More recent generations might know Royal Robbins for his eponymous clothing brand, but climbers and students of adventure history know that the man behind the name was one of the greatest climbers of Yosemite’s golden years. The Californian died today in Modesto at age 82 after a lengthy illness.
His daughter, Tamara Robbins, said, “My father faced challenges in his climbing, his writing, his business, his role as a father and husband, and later in life in his debilitating illness. Through it all, he rose to the occasion, taking the challenges on with grace and humility. For that, he’s my hero.”
Robbins, seen above with wife Liz into 1960 atop Half Dome, learned the ropes in the small Southern California climbing mecca of Idyllwild, on a crag called Tahquitz, but quickly found his way to Yosemite Valley, where in 1957 he put up the first grade VI climb in America, the Northwest Face of Half Dome, with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas. Four years later, with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt, Robbins made the first ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan, considered the hardest big wall grade VI climb in world at time.
“Climbing as we know it would not exist without Royal Robbins,” said Duane Raleigh, editor in chief of Rock and Ice. “The way we move, behave, and even think, even 30 years after his Yosemite reign, shaped by Robbins. His competitive drive was the impetus for Yosemite ’s Golden Age, a period of such progress that it may never be matched. Robbins’ laundry list of firsts stretches around the globe, but most remarkable is the Salathé Wall in 1961, a serpentine, natural line that he, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt pioneered in semi-alpine style with just 13 bolts – a hole count that remains El Cap’s lowest.”
Of his experience on the Salathé, Robbins wrote, “Our muscles tensed when we heard the air rushing across the rock face. Seconds later we were rudely buffeted by an incredibly strong and ferocious blast of wind. We worried lest our excellent Austrian bivouac sack should tear and leave us completely exposed to the elements. The wind blew in appalling gusts almost continuously, with occasional short periods of dead calm. Rain fell steadily, and whenever the wind died, the natural drainage asserted itself and we received a waterfall directly upon our heads. This tempest had been pound us for five hours.”
Robbins was an early proponent of the clean climbing ethos, along with Yvon Chouinard, Doug Robinson, and others, and he argued against big-wall siege tactics, preferring instead an early form of fast and light practiced on Salathé and then on what would become other Yosemite classics.
Atop El Cap after the first ascent of the American Wall, on October 30, 1964, are Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard. Photo by Tom Frost
In the 1970s, Robbins developed psoriatic arthritis and climbing became too painful to pursue with the same intensity, so he turned his passion to kayaking, connecting with partners such as Doug Tompkins, another pioneer of the outdoor industry. In 1980, the two, along with Reg Lake, paddled the San Joaquin River Gorge from Devil’s Postpile to the Mammoth Pool Reservoir, 5,000 feet lower and 32 miles away. In 1981, they carried their kayaks over Mount Whitney Pass at 13,777 foot elevation, into Sequoia National Park and descended 55 miles down the Kern Trench. In 1982, joined by Neusom Holmes, they descended the Middle Fork of the Kings River in Kings Canyon National Park, the largest and steepest of these three High Sierra descents.
Of kayaking, he wrote, “I love it very much, and it is very rewarding, but I am first, last, and always a climber. I will climb until I drop, and it would be the last thing I would give up.”
A Royal Robbins brand video gives a look at the man and the company.
Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, wrote in a post on Facebook, “The climbs I do, the way I do them and how I live my life have something to do with how Royal lived his.
“I was lucky enough to climb with Royal; in Sinks Canyon of all places. We did a route called Standard. Not hard. Beautiful, steep and several pitches long. Royal noticed the colors in the rock (sandstone) and the quality of the line. At what we call the ‘hands free traverse’ he looked up at me and said, ‘This is thrilling.’
“We talked about the importance of wilderness that night among many other things. I won’t forget.”
Robbins himself wrote, “We need adventure. It’s in our blood. It will not go away. The mountains will continue to call because they uniquely fulfill our need for communion with nature, as well as our hunger for adventure.”