For much of its history, rock climbing took place exclusively outside because, well, that’s where all the rocks were. People have been scaling high elevations for thousands of years for all sorts of reasons, but climbing for pleasure is a more recent development. The 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch ascended the 6,273-foot Mont Ventoux out of “the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer.” The English mountaineer George Mallory famously made attempts to summit Mount Everest “because it’s there.”
Rock climbing has its roots in mountaineering and began to emerge as a distinct athletic pursuit in the late 19th century before expanding in the 20th. More and more people were recognizing the beauty of climbing for its own sake, and new equipment was making it easier and safer to take on more challenging ascents. The development of rappelling was significant, as was the use of carabiners and pitons, metal spikes that are forced into the rock, helping secure rope to wall and climber to rope. Traditional outdoor climbing is done using a roped system, with at least two climbers supporting each other.
Other variations, like bouldering and free soloing, are done without a partner and without ropes. Indoors, bouldering walls are usually about 15 feet high, while walls for roped climbing are anywhere from 30 to 60 feet high. Outdoors, bouldering is reserved for smaller rock formations and routes that, relatively speaking, remain low to the ground. Free soloing is only for those with nerves of steel, as seen in the Oscar-winning 2018 documentary Free Solo, in which pro climber Alex Honnold scales the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with little more than chalk and the shoes on his feet.
The first artificial climbing walls, whose holds were meant to call to mind the grip of outdoor rocks, started appearing in the United Kingdom in the 1960s. A professional indoor circuit would eventually follow from that. Still, many experienced climbers who thrive in indoor competition, like Raboutou, first fell in love with the sport in the outdoors, where the thrill of pitting yourself against nature can perhaps be more acutely felt.
That was the case for Raboutou’s mother, who was 18 years old when her high school boyfriend took her climbing for the first time at Yonah Mountain in Georgia. Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou climbed like she’d been doing it her whole life. “It made me feel very strong and powerful,” she says. She was hooked, and soon was traveling on weekends to climb throughout the South. Before long she was competing professionally, winning the first climbing World Cup she entered. She met and fell in love with the French pro climber Didier Raboutou, and they married in 1993. By then, climbing was well on its way to becoming a more mainstream sport, complete with respectable corporate sponsorships.
That respectability may have come as a shock to the self-described “dirtbags” who helped popularize climbing in the U.S. in the 1970s. Renouncing the structure of a 9-to-5 to spend every day crushing difficult climbs at Yosemite didn’t make for a career your parents would brag about, but it was a lifestyle that appealed to free spirits. With the spread of the indoor climbing gym, however, no longer did you have to live in a tent and forgo hot showers to train. You could just try out climbing routes in the renovated warehouse down the street.
By the time Erbesfield-Raboutou decided to have children, climbing as a sport had bloomed. There were pro competitions in gyms, based on technical skill. Meanwhile, increasingly bold record-setting outdoor climbs continued. There is some crossover between the indoors and outdoors. Today, climbing is as much for the diehard Yosemite dirtbags as it is for pros sponsored by The North Face and the amateurs who got their start in air-conditioned suburban gyms.
Erbesfield-Raboutou climbed during both her pregnancies. Although there was never a conscious decision to raise her kids on a rock wall, she wanted to include her children in everything she did. “As soon as Shawn and Brooke were born, what do you do but go climbing?”