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1935-2017: Big-wall pioneer and world explorer Royal Robbins remembered

Royal Robbins [Photo] Tom Frost

Royal Robbins [Photo] Tom Frost

One of America’s greatest modern explorers–Royal Robbins–died at his home in Modesto, California, on March 14 after a long illness. He was 82.

He is most remembered for his broad influence on climbing, which impacted nearly every aspect of the pursuit, from pioneering the country’s first Grade VI big wall ascent on Half Dome’s Northwest Face in 1957, to being an early proponent of the clean climbing revolution to starting the famous clothing company that bears his name. Robbins was also on the forefront of kayaking in the 1970s and ’80s when he participated in first descents that were as visionary as his climbs. By all accounts, he was a bold explorer in every sense of the phrase.

In addition, Robbins was an author, with two instruction manuals and three autobiographies to his credit as well as numerous articles. Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft, first published in 1971 and 1973, helped introduce and educate a new generation of climbers. By instructing climbers in the latest techniques of using nuts and hexes, the books bolstered a new ethic for clean climbing that didn’t rely on hammered pitons and thus minimized scarring the rock. Robbins even included a “Sermon” in Advanced Rockcraft in which he laid out the “rules” of climbing, which essentially boiled down to stay safe, be honest, and leave the stone unchanged.

Robbins was born February 3, 1935, in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In the book Voices from the Summit, Robbins recounts his beginnings as a climber in his essay, “Standing on the Shoulders: A Tribute to My Heroes“:

The Boy Scouts introduced me to climbing when I was 12 years old. I dabbled for several years until my fate as a climber was sealed at age 15. It was not a mountain that provoked my commitment to vertical strife and vertical striving, but the words of a book–a history of mountaineering by James Ramsey Ullman…. Written in 1941, [High Conquest] looked forward to the end of a world war, when men would again raise their eyes skyward, not in fear of planes coming to drop bombs, but rather to seek the high summits that would draw them to a different type of conquest–High Conquest.

And what was this “high conquest”? In answering that question, the book struck a deep responsive chord in my soul, for Ullman wrote not about the conquest of large chunks of rock pushing upward out of the Earth’s crust, but rather about the mountains inside the mountaineer….

To a 15-year-old, unsuccessful at school and seemingly everything else, this promise of the mountains being the anvil upon which the climber could forge his character was powerful and convincing. I saw my destiny….

Robbins started getting some notice in 1952 when he made the first free ascent of Open Book (490′) at Tahquitz Rock in California, setting the standard for 5.9 with the country’s first route of the grade in the process.

His groundbreaking ascent of Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas happened five years later. Warren Harding, a rival of Robbins, beat him to the first ascent of El Capitan via the Nose (originally VI 5.10 A3) in 1958, but Robbins improved on Harding’s siege style by making the second ascent in a continuous, seven-day push with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost.

The rate of big first ascents picked up as the climbers grew more confident in the techniques they were developing–the Yosemite “Golden Age” was dawning. Robbins, Pratt and Frost did the first ascent of the Salathe Wall (originally VI 5.10 A2) in 1961, creating El Capitan’s second route. The Salathe was an antithesis to Harding’s Nose route in that it followed a natural line that only required 13 bolts. Robbins’ team also completed the route in a mostly continuous push, with minimal use of fixed ropes over a total of nine and a half climbing days–as compared to the 45 days of climbing over a year and half that Harding spent making the first ascent of the Nose, drilling 125 bolts in the process.

From there Robbins’ climbing career continued at an exponential rate. A timeline of his achievements shows notable first ascents across the globe as he applied his Yosemite methods to alpine walls, such as his 1962 first ascent of the American Direct (modern grade of ED: 5.11, 1000m) on the Aiguille du Dru in Chamonix, France, with Gary Hemming, and the 1963 first ascent of the Robbins Route (originally VI 5.8 A4) on Mt. Proboscis in Canada’s Northwest Territories with Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor and Dick McCracken. Robbins continued to raise standards wherever he went, at home and abroad. In 1967 he did the first ascent of Yosemite’s Nut Cracker (5.8, 500′) with his wife Liz, using only nuts instead of pitons for protection, a radical idea in the US at the time that was a benchmark for the beginning of the clean climbing revolution. (Liz wrote about the experience for Alpinist in 2008.)

Tom Frost, Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard stand at the top of El Capitan after the first ascent of the North America Wall, September 1964. [Photo] Tom Frost

Tom Frost, Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard stand at the top of El Capitan after the first ascent of the North America Wall, September 1964. [Photo] Tom Frost

“Royal left a legacy in American climbing that has not been, and likely never will be, equaled,” wrote Jim Donini in a forum on following Robbins’ death. “The ‘Golden Age’ produced a gallery of larger-than-life personalities. Pratt, the most naturally gifted free climber, left a legacy of climbs that still give climbers pause, [Yvon] Chouinard was an innovator who took the lessons learned in Yosemite to the alpine crucible, Frost showed that an engineering mind and unflappable good nature had a place in climbing, and TM [Herbert] was the court jester loved by everyone. Royal was a synthesis of the above…OK, I’ll leave out court jester. He left a mark inscribed in granite that will span the ages.”

Also on, John Gill, who was one of the first Americans to pursue bouldering seriously, testified to Robbins’ respect and well-rounded ability:

It was fun bouldering with Royal in the early 1960s in the Tetons. We were both in our twenties and full of energy. A few years later we met again in the Black Hills’ Needles [in South Dakota], where Royal skipped up a number of hard climbs, including the classic Cerberus [5.8, Tricouni Nail]. He did Queenpin [5.9] also, and I repeated his route (for a second ascent?), amazed at how he put in a protective bolt. He and I with my wife Lora and Liz walked in to the Incisor one afternoon and I had the pleasure of belaying Royal as he played on the forbidding north face, going up farther than I cared to venture. Calm and in control, his moves were precise and effective. I was very impressed with the maestro.

He took a fairly serious approach to bouldering at a time when “big wallers” sometimes passed the activity off as simply playful and of no consequence. For me, this was one more appealing facet of a great climber, a Spirit of the Age [referencing a biography about Robbins by Pat Ament–Ed.]. I was always impressed with his gentlemanly and reserved demeanor during a period when it was popular to run to excesses with alcohol and drugs.

Jack Turner, a philosopher, writer and climber, once told Alpinist Editor Katie Ives: I remember seeing Royal’s solo ascent of Leaning Tower [in 1963]. It was in the spring; there were only 10 or 12 people in Camp 4. I was there with Layton Kor. In those days there was enormous tension and competitiveness. We had heard that Royal had gone off to Modesto to buy something. There was a snowstorm. On the second day into it, Liz came over and said that “Royal is not in Modesto, he’s soloing the Leaning Tower, I’m worried about him, could you guys go up and take a look.” We got in Layton Kor’s junker car. We hiked up through the boulders. Layton finally spotted Royal through his binoculars; there was only the powder blue puff of his jacket and a rope; it was as though he was hanging from a cloud. The rock was so overhanging that the snow was falling without touching him. We lay there for quite a while and watched him, enchanted. Then Layton said: “That fucking Robbins, no matter what you do he’s always one step ahead.”

There’s an absence of translation–it’s incommensurate–the way it was then and the way it is now…. What you pay attention to is what you experience, and what you experience becomes your life; when you’re climbing in the way that Royal was, you’re paying attention to exactly what’s happening right here now. Nothing else.

An existential dilemma

Robbins was zealous when it came to climbing in a clean style, which occasionally led to conflict with his peers–as in the case of his second ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light on El Cap in 1971 with Don Lauria. The Wall of Early Morning Light was another Harding route, done in typical Harding style, using siege tactics and hundreds of bolts. Robbins and others considered it an affront, so they made plans to erase the route, chopping the bolts off the wall as they climbed.

In the book Defying Gravity; High Adventure on Yosemite’s Walls, Gary Arce wrote of Harding’s preparations for the first ascent in 1970: “‘We lived in fear of the dreaded R.R. appearing to take over the climb,’ Harding said.”

Harding and Dean Caldwell finished the route over 27 days and briefly garnered minor-celebrity status with TV appearances on the Merv Griffin Show, the Steve Allen Show and the Wide World of Sports. Arce wrote that the media “hailed their climb as a major achievement, and this only served to rub salt in the wounds of those who despised the route.”

Arce quotes Robbins: “Here was a route with 330 bolts. It had been forced up what we felt to be a very unnatural line, sandwiched between other routes, merely to get another route on El Capitan and bring credit to the people who climbed it. We felt that this could be done anywhere; instead of 330 bolts, the next might have 600 bolts, or even double that. We felt that it was an outrage, and that if a distinction between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable had to be made, then this was the time to make it.”

In spite of his strong feelings, Robbins hesitated to take drastic action. Jim Bridwell and Kim Schmitz eventually talked him into following through.

But at the end of the first day, Arce wrote, Robbins became very uneasy with the whole thing. The four pitches they had climbed turned out to be surprisingly good…. “That night I lay awake in my hammock thinking about it,” he explained, “and I finally decided that I no longer felt right about destroying the route. My inner feelings weren’t going along with it, and I’d be crossing myself if I kept on doing it. So the right thing at that point seemed to be to stop the bolt chopping and just concentrate on climbing the route. At this stage I also thought about what the hell people were going to think. We’d started out doing something and now, through weakness or whatever, we’d changed our minds. Everyone was going to think that we’d started something we didn’t have the strength to continue. So I was faced with this existential problem which I could see quite clearly: should I act for the sake of consistency, which would certainly bring me harsh criticism, or should I stop something I now felt was wrong–and by doing so look like a fool? I decided I had to stop, because if my actions were going to be motivated solely by consideration of what people would think, I was finished anyway.”

They completed the second ascent in six days for the first winter ascent of El Cap.

According to Arce, Robbins later wrote: Although this climb may not have been done exactly to our taste, and although we might have fretful little criticisms that envy always produces, we can better spend our energy in ways other than ripping and tearing, or denigrating the accomplishments of others…. I admire Harding because he is a great exponent of individualism, which I think is one of the most important features of climbing…. Good to have a man around who doesn’t give a damn what the establishment thinks. As our sport becomes rapidly more institutionalized, Harding stands out as a magnificent maverick.

Reg Lake, Robbins and Doug Tompkins take a break from schlepping their kayaks at the top of the 13,777-foot pass on Mt. Whitney en route to the headwaters of the Kern. [Photo] Reg Lake collection

Reg Lake, Robbins and Doug Tompkins take a break from schlepping their kayaks at the top of the 13,777-foot pass on Mt. Whitney en route to the headwaters of the Kern. [Photo] Reg Lake collection

From first ascents to first descents

Robbins started kayaking in the mid-1970s. By 1978 his psoriatic arthritis in his hands got so bad that in one particularly bad flare-up, according to, he “lost most of the use of his right hand and even had trouble walking.” Thus he turned his focus to paddling, which was easier for his body to handle.

Robbins enjoyed the same sense of adventure, self-reliance and exploration on the rivers as he did on the granite walls. One of his most famous accomplishments was achieving the first descents of the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, the Kern, and the Middle Fork of the Kings in California–the last three great rivers in the Sierra that had yet to see a descent; the “Triple Crown.” These three rivers presented a full spectrum of challenges: access, commitment and technical difficulty. With Doug Tompkins and Reg Lake, Robbins employed his climbing prowess to overcome the deep, cliffed-out gorge of the San Joaquin, using a rope and gear to climb up and over cliffs to pass unrunnable sections of river. The Kern and Kings required the men to hike their 12-foot-long kayaks for miles up and over 13,777- and 12,000-foot passes to access the rivers. Lake slipped on a snowfield high up on one pass and took an 800-foot tumble that left him with third-degree burns. Fortunately, the new boats were made out of plastic instead of fiberglass, or the team’s trip would have been over at the start.

Robbins carries a kayak over Mt. Whitney for the first descent of the Kern River, June 1, 1981. [Photo] Reg Lake

Robbins carries a kayak over Mt. Whitney for the first descent of the Kern River, June 1, 1981. [Photo] Reg Lake

Robbins’ comprehension of what was possible in a boat was at the cutting edge, and he was among the first paddlers to realize the potential of descending otherwise unrunnable creeks when they were flooding from heavy rain or spring snowmelt.

“I love [kayaking] very much, and it is very rewarding,” Robbins is quoted on, “but I am first, last, and always a climber. I will climb until I drop, and it would be the last thing I would give up.”

Royal Robbins clothing

Liz Robbins explains on that the clothing company started after she climbed the Northwest Face of Half Dome with her husband in 1967: “When we got to the top of Half Dome, a tourist took our camera and agreed to take a photo of us as we stood there. When we looked at that picture, we said, maybe we’d better get in the clothing business.” The photo shows a tired, sweaty couple in tattered, cutoff jean shorts and greasy shirts.

Royal and Liz Robbins on top of Half Dome after Liz became the world's first woman to climb the Northwest Face, June 1967. It was the tenth anniversary of Royal's first ascent of the wall. Liz said that they got the idea to start a clothing company for climbers after they saw how ragged they looked in this photo. [Photo] Robbins family collection

Royal and Liz Robbins on top of Half Dome after Liz became the world’s first woman to climb the Northwest Face, June 1967. It was the tenth anniversary of Royal’s first ascent of the wall. Liz said that they got the idea to start a clothing company for climbers after they saw how ragged they looked in this photo. [Photo] Robbins family collection

The company website includes the following story: Liz…fell into designing clothing simply because the gear that she and Royal needed didn’t exist. “I had never really designed clothing, and I wasn’t really interested in clothing, to be honest,” Liz says. “I started out by making belay seats and hammocks for Royal out of ripstop nylon on a Singer sewing machine in my daughter’s nursery. Everything I did was based on a functional and practical need at the time, which made the creativity part really fun.”

Liz was an accomplished climber in her own right…and as she got handier with the sewing machine, she started designing clothing as well as equipment. “Nothing was as flexible as Royal wanted,” Liz explains. “He always had to lift his leg as high as possible in case there was a rock around, even while we were hiking….” Liz says that Royal insisted on testing every piece of clothing before it was put into production. “He would test it by going out hiking or standing in the office and picking his knee up to his chest. He’d say: ‘You know, this isn’t comfortable enough,’ or ‘It’s still not giving me enough room,’ and we’d work on it until it was comfortable. He’d tell us what the piece of clothing needed to do, and we’d make it happen.”

In a video interview on, he says: “What I learned from climbing, in the sense of attitude and perseverance, I could apply directly to business.”

Royal Robbins the writer

Over the years, Robbins’ writings in his books and in his many articles for various publications made an important contribution to climbing literature, including such classics as the multi-voiced, experimental story “Tis-sa-ack” (Ascent 1970) and the intensely interior “Alone on the Muir Wall” (American Alpine Journal 1969). He wrote in a clear and elegant style, with an appreciation for aesthetics and at times a sense of underlying, radiant mystery, that mirrored his approach to climbing itself. As the rock-climbing editor for Summit from 1964 to 1974, he chronicled both the significant ascents and the evolving climbing culture of Yosemite, with a mixture of admiration, criticism and humor. Praising the feats of the emerging strong female climbers of the 1970s, such as Elaine Matthews and Beverly Johnson, he commented, “If there is any male chauvinism in Yosemite climbing circles (and there is), it has been dealt a severe blow.” Noting the list of ascents of Johnson, in particular, he declared, “A glance at the Yosemite guidebook will indicate the severe nature of these routes. Read it and weep, lads.”

Ives collaborated with Robbins several times on stories that he wrote, such as the story of the first ascent of Fantasia, Layton the Great’n, Inspirations Part IV: High Conquest and Wyoming’s Range of Light. After his passing, Ives wrote on Facebook: “He was one of the first writers I ever worked with, as a young editor, and he was so kind to me. I loved how he brought the same level of perfectionism and sense of good style to his writing that he did to his climbing. I don’t have any words yet for his loss except to say that he helped me see a vision of the world that was luminous, ideal, and just barely, possibly attainable. And that he had a sense of humor that was at once self-deprecating and deeply compassionate toward others. It mattered to him, immensely, to capture the personalities of his climbing partners, and he would worry over sentences about them–often sending in last-minute revisions to get a phrase just right. I had a sense that he saw writing–in the years that I knew him–as a letter to the people he loved.”

Below are some of the countless stories about Royal Robbins that can only be told by the people who lived them.

From Dick Dorworth:

Royal Robbins and I were ski racing friends as boys in the early 1950s, roommates at the 1953 Junior National Championships at Brighton, Utah, and I always appreciated his serious demeanor masking a wicked sense of humor and his grim attention to detail. After junior racing was over I enjoyed seeing Royal a few times a year at senior ski races and when he was teaching skiing at Sugar Bowl into the mid-1960s. Of course, I had heard that Royal was a climber but was clueless about and uninterested in the climbing world and, therefore, Royal was just another ‘climber’ to me.

In the spring of 1968 I was introduced to climbing and, naturally, moved to Yosemite to pursue my education. I was walking through Camp 4 one evening when a voice from a nearby table said, “Hey, what’s your name?” I turned and replied to a gentleman I didn’t recognize, “Dick.” The gentleman said, “It’s Royal.” And so it was. He invited me to sit down and we had a good reunion and caught up. I said something to the effect that I had heard he was a climber and should have known I’d run into him in Yosemite. He asked what I was doing in Camp 4. I told him I was learning to climb and he responded, “You’ll never last.” I laughed.

A year later I had lasted at least that long, and Royal and I began to climb together. By then I had learned that Royal was royalty in the climbing world, the king of the golden years of Yosemite, an icon and master of his trade. I was grateful that he took his old skiing friend and climbing ignoramus into his world and for the next few years expanded my knowledge and experience of climbing in ways that I could not have gotten from anyone else. I appreciated his generosity and kindness at the time, but the years have given me a deeper awareness of how fortunate I was to have him as a friend and mentor me at that stage of my climbing life. We climbed together in Yosemite, Tuolumne and Lover’s Leap, put up a few first ascents and had a couple of epics, including the first winter ascent of Eeyore’s Ecstasy at Lover’s Leap which we thought we’d start in the morning and finish by early afternoon, but which we (barely) managed to complete a little after midnight. When it was over, Royal said, “That’s the hardest ice climb ever done in the Sierra.” I don’t know about that, but it certainly kicked both our asses. He and his wife Liz introduced me to guiding by hiring me as a guide for his climbing school called Rockcraft, and for many years afterwards I made much of my living as a climbing guide.

After the mid ’70s I saw Royal infrequently, usually at gatherings like Doug Tompkins’ Pepper Parties in San Francisco and Galen Rowell’s memorial in Bishop, and the last quality time I spent with him was in the mid-90s when he and Liz came to Sun Valley on a gourmet dining tour and Royal and I spent a day skiing on Bald Mountain, my favorite skiing venue. We both loved the day and the skiing and he told me he completely understood why it was my favorite mountain.

When I learned about the debilitating illness that kept him in a wheelchair and bed, I wrote him to commiserate and offer a hope that even if his physical body was no longer cooperating that his strong spirit and mind and wicked sense of humor was bringing him some enjoyment in life. His reply was classic Royal: “Thanks Dick. Good to hear from you. I’m fine. Royal.”

I have two regrets concerning Royal: He once invited me to join him on a climbing expedition to Alaska, but I was broke and couldn’t afford the trip. I wish I had borrowed the money or sold my car and gone with him. And I wrote a review of one of his books and called him out on a glaring philosophical inconsistency, and while it was correct to point out the inconsistency I wish I had chosen more gentle language as the hard ass hard man Royal Robbins was a very sensitive human inside.

The day after Royal died I went up on Bald Mountain and made some runs in honor of, and in the spirit of Royal Robbins. I hope he enjoyed them.

From Jim Donini:

I knew Royal, but not well. I started climbing in the Valley in 1970 and was initially mentored by T.M Herbert. I had a natural feel for crack climbing and soon found myself part of the post-Golden Age generation who emphasized pushing free climbing standards. Many of the splitter cracks at Arch Rock the Cookie and other areas still remained unclimbed. I remember climbs like Leanie Meanie, Anticipation, The Enema and Overhang Overpass as if I did them yesterday.

I arrived just after the Golden Age of the late ’50s and ’60s and was in awe of the big-wall accomplishments of Robbins, Pratt, Chouinard, Frost and others. They exuded a charisma and gravitas I didn’t see in my contemporaries.

The Golden Age generation was peopled with larger-than-life personalities whose vision and creativity redefined climbing on the world stage. Yes, they created big wall climbing from whole cloth but they did much more. Innovative equipment, modern ice techniques, clean climbing and alpine style climbing all flowed from that tribe and at their head was Royal Robbins.

Royal was the epitome of what the British call an all rounder. He was at the cutting edge in free. Big wall and alpine climbing but what made him most special was his vision. He showed what could be done, he led and others (me included) followed.

I will forever feel gratitude to Royal. He, most of all, and others from his special generation created a mentorship by example that will likely never be equaled. I soaked up the lessons of their accomplishments. Their pioneering enabled me to make my own small mark in far-flung mountain ranges. I doubt it would have happened without the unwitting mentorship of a towering figure like Royal Robbins.

Royal changed the face of rock climbing and shared his ideas in many instructional books. My generation and the many that have followed me owe Royal an enormous debt for enriching our climbing experience.

The ‘Spirit’ of Climbing

Robbins understood the importance of holding ourselves to higher standards. But he also saw the value of people who went against conventions, who tested and questioned, even staked their life on a faith in personal skill if only to prove to themselves all they’d learned up to that point. He lived the ideals he preached. He seized the moments and opportunities at hand, and embraced the unknowns of overwhelming obstacles–one step at a time. Climbing shaped him and in turn he shaped climbing.

In a 2009 email to Alpinist about what he believed those of older and younger generations–both indoor and outdoor, sport and trad climbers–have in common, he said: “I was going to say that ‘love of adventure’ is the common impulse, though that might be confusing, given the sport-climbing arm. Nevertheless, ‘adventure’ comes in many forms including the adventure of finding out about oneself. There is certainly a common impulse, which I would loosely call ‘the spirit’ of climbing…. Everyone in climbing experiences fear (even if only the fear of failing), and goes through the ‘experience’ of reaching deeply into oneself to find the resources with which to deal with the challenges.”

Robbins at the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. He guided Royal Robbins employees on the classic, seven-day, self-supported kayak trip on an annual company retreat. [Photo] Robbins family collection

Robbins at the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. He guided Royal Robbins employees on the classic, seven-day, self-supported kayak trip on an annual company retreat. [Photo] Robbins family collection