Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
This article first appeared in Ascent 2013 (Rock and Ice issue 2010). Published since 1967, Ascent has a long tradition of documenting pivotal climbs by the world’s pioneers and writers such as Robbins, David Roberts, Reinhold Messner and others.
One of my most treasured possessions is an oval, blind-gate carabiner with “RR” stamped on it. The initials, of course, stand for Royal Robbins. The carabiner was his and it speaks of a time, roughly 1957 to 1971, when he owned not just the carabiner but Yosemite itself. The Northwest Face of Half Dome was his, by any and all routes. So was the left side of El Cap where he had his Salathé Wall, and made the first solo of the big stone, via the Muir Wall in 1968. Then there were his innumerable hard free routes, done in glorified hiking boots or “RRs,” as they were called, a tip of the hat to the man.
By the time I got the carabiner, left fixed by Robbins at a lower-out point on the Wall of Early Morning Light in 1971 and snagged by me and my buddy Mark Herndon in 1982, Robbins was long gone from the Valley, having quit climbing and taken up kayaking, an activity that was kinder to his arthritis.
Robbins’ legacy is long but his actual climbing career was relatively short, a point that surprises most of today’s climbers. He began climbing in 1947, made his first excursion to Yosemite in 1952, got serious in 1955, and quit hard climbing less than 20 years later when he was only in his mid 30s. Countless climbers have stayed in the game much longer than that, and their climbs, like his, are measurable.
It is his influence that is incalculable.
Of note, Basic and Advanced Rockcraft, written by Robbins in the early 1970s, sold over 400,000 copies and passed along knowledge such as the carabiner-brake rappel and Jumaring, techniques that now seem obvious but were invented only by taking risk. The books, and the way Robbins wrote about climbing, nudged the sport into a purer form. Robbins was a stylist and was one of the first climbers to insist that there was more to climbing than first ascents. You could climb routes faster. Increase commitment by not using fixed ropes. Free aid moves. Minimize bolts.
“I realized,” he said in Mountain in 1971, “that the ultimate challenge in mountaineering is the one that makes the greatest demands on the maximum number of human qualities.”
Robbins was highly competitive, and openly so. “I was part of a group that reacted against the lie of the older generation that there was no competition,” he said. “Climbers who feel competition has no place in climbing and want to avoid it, are kidding themselves … For the most part it’s just fashion.”
Quick to criticize climbers he perceived as using bad form—he thought very little of Ed Cooper, an outsider who had never climbed in Yosemite but spent 38 days sieging the Dihedral Wall. Robbins took his ethics to the extreme when he began chopping what he considered an excessive number of bolts on Warren Harding’s Wall of Early Morning Light. He quit erasing the bolts after just four pitches when he discovered that the climbing wasn’t a simple bolt ladder and had instead the hardest nailing he had ever encountered.
When John Long arrived in Yosemite in the early 1970s, Robbins and his generation—including Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt, Glen Denny, and others—had already vacated. The Valley, says Long, was empty. Routes were there for the taking and it was up to the new generation to grab them and push the grades into the stratosphere. As Long and his gang of climbers ticked off Astroman, did the first one-day ascent of The Nose, and generally smashed all conceptions of what could be free climbed, they were driven not so much by how they would go down in history, but by what Robbins would think. Their mantra, says Long, was to “Not let Robbins down. We had to keep the unknown quotient as high as possible.”
In the story that follows, excerpted from Robbins’ 2012 autobiography, My Life, Volume Two, The Golden Age, he recalls one of his greatest achievements on rock, the first ascent of El Cap’s North America Wall. As background, at the time Robbins attempted the wall, there were just two lines on El Cap: the Nose, done by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore in 1958, taking 47 days and fixing ropes nearly the entire length of the cliff, and the Salathé Wall, climbed in 1961 by Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt. On the Salathé, Robbins’ team fixed ropes from Heart Ledge at roughly one-third height, then cut the ropes loose for the push to the top. Dropping the fixed ropes represented a new level in commitment and risk—if they didn’t make it, or if there was an accident, it would have taken days for a rescue to get to them. The prospect of being stranded on the sea of stone was real and terrifying.
The North America Wall, however, was an even bigger step up in risk and confidence. The wall was steeper, harder, looser, and the line less obvious
than anything previously attempted. Robbins, who had become even more competitive by this time, was eager to be the first up the wall to “add to one’s reputation.” Indeed, he admittedly thought more in terms of “doing climbs for fame than of doing them just for the fun of it.”
To that end, he decided to not use any fixed rope. They would make the ultimate splash by going for it in one push.
First, however, Robbins made a few investigative probes. On the first excursion, with Glen Denny, he got 400 feet up before he ripped a pin and Denny burned his hands holding the fall. Next, Robbins and Denny, with Frost, climbed halfway up the wall, placing 18 bolts and rappelling from the big ledge they called “Easy Street.” After that, they were ready to make history.
Royal Robbins on the First Ascent of the North American Wall
I had been thinking about the North America Wall all year or even longer. We didn’t want to use fixed ropes, but we also didn’t know if we could climb the face. After climbing Proboscis the year before, in 1963, and before that the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome and Salathé, I felt we’d reached the point in Yosemite where we expected to get up a wall. But we didn’t expect to get up the North America Wall in particular. There were too many unknowns. For example, we didn’t know where the route went or even if there was a route—El Capitan’s southeast face lacked the continuous crack systems of the southwest face and the Salathé. Also, an El Cap route had never been established without some fixed lines. Well, we wanted an adventure, and climbing the southeast face of El Capitan without umbilical cords would be one sure way to have one.
The “we” consisted of Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and me. Glen Denny wasn’t available. We cast around, inviting Pat Ament from Colorado. He couldn’t go, so we asked Yvon Chouinard. Yes, Yvon would be our fourth. It was good having him on the team. For one thing Yvon wasn’t a Valley “regular,” having done most of his early climbing in the Tetons. So we couldn’t be accused of recruiting only Yosemite veterans. We knew, from Chouinard’s past experience, that he was a very able climber, as well as an inventor and maker of pitons. But he had something else: He had a certain self-confidence. It was hard to quantify, but he had it. And if someone believes in himself, others believe in him too. We were no exception, and we were right. On the North America Wall, Yvon proved himself worthy again and again. Frost was Yvon’s partner in business and the manufacture of climbing equipment, as well as his climbing partner on the first ascent of the West Face of Sentinel rock. I had climbed often with Tom, who was not only a very good climber, but also had a keen sense of humor. Our team was complete, and strong. We would need a strong team for this wall.
The Valley was still in the grip of an Indian summer. It was very hot, especially on south-facing El Capitan. Finally, on October 22, we could wait no longer—November and its storms would soon arrive. We carried loads to the base of the route in the sweltering heat. Yvon and Tom climbed the first pitch, and we four bivouacked at the foot of the wall. Yvon was nearly sleepless.
The next morning, with the relentless sun beating upon us, we continued. Tom and Yvon led, while Chuck and I followed with the bags. On the next two pitches, two pitons pulled out. The falls were stopped right away, but the pitons coming out showed the tenuous nature of the nailing.
The heat was withering. If it continued to stay hot, our 60 quarts of water would not be enough. We normally planned on a quart and a half per man per day. So under “normal” conditions (i.e. the north face of Sentinel Rock) we would have enough water for 10 days. But with the heat on a south-facing route we might run out.