Tom Frost played a behind-the scenes role in the Golden Age of American climbing, documenting many of the era’s most significant climbs and providing the engineering know-how that brought to life the collective vision of better-known cohorts such as his friend and business partner Yvon Chouinard, and his mentor Royal Robbins.
The role suited Frost’s modest personality, which sometimes masked his extraordinary gifts for photography, engineering and, most of all, big-wall climbing. Frost was introduced to the sport in 1957 during his senior year at Stanford, where he rowed and studied mechanical engineering. The long-limbed athlete showed preternatural prowess on the rock, and after graduation fell in with a talented group of California climbers including Chouinard and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer.
After Robbins watched him easily repeat a complicated boulder problem during a Sierra Club outing to Mount Pacifico in the Angeles National Forest, he invited the young Frost to join the second ascent of the Nose, a route on El Capitan’s south buttress, with two other leading climbers, Chuck Pratt and Joe Fitschen, in the summer of 1960.
The quartet climbed without fix ropes, a revolutionary approach requiring extraordinary skill and commitment. In Camp 4 the day before they started, Feuerer handed Frost his camera, a Leica rangefinder with a collapsible 50mm lens, and showed him how to use it. The ascent took seven days, and Frost shot seven rolls of black and white film. After a lifetime of climbing photography, Frost told journalist Chuck Graham in 2018 that “those were the best seven rolls of film I have.”
Photographers call the 50mm focal length a normal lens, because it reproduces the perspective of the human eye. There’s no wide-angle trickery to make the heights seem greater than they are; no telephoto magic to compress the scene. What you see is what you get, and Frost’s images are so striking because of their complete lack of pretense. Frost never set up a shot, said Glen Denny. “The impressive thing about Frost is that his classic images were seen, and photographed, during major first ascents. In those awesome situations he led, cleaned, hauled, day after day and–somehow–used his camera with the acuity of a Cartier-Bresson strolling about a piazza.”
Frost simply climbed, and photographed his friends as they climbed. And so in Frost’s photography we see the Golden Age of American rock climbing as Frost, Robbins, Chouinard and other luminaries lived it. That alone would be enough to cement his legacy, but Frost also took his turns on the sharp end of many groundbreaking climbs, and championed a kind of clean climbing that has come to define the sport’s highest ideals.
In 1961, Frost, Robbins and Pratt made the first ascent of El Cap’s Salathé Wall using only 13 bolts, with Frost leading the critical 15-foot overhang known as the Roof. Later, Frost and Robbins repeated the route without fixed lines, becoming the first two-person team to climb El Cap.
In October 1964, Frost took part in perhaps the most notable first ascent of the era, scaling El Capitan’s North America Wall with Robbins, Pratt, and Chouinard. “The wall was steeper, harder, looser, and the line less obvious than what anyone had ever attempted,” Duane Raleigh wrote of the climb in Rock & Ice.
The route traversed sections of diorite, which because of its dark shape on the southeast face gives the North America Wall its name and in Robbins’ description of the climb “tended to break off in blocks.” The nine-day first ascent, without fixed ropes and through blistering heat, rain, and snow, marked the first time El Capitan had been climbed in a single push. This, on the most difficult big wall climb ever attempted at the time. “For the first time in the history of the sport,” wrote climbing historian Chris Jones, “Americans led the world.”
Frost made other notable climbs around the globe. He travelled to Nepal in 1963 to make the first ascent of Kangtega (22,251 ft) and build schools with Edmund Hillary. In 1968 he and two others completed the first ascent of Lotus Flower Tower, a 2,200-foot granite pillar in the Northwest Territories’ Cirque of the Unclimbables. In 1979 he climbed Ama Dablam (22,349 ft) on a filming expedition led by Jeff Lowe for ABC television. In 1986 he returned to Kangtega with Lowe, forging a new route to the summit.
In all his time in the mountains, Frost said he never experienced a truly scary moment. “I come unglued a little at the Cyclops overhang on the North America Wall,” he told Climbing magazine in 2009, “and when Royal and I went back to do the second ascent of the Salathé, the idea was for each of us to lead the pitches we followed the first time. He made me lead the Ear. The thought of it was terrifying, but it turned out to be easy — just a mental problem.”
The roof at the start of the Salathé headwall was a little scary too. “But as I look back at the photos, I realize I really loved it up there,” he said. “It was like going home every time we climbed El Cap. It was home.”
Yosemite in those days seemed a magical place, and a magical time. Years later Frost would liken his companions and the clean climbing movement they led to the mythical rebels of Star Wars, “led by young Royal Rockwalker, and the shaggy, five-foot wookie Chewi-nard.
“We loved the movement in climbing, the beauty of the creation, the depth of our companionship, and the discovery of the unknown,” he continued. “Those El Cap climbs we did together changed my life. They changed who I was.”
They also changed climbing, as Frost and others championed the clean climbing aesthetic and designed the equipment that made it possible. Chouinard had been selling pitons and other climbing gear from the trunk of his car since 1957, and Frost later applied his engineering expertise to the enterprise. Together they designed the RURP—the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton—to finish the crux of Yosemite’s Kat Pinnacle in 1959, the most difficult aid climb in North America at the time. Frost later quit his job at North American Aviation to work with Chouinard, and in the mid-1960s they perfected the Lost Arrow piton, which was designed to be removed and reused—unlike earlier pitons that were often left in the rock.
“We went from hand-forging to using die-forged blanks and the die kept wearing out, so each time I would re-think the piton design and improve it,” Frost said in the Climbing interview. The duo also was responsible for such ice-climbing innovations including rigid crampons and re-imagined ice axes.
Frost called himself a “piton engineer,” but perhaps his greatest contribution to the sport was helping Chouinard make pitons obsolete. The pair developed a new class of aluminum chockstones in the early 1970s called Hexentrics and Stoppers, and marketed them aggressively as replacements for pitons, which accounted for 70 percent of the company’s sales at the time. Making your own best-selling product obsolete is an unconventional way to do business, but by Chouinard’s reckoning it was absolutely the right thing to do. (Frost sold his share of the company to Chouinard in 1975. Chouinard Equipment went bankrupt in 1989 and was reborn as Black Diamond Equipment.)
Frost was a longtime advocate of environmental ethics in climbing, using natural protection whenever possible and guided by the imperative to leave no trace. He also fought doggedly to preserve the places and traditions that had been so influential in his life. When he learned of the National Park Service’s plans to build four large dormitories and hotel annexes with room for 192 guests near Yosemite’s Camp 4, the bare bones campground that had become the center of climbing’s cultural universe, Frost organized the resistance.
When he started the fight in 1997, he hadn’t climbed on Yosemite’s big walls in more than 30 years. After parting ways with Chouinard in 1975 he’d married and moved to Colorado, where he raised a daughter, Marna, and a son, Ryan, who became an accomplished climber in his own right. Then, in his early 60s, newly divorced and following a heart attack, Frost fell into a classic midlife crisis. He bought a Porsche and a rack of gear, and drove with Ryan to Zion and then Yosemite, where father and son climbed the Nose 37 years after his 1960 ascent.
They stayed at Camp 4, which to Frost’s annoyance the Park Service had renamed Sunnyside Campground. When he learned of the Park Service’s plans, he spent $400 on the camp pay phone, trying to find a lawyer to help him sue the Park Service. Finally, he reached attorney Richard Duane and made his pitch:
“Ever done something you didn’t know how to do before you started?” Frost asked.
When Duane conceded he had, Frost replied, “Then you’re my lawyer.”
Joined by the American Alpine Club and other groups, Frost and Duane sued the National Park Service, forcing the agency to abandon the dormitory plan. Later they succeeded in adding Camp 4 to the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring it will remain relatively unchanged to nurture future generations of climbers.
Frost, too, found a second life on the walls of Yosemite. With his son Ryan he spent three months in Yosemite, climbing the Nose, Lurking Fear, the West Face, and the North America Wall.
“It seemed unlikely to me that such adventures would ever be possible again,” Frost wrote of his halcyon days with Robbins, Pratt, Chouinard and others. “But in recent years I have been able to return to El Capitan, and to those same routes of long ago. To my joy, it was just the same—great companionship and classic climbing. The only mystery is why they have become so much harder.”
Tom Frost died in 2018 after a short bout with cancer.
The trailer for Flatlander Films’ feature-length project on the life and climbs of Frost is below. The production is seeking community support.