent years, aid climbing remains an important and challenging aspect of the sport. Whether using traditional aid techniques or clean aid, aid climbing requires skill, technique, and a deep respect for the rock and the environment.


  1. What is aid climbing? Aid climbing is a type of rock climbing that involves using equipment to assist in ascending a rock face.
  2. How does aid climbing differ from free climbing? In free climbing In free climbing, climbers only use their hands and feet to ascend the rock, without using any equipment to assist them. In aid climbing, climbers use gear such as aiders, pitons, and cams to aid in the ascent.
  3. What is clean aid? Clean aid is a type of aid climbing that involves using gear to aid in the ascent without damaging the rock. This can include using removable protection such as nuts and cams instead of pitons.
  4. What equipment is necessary for aid climbing? Equipment necessary for aid climbing includes aiders or stirrups, pitons or bolts, cams, ropes, and harnesses.
  5. Is aid climbing dangerous? Like any form of climbing, aid climbing can be dangerous, and climbers must take precautions to ensure their safety. Proper training, equipment, and preparation are essential for a safe and successful aid climb.

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