For those who thought Royal Robbins was a line of vaguely dad-ish clothes sold mostly at REI, it’s high time you met the man behind the name. One of the preeminent founders of rock climbing in the US (as well as his own clothing line), Royal Robbins set a new standard for innovation and achievement in the sport's post-World War II era.
In a 1995 interview with the Yosemite Climbing Association Robbins describes how he came to find climbing through the Boy Scouts in his hometown of Los Angeles. At the time he was a young roustabout, and he describes getting caught jumping between cars on moving trains just to see if he could. After a stint in juvenile detention, Robbins threw himself into climbing. He sported tennis shoes in the early years, along with t-shirts and dungarees. Imagine Richie Cunningham 60-feet up a rock face.
Robbins was 17-years-old when he started turning heads in the nascent big wall climbing community, climbing first with the Sierra Club and local rock climber communities in and around LA. He led two benchmark climbs of the period before he could legally vote: the High Cathedral Spire in Yosemite, and the Open Book in Taquitz, both later rated as 5.9’s on the then-developing Yosemite Decimal System.
On to Yosemite
In the summer of 1953, Robbins, along with fellow climbers Jerry Gallwas and Don Wilson, completed the second ascent of Yosemite’s Sentinel Rock, along the Steck-Salathé route. That was the first time Robbins spent the night on a big wall, and it marked the beginning of an era of first ascents for him and others in the Valley.
Two years later, the same group, along with add-on Warren Harding, attempted the northwest face of Half Dome. An account of the climb, published in the Saturday Evening Post six months later, gives a good sense of the general attitude toward the endeavor. “They Risk Their Lives for Fun,” reads the headline. A quote embedded in the article describes the climb, now a standard for big wall enthusiasts, as "so awful it might as well be forgotten."
Nevertheless, the same crew, minus Harding, completed the first ascent two years later. It’s hard to overstate the effect that climbers like Robbins, with climbs like this one, had on the sport. Ed Webster, writing for the American Alpine Journal, describes him as a "charismatic, ethically concerned climber," who "led the way into the future" during the 1960's rock climbing era.
Landmark climbs and first ascents in the US, Canada, and Europe have become capstones in Robbins's résumé, but his greatest contribution to rock climbing may have been the techniques he helped develop. As big wall climbing gained momentum, and first ascents became the standard of performance, aid climbing and the use of fixed anchors and bolts was common practice. This might have remained the standard if not for advocates of free climbing (hands and feet, rather than mechanical aids) and clean climbing (removable protection, rather than pitons). Robbins, along with other outspoken voices of his generation, was essential in directing rock climbing along a more sustainable route.
For more on Robbins and the so-called Golden Age of climbing, check out A History of Free Climbing in America, by Pat Ament. Also, Robbins has a three-part autobiography out. Why write a memoir? SF Gate asked him that in 2010, and he replied: "I like writing. Writing is as hard as climbing. I like things that are hard."
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.
Quote of the week:
I balance my life
on an ancient granite cliff
and He applauds again,
hoping I do not fall.
He is a good Lord,
and He loves us,
though He has made
the cliff like glass
and turned up the rain
Excerpt from "The Rock Climber," by Howard McCord