Image: Glenn Denny
It may seem a strange thing to say, but Royal Robbins carried British climbing values into American climbing culture with permanent benefit for both climbers and the rock they climbed. There were to be no more peg scars in Yosemite cracks, which now became finger locks for climbs protected by nuts, and bolt ladders became the guilty ‘machine in the garden’, to use Leo Marx’s famous phrase, that they always had been. So when he came to the UK, often at the suggestion, behind the scenes, of Ken Wilson, Royal reflected back at us, in his gracious, principled, quiet, steely manner, our own best selves, in case we had forgotten and had started bolting beside cracks in quarries like Harper Hill.
It was his mother, who moved to California when he was a teenager, who taught Robbins self-reliance – breaking through low self-esteem at school, the disappearance of two fathers, an attempted robbery - and it was the Boy Scouts that introduced him to rock climbing in the High Sierra. He wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, ‘Scouting is a vehicle through which good men change forever the lives of boys, and are forever remembered for doing so’. Bouldering and top-roping after school at the local sandstone outcrops at Stoney Point, Robbins gained his first lessons and a broken wrist.
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. But it was the 1967 ascent with his wife Liz of The Nutcracker (5.8) in Yosemite, after a visit to the UK had convinced him that pitons could be replaced by nuts, even on a 500 foot route, that changed everything. Warren Harding had been sieging and bolting his way up Yosemite’s walls, sometimes with six months gaps between pitches for weather and partying, and Robbins was determined to demonstrate that there was a better way.
As his partner Tom Frost said, ‘His philosophy was that it’s not getting to the summit but how you do it that counts’. Harding declared that Robbins was the ‘Valley Christian’ in his advocacy of ‘clean climbing’. Perhaps nowhere was Robbins’ preaching more eloquent than on the West Face of Leaning Tower, which had taken Harding seventeen months to climb with the use of fixed ropes from bottom to top, and multiple partners, topping out in November 1958. Four and a half years later Robbins soloed the route over four days, using some of Harding’s bolts, but cleaning his pitons after each pitch (five years before he discovered the even cleaner use of nuts).
This was the ‘Golden Age’ of Yosemite climbing, but during this period Robbins also applied his approach in first ascents on Alpine walls elsewhere, such as his 1962 first ascent of the American Direct (ED: 5.11, 1000m) on the Aiguille du Dru with Gary Hemming, and the 1963 first ascent of the Robbins Route (originally VI 5.8 A4) on Mt. Proboscis in Canada's Northwest Territories with Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor and Dick McCracken. It was in Yosemite, however, that Robbins forged his climbing ethics.
In 2010 Robbins reflected, ‘I think that we were drawn to our ethical stance because it was harder that way, frankly, and I think whatever’s harder has to be better’. In later life Robbins admitted to really being in thrall to ‘the fame dragon’ as much as Harding and admired his sheer grit in staying focussed on his routes. Harding had answered Robbins’ Half Dome ascent with the epic first ascent of The Nose of El Cap, bolting the last pitch with desperate determination through the night. Robbins replied with the first ascent of the Salathe Wall with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt, taking a natural line that required only thirteen bolts, before Harding did Leaning Tower. Robbins’ second ascent of The Nose was made in a continuous, seven-day push with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost.
A more radical statement was made in Robbins’ second ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light on El Cap in 1971 with Don Lauria. Robbins was outraged at the first ascent made in typical Harding siege style, later writing: ‘Here was a route with 330 bolts. 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.’ Probably the TV appearances Harding made as a hero of Yosemite climbing had something to do with Robbins and Lauria making plans to remove the route, chopping the bolts off the wall as they climbed.
Their six day climb also became the first winter ascent of El Cap. When Geoff Birtles cheekily asked Robbins to write Harding’s obituary for High magazine Robbins rose to the occasion with honesty, grace and wit, recalling his last visit to Harding in his hospital bed where, as Robbins was leaving, Harding looked up at the tubes coming into his arm and said, ‘More wine!’ After arthritis curtailed his climbing career, Robbins made many kayak first descents in the Sierras after he realised that some were only possible in meltwater floods. This included the ‘Triple Crown’ of the last three great rivers in the Sierra that had yet to see a descent. In 1967 Robbins launched a climbing-gear company, importing boots, ropes, and helmets with his wife Liz who was his real rock. By the 1980s, this small gear company, Mountain Paraphernalia, had blossomed into a business producing no-nonsense, reliable clothing, called ‘Royal Robbins’ which, although they sold it in 2003, is still going strong today.
Robbins also became known for his classic instructional books Basic Rockcraft (1971) and Advanced Rockcraft (1973) which taught the techniques of clean climbing. Robbins even included a ‘Sermon’ in Advanced Rockcraft in which he summed up his ‘rules’ of climbing: stay safe, be honest, and leave the stone unchanged. More recently the three published volumes of his autobiography reflect wryly on the philosophy behind his statement climbs and generously acknowledge his debts to his mentors, protagonists and partners.
It was sad that Robbins was probably unaware of the earlier death of his old friend Ken Wilson because, like Ken, he was suffering from dementia. I heard of Robbins’ death in an email from my Californian climbing partner, Larry Giacomino, who expressed the feelings of a local: ‘A really sad day for us here. He was a cut above the rest of us in terms of ethics - a couple of cuts above in skill. And his judgement was impeccable. I must go to his “Camp Four Wine Café” in Modesto on my next trip to the Valley.’ Royal Robbins had a Camp Four Wine Café? Had he stolen one idea from Harding after all?
Terry Gifford: 2017. First Published in Climber-April 2017