Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Royal Robbins, The Godfather of Purism

The staunch Yosemite hardman pioneered modern free climbing ethics, and accomplished first ascents of some of America’s most iconic climbs.


Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.

This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley and Leni Rienfenstahl, its most notorious and disreputable.

Royal Robbins (February 3, 1935 – March 14, 2017) was an American climber specializing in big-wall rock climbs. Robbins is considered one of the pioneers of American rock climbing, particularly in Yosemite National Park, where he made many pivotal first ascents in the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s. 

Robbins was known as a staunch free climbing advocate, and an early proponent of both clean ascents (i.e. use of nuts whenever possible over pitons, bolts, and other rock-damaging hardware) and the value of ascent style. Among myriad achievements, Robbins established the United States’ first official 5.9 (Open Book in Tahquitz), completed the nation’s first Grade VI climb (the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.9 C1 2,200 feet) on Half Dome), and made the first ascent of the Salathé Wall (VI 5.9 C2 3,500 feet) on El Capitan.

Robbins was known for his long-running rivalry with fellow Yosemite hardman Warren Harding, who espoused a climbing style antithetical to Robbins’ own. (Harding liberally employed bolts, pitons, and other rock-scarring gear, and frequently employed siege-style tactics). In his later life, Robbins founded an eponymous outdoor clothing brand, authored two influential climbing manuals, and was a prolific kayaker.

Yosemite Legend Royal Robbins on the FA of El Cap’s North America Wall

Early Life

Born in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Robbins was introduced to climbing at the age of 12, as a Boy Scout, but only became fully engrossed in the sport around the age of 15, after his family had relocated to California. Robbins cut his teeth on rock in early California crags like Mount Pacifico and Stony Point. In 1952, at the age of 17, he completed the first free ascent of the 500-foot Tahquitz line Open Book, which would become the country’s first 5.9 climb, famously leading the climb in tennis shoes.

Five years later, he put up the Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.9 A1 2,200 feet) on Yosemite’s Half Dome, along with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas. Save for El Capitan, the face was the last of Yosemite’s major walls to be climbed. The team’s ascent marked the first ascent of a Grade VI route in the United States, as well as the start of an illustrious and prolific Yosemite career for Robbins.

Royal Robbins: The Kingpin of Yosemite's Golden Age

The Beginning of Yosemite’s “Golden Age” 

Throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Robbins was on the cutting edge of Yosemite Valley climbing. Though a team led by Warren Harding beat him to the coveted first ascent of El Capitan in 1958, via the Nose (VI 5.9 C2 3,000 feet), Robbins one-upped Harding’s siege-style effort (which entailed drilling 145 bolts over 18 months) by claiming the second ascent of the route ground-up in seven days in 1960, alongside Chuck Pratt, Joe Fitschen, and Tom Frost. 

A year later, Robbins, Pratt, and Frost sent El Cap’s second route, the Salathé Wall (VI 5.9 C2 3,500 feet), following a clean, natural line and using only 13 total bolts. Today, the Salathé remains one of the most iconic lines in the world, and is frequently characterized as “the world’s greatest rock climb.”

Tom Frost , Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard on the summit of El Capitan after completing the first ascent of the North America Wall, considered the most difficult rock in the world at the time.

Throughout the 1960s, during a period now known as the “Golden Age” of Yosemite climbing, Robbins accomplished a string of hard climbs in Yosemite, such as a 1963 solo second ascent of the West Face on Leaning Tower (V 5.7 C2 1,000 feet), marking the first major solo climb in Yosemite Valley. Five years later he made El Capitan’s first solo ascent with Muir Wall (VI 5.10 A2 2,900 feet).

However, he also put up new routes further afield, such as American Direct (5.11 3,300 feet) on Chamonix’s Petit Dru (12,250 feet) in 1962 and the North Face (5.9 A3 4,000 feet) of Mt. Gelkie (10,820 feet) in the Canadian Rockies. Another pivotal climb was his 1967 first ascent of Nutcracker (5.8) in Yosemite, which he completed with his wife, Liz. The duo protected the 500-foot route entirely with nuts (as opposed to pitons) making it one of the first nut-protected routes of its caliber.

Climber Royal Robbins on the first ascent of the North Amercia wall on El Capitan, Yosemite.
Frost, Robbins and Chouinard settle in at The Black Cave. Photo: Chuck Pratt.

Conflict with Warren Harding over the Dawn Wall

In 1970, Harding made the first ascent of the Wall of the Early Morning Light (i.e. the Dawn Wall) on El Capitan. Harding and partner Dean Caldwell completed the route in a notoriously burly, 27-day continuous push, with a heavy reliance on bolts.

Robbins was furious at the excessive bolting. “Here was a route with 330 bolts,” he said according to Gary Arce’s Defying Gravity. “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.”

Robbins embarked on the second ascent with Don Lauria in 1971, chopping the heads off of Harding’s bolts as he went. Upon completing the second pitch (and chopping approximately 50 bolts), however, he had a change of heart, and finished the climb without chopping another bolt. “I was overcome by admiration for the difficulty of the climb,” Robbins said in the 2014 documentary, Valley Uprising. “It’s hard to admit it, but I think some of my reaction was [that] Harding was getting all the credit, and I felt I should get some. And that was a personal thing. I suppose it was an ego thing, yeah.”

Tommy Caldwell: Before The Dawn Wall

Adventure Kayaking

By the late 1970s, Robbins had developed psoriatic arthritis, limiting his climbing. He found an outlet in whitewater kayaking, however, and completed several first descents throughout the 1980s. 

While Robbins ran many difficult rivers both in North and South America, perhaps his most famous exploit was making the first descents of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin (1980), the Kern (1981), and the Middle Fork of the Kings (1982) rivers in California, a mission he accomplished with regular kayaking partners Doug Tompkins and Reg Lake. These three rivers were known collectively as the “Triple Crown,” as the three last great rivers in the Sierra Nevada that had yet to see a descent.  

Clothing Line, Writing, and Death

Robbins and his wife Liz founded an outdoor apparel brand, Royal Robbins, in 1967. The brand still exists today, though the Robbins’ sold it in 2007. 

Robbins also put his purist ethics into print, publishing two seminal works, Basic Rockcraft (1971) and Advanced Rockcraft (1973), advocating support for free climbing and clean ascents. In his later years, he published a three-part autobiography collectively titled My Life, with the individual entries To Be Brave (2009), Fail Falling (2010), and The Golden Years (2012). He was also the subject of an extensive biography by Pat Ament, Spirit Of The Age (1994).

Robbins died at his home in Modesto, California on March 14, 2017, at the age of 82.

In later life Royal Robbins founded a clothing line by his same name. 

Notable Climbs and Other Accomplishments

Below is a list of some of Robbins’ most famous climbs. Another compilation, with supporting info, can be found here.

Climbs

  • Open Book (5.9), Taquitz, California. 
    • First free ascent of a 5.9 route (1952).
  • Regular Northwest Face (VI 5.9 A1 2,200 feet) Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent of a Grade VI climb with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas (1957).
  • Nose (VI 5.9 C2 3,000 feet), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • Second ascent with Chuck Pratt, Joe Fitschen, and Tom Frost (1960).
  • Salathé Wall (VI 5.9 C2 3,500 feet) El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt (1961).
  • American Direct (5.11 3,300 feet), Petit Dru (12,250 feet), Chamonix, France. 
    • First ascent with Gary Hemming (1962).
  • Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome (VI 5.7 A3 2,000 feet), Yosemite National Park, California 
    • First ascent with Dick McCracken (1963).
  • West Face (V 5.7 C2 1,000 feet), Leaning Tower, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • Second ascent and first major Yosemite solo (1963).
  • Original “Robbins” Route (VI 5.8 A4 2,000 feet), Mount Proboscis, Canada. 
    • First ascent with Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor, and Dick McCracken (1963).
  • North America Wall (VI 5.8 C3 2,400 feet), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent with Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard (1964).
  • North Face (VI 5.10 A4 1,800 feet) Mount Hooker, Wyoming. 
    • First ascent with Dick McCracken and Charlie Raymond (1964).
  • Danse Macabre (5.10), Devils Tower, Wyoming.
    • First free ascent with Peter Robinson (1964).
  • Final Exam (5.11a) Castle Rock, Colorado.
    First free ascent with Pat Ament (1964).
  • Athlete’s Feat (5.11a), Castle Rock, Colorado.
    • First free ascent with Pat Ament (1964).
  • Nutcracker (5.8+), Yosemite National Park, California. First ascent of a rare all-nut protected route with Liz Robbins (1967).
  • West Face (IV 5.8+ A4+ 1,800 feet) El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California.
    • First ascent with TM Herbert (1967). 
  • North Face (5.9 A3 4,000 feet) Mt. Gelkie (10,820 feet), Canadian Rockies.
    • First ascent with John Hudson (1967).
  • North Face (IV 5.7 Mod Snow 5,000 feet) Mt Edith Cavell (11,033 feet), Canadian Rockies.
    • First solo ascent (1967).
  • Muir Wall (VI 5.10 A2 2,900 feet). 
    • First solo ascent of El Capitan (1968).
  • Mount Jeffers (6,214 feet), Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska. 
    • First ascent with Joe Fitschen and Charlie Raymond (1969).
  • The Prow (V 5.8 C2 1,200 feet), Washington Column, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent with Glen Denny (1969).
  • Tis-sa-ack (V 5.10 A3 1,800 feet), Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent with Don Peterson (1969).
  • Arcturus (VI 5.7 A4  Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. 
    • First ascent with Dick Dorworth (1970).

Books

  • Basic Rockcraft (1971)
  • Advanced Rockcraft (1973)
  • My Life: To Be Brave (2009)
  • My Life: Fail Falling (2010)
  • My Life: The Golden Years (2012)