Obituary: Royal Robbins (1935–2017)

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James Lucas
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Royal Robbins. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY-SA 3.0

Royal Robbins. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY-SA 3.0

On Tuesday, March 14, California rock-climbing and big-wall pioneer Royal Robbins passed away at age 82. Born February 3, 1935, Robbins ushered in the development of many modern free- and aid-climbing techniques and standards. In 1952, Robbins made the first free ascent of the Open Book in Tahquitz, California, pushing free climbing standards to 5.9. Five years later, he, Jerry Gallwas, and Mike Sherrick completed the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome over five days.

During the next 13 years, Robbins made groundbreaking first ascents on El Capitan, in Yosemite; on Mount Hooker, in the Wind River Range, Wyoming; and on the Aiguille du Dru, in France. He also planted the seeds for the modern clean-climbing era with his all-nut ascent of The Nutcracker (5.8) in Yosemite, a 600-foot route he established in 1967 with his wife, Liz, on which they eschewed the use of pitons, which damaged Yosemite’s cracks with repeated placement and removal.

After his successful climbing career, Robbins made many kayak first descents, as well as launched a climbing-gear company, importing boots, ropes, and helmets with Liz. By the 1980s, their small gear company had transformed into a successful clothing business, called Royal Robbins, which is still going strong to this day. Robbins is also know for his classic how-to books Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft, as well as the three published volumes of his memoirs. Robbins lived in Modesto, California, with his wife at the time of his passing.

“My father faced challenges in his climbing, his writing, his business, his role as a father and husband, and later in life in his debilitating illness,” said Royal's daughter, Tamara Robbins. “Through it all, he rose to the occasion, taking the challenges on with grace and humility. For that, he’s my hero."

Check back soon for an in-depth look at the life of Royal Robbins.