by Christopher Schafenacker
The history of the hangboard is interesting, not only because it provides insight into the development of what is now an essential training tool for rock climbing, but because it also tells a great deal about the history of our sport. You see, in 1980, when John Bachar screwed those thin wooden slats onto the eaves of his shed and invented the first proto-hangboard, he ushered in not only a new training method, but a new training ethos, too.
The ‘80s transformed climbing. In the same year Bachar introduced finger-specific training, Boreal introduced the Firé, the first climbing shoe with “sticky rubber.” Bachar was instrumental in distributing these shoes in the U.S. and, pretty quickly, the combination of specialized footwear and specialized training triggered a revolution.
In 1983 sport climbing arrived to North America with Alan Watts’ ascents of “Watts Totts” (5.12b) and “Chain Reaction” (5.12c) at Smith Rock, Oregon. In that same year, Jerry Moffat climbed “The Face” in Germany’s Frankenjura region, proposing the world’s first 5.13c. The following year Wolfgang Güllich began his rampage, climbing “Kanal im Rücken,” the world’s first 5.13d and then following this up in subsequent years with the world’s first 5.14a, 5.14b and, eventually, 5.14d with the mythical “Action Directe.”
Behind all of this progress was the hangboard. In the late 1980s, Moffat introduced a design more refined than Bachar’s humble “Bachar Ladder” which approximated the look of modern boards. Shortly thereafter, Güllich, working alongside Moffat, developed the campus board, taking finger-specific training to a new level.
These innovations did not just spur an explosion in sport climbing progress, but also ushered in the era of competitions. The Sport Rocchia, the first professional competition, took place in Bardoneccia, Italy, in 1985. Three years later, in June of 1988, the first International Sport Climbing Championship was held in Snowbird, Utah. Both events were met with derision from purists who claimed climbing was losing its soul.
For many pioneers of the sport, training on fake holds—like those provided by hangboards, campus boards, and artificial climbing walls—was akin to cheating. Rock climbing was a mountain sport closely related to alpinism, and mastering its intricacies meant paying your dues in the mountains, not on an artificial replica in your homie’s dank garage. The old guard was anxious to close the door on innovation, seeing it as a harbinger of rock climbing’s decline into yet another mainstream activity divorced from its roots…
…but the momentum was too great.
By the early 90s, Metolius had acquired a CNC machine to create molds, which allowed them to mass produce the Simulator, one of the first polyurethane resin hangboards. Throughout the next decade, the Simulator and other similar boards would become the industry standard, permitting such titans as Lynn Hill and Chris Sharma to gain the finger strength needed to continue pushing the envelope.
Hangboards have come a long way since these early models. Wood has returned as the material of choice due to its skin-friendly texture, and an explosion of designs has led to new applications that that likes of Bachar, Moffat, and Güllich never imagined. Traditional hangboards continue to predominate, but block-style boards are gaining in popularity for their ability to train each hand in isolation. Meanwhile, packable boards have become an essential part of many climbers’ warm up routine at the crag, and smart boards are beginning to open whole new horizons for training.
Thanks to the hangboard, you no longer need to live near rock to develop (or maintain) tendons of steel, and—regardless of what the leathery old-school crushers may say—this is a blessing, especially during this past pandemic year.
Featured Climbing Training Gear
*NEW* The Rocketeer Wall: our free-standing adjustable solution for those who can’t mount a hangboard anywhere in their home or apartment—or who are limited on space. The Rocketeer gives climbers the additional option to set specific climbing holds. Recreate the crux holds of your proj and get ready to send, bruh.
The Rocket Wall: Available in 6’ and 8’ widths, it’s been tough for us to keep up with the demand for this innovative home climbing wall solution. Slightly overhanging, the Rocket Wall is big enough to set routes on, or to build a systems board.
The Rock-Stah: Our handcrafted version of a traditional hangboard, with curving crimp rails to help alleviate unnecessary strain on your pulleys. Because ain’t no one got time for a finger injury…