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Royal Robbins: The Kingpin of Yosemite's Golden Age

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Royal Robbins Yosemite North American Wall El Capitan
Royal Robbins slices salami on Mazatlan Ledge while exploring the North America Wall on El Capitan. End of pitch 4, Spring 1964. Photo: Tom Frost / Aurora Photos

Royal Robbins, one of the world’s most influential and accomplished climbers during the 1950s and 1960s, died after a long illness on Tuesday, March 14.

During that time, known as Yosemite’s Golden Age, Robbins was the primary driving force both in difficulty and purity of style. This was a time where the tallest, blankest walls in the park were first climbed—a feat previously thought to be impossible—by using emerging methods and philosophies. He believed that, “Getting to the top is nothing. How you do it is everything.”

Robbins raised both free climbing and big wall aid climbing standards in the 1950s. He established the first 5.9 in the U.S. with Don Wilson in 1952 via the 300-foot route Open Book at Tahquitz. At the time he was only 17. And later, in 1957 he raised the standards again when he, Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas established the world’s first grade VI climb via Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face.

Robbins believed in placing as few bolts as possible, to climb with absolute commitment, and without siege tactics. He exemplified these ideals when, in 1960, he, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost climbed the second ascent of the Nose on El Cap in seven days. In comparison, first ascentionist Warren Harding and his team draped the route with fixed ropes over two years, taking 45 days to complete the climb.

Royal Robbins Camp 4 Pitons Yosemite National Park
Now a Yosemite tradition, Robbins sorts his rack for the second ascent of the Nose of El Capitan on a Camp 4 picnic table. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY 3.0

His significant first ascents during the 1960s include El Cap’s Salathé Wall, one of the most famous routes in the world; the American Direct on the Aiguille de Dru in France; the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome; the Robbins Route on Mount Proboscis in the Northwest Territories; the North America Wall on El Cap; The West Face of El Cap; and the North Face of Mount Hooker in Wyoming. He climbed four new routes on Half Dome’s Northwest Face between 1957 and 1970.

One of the most challenging climbs for Robbins during this time was his 10-day-solo second ascent of El Cap’s Muir Wall in April 1968. It marked the first time El Cap was climbed by a single person.

When TM Herbert and Yvon Chouinard established the Muir Wall in 1965, it was the first time an El Cap route was established as a team of two, and it also marked the first time a new route was established without the use of fixed ropes. “It was the only way I could see it was comparable,” Robbins told the author. “TM and Chouinard had really pulled out the stops. They’d done El Cap from bottom to top.”

Robbins described his motivations to climb the route in “Alone on the John Muir Wall, El Capitan” in the 1969 American Alpine Journal:

“I was driven by an unrelenting demon inside, and that demon is difficult to assuage…. The Leaning Tower was not enough. Soloing Sentinel was not enough. Edith Cavell [Jasper National Park] was not enough. Perhaps now, after El Capitan, he is satisfied. I hope so.”

Royal Robbins Salathe Wall First Ascent Yosemite California Climbing
Robbins aids through pitch 3 during the first ascent of the Salathé Wall, which he completed over nine days with Chuck Prat, and Tom Frost in September 1961. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY 3.0

There were several setbacks during the climb, starting with a dropped piton on the first pitch, which Robbins got back when his friend and local photographer Glen Denny clipped it to his haul line for him to bring up. The most notable incident occurred high on the route when he took a short fall and was caught by a RURP. Not wanting to test the reliability of the frail postage-stamp-sized piton again, and after an hour of frustrating attempts to continue without piercing the stone with his drill bit, he finally placed a bolt out of necessity and continued towards the top. The climb took him 10 days.

Robbins later wrote:

“I was immensely pleased. I felt like a prizefighter who has just won a big match. Bathed in the aura of my success, I cared not a whit, for the moment, for anything I wasn’t.”

After more than a decade of authoring significant first ascents, Robbins ended with a grand finale in 1969. He climbed the first ascents of two more big walls in Yosemite, The Prow on Washington Column, Tis-sa-Ack on Half Dome, and the first ascent of Mount Jeffers in Alaska’s Kitchatna Spires.

The eight days he spent on Tis-sa-Ack with partner Don Peterson proved to be one of the most trying experiences of his career. The route was steep and blank, following expanding cracks and climbing loose rock. He and Paterson stacked 4-inch bongs in wide cracks and struggled with pitons popping out when they eased their weight onto them. To make matters worse, their drill holders were too long which caused the bits to snap. The team reused broken bits, often re-breaking them with a hammer to make them work. The team used many bolts, drilling over 100 holes, and reusing 20 bolts by prying them out and then reusing them higher on the wall.

Royal Robbins Yosemite El Cap Sire Climbing
Robbins rests atop El Cap Spire during the first ascent of the Salathé Wall. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY 3.0

“We’d get up one way or the other,” Robbins said. “Luckily, I was creative and used those bolts to make them go as far as possible.”

Robbins wrote about the climb in Ascent in 1970, using a creative mock-interview style between himself and his various partners including Chuck Pratt, Dennis Hennek, and finally Peterson. It is perhaps his most lasting piece of writing. He wrote in Peterson’s voice:

“It wasn’t climbing, it was slogging. But I had to admire Robbins’ self-control. He had about as much unmanageable emotion as an IBM machine.”

“I decided to write it that way because it came out that way. It seemed like the honest way to do it,” he said. “The Direct route is perhaps the best route on the face, but Tis-Sa-Ack is way out there,” he added with a laugh.

Tom Frost Royal Robbins Chuck Pratt Yvon Chouinard
(L to R): Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard stand on the summit of El Capitan on 30 October 1964, following the 10 day ascent of Yosemite’s North America Wall. Photo: Tom Frost; CC BY 3.0

In 1970 with Dick Dorworth he climbed his final new route on the face he called Arcturus, in what would be his final significant first ascent in Yosemite.

As the Golden Age came to a close, Robbins set his sights on new challenges. In 1969, he and his wife Liz started the climbing gear retail business Mountain Paraphernalia. In 1971, he wrote his first book Basic Rockcraft and in 1973 he wrote his second book Advanced Rockcraft; both books advocated the importance of clean climbing. He published the first of his memoirs in September 2009, My Life: To Be Brave, the first of seven planned volumes covering his climbing life. My Life, Volume Two: Fail Falling was released in 2010, and My Life, Volume Three: The Golden Age in 2012.

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