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Influences: Royal Robbins (1935-2017)

Life is an adventure and character counts —Royal Robbins

Somewhere around 1980 or 81 my friend Chris and I headed to Yosemite in the back of my parents Econoline panel van. Mom and dad talked away as we lounged in the bean bag chairs that sufficed as seating. Chris had, as I remember, grabbed his brothers rope and climbing gear and announced to me that we were going rock climbing when we reached “The Valley”. Chris and I poured over a copy of Royal Robbins’ Basic Rockcraft, learning everything we could about climbing, belaying, and rappelling, gleaning every iota of information we could, not really thinking about what we were getting ourselves into.

For years, every May, I had been traveling with my parents to Yosemite Valley to camp with our friends the Honers. Every time I looked at El Capitan and saw the ant sized climbers, mere specs on the great wall, I wondered who the hell would want to do that? In reality it appeared that now that would be us —braving the unknown and daring the gods with unspeakable deeds of bravery……. or at least that’s how I pictured it then.

Our foray into the vertical world lasted about 100 feet. Chris led an unknown crack to the sky near Camp 4, and I followed him in my Vans slip-ons. I remember cursing as the shoes kept coming off in the crack, holding on with one hand to the rock I would grab the heel and flip it back on in a panic, only to repeat the madness a few feet higher. Somehow we made it back down without incident and proceeded to spend that night drinking heavily and wandering the valley. The exhilaration of fear and accomplishment of that day had a lifelong effect on me. From that moment I was hooked, and through climbers stories and his writings, Royal Robbins became a great influence in my life.


Luxurious accommodations, day2 Washington Column, Yosemite. Randall Rickert, me, and Steve Elder (not pictured)

I have learned that the way you look at things can strongly influence the way they turn out —Royal Robbins

Royal Robbins was one of the pioneers of modern climbing. His first ascents, similar to the moon landing, broke new ground and spawned an era of exploration, and conception to reimagine the possible. Royals vision and commitment were combined with a strict set of style and ethics. He eventually eschewed the destruction of the rock with pitons and developing the use of passive climbing protection to bring a new era of clean free climbing with his groundbreaking ascent of the route Nutcracker in Yosemite with his wife Liz Robbins. Robbins wrote that the decision to place a single piton is a matter of “enormous importance” because “like a single word in a poem, it can affect the entire composition”.

Robbins believed in leaving no trace, climbing from the ground up rather than the siege tactics of spending months inching higher each day, and then rappelling back to the ground on fixed ropes to rest, resupply, or avoid bad weather— a common big wall tactic of the 50’s and 60’s. In Robbins book To Be Brave, he wrote about (climber) Warren Hardings first ascent of  El Capitans The Nose and the style in which it was achieved. “Harding became a national hero, but I wasn’t among the applauding throng,” “How much of my pique was idealism and how much just envy? I don’t know.” In 1960 Robbins and three other climbers made the second ascent of The Nose route in seven days, the first ascent had taken 45 days, and over a year and a half using siege tactics.

In his book Advanced Rockcraft, Robbins said that “a first ascent is a creation in the same sense as is a painting or a song”, and that choosing a climbing line may well be “an act of brilliant creativity”. Royal made many first ascents around the globe, ranging from climbs on the Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc Range, France, to Mount Geikie, in the Canadian Rockies, but his most famous climbs are still the walls of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite.

Over the years I have climbed many of Royals routes, and the vision and forethought these accomplishments display has left an indelible mark on me. As a young climber pulling myself over the “ankle breaker” mantle on Nutcracker, I could only imagine the commitment and insight Robbins displayed attempting this route for the first time.

I have spent most of my life climbing. Most of my best friends are climbers. I met my wife climbing. To each one of them I owe my life countless times, and they all have earned my respect and unwavering trust. Royal Robbins influence reaches deeply into my approach to all things. Life is about vision, boldness, trust, character, adaptability, and our connection to the world and those we depend on.

In Robbins memoir he wrote, “I have given my life to the vertical endeavor and it has repaid me in full, but there are other areas too, such as hopping freights, kayaking, business, marriage, and raising a family, that speak of high adventure. … Life is an adventure and character counts.”


Enjoying the history, Robbins Crack, Mt Woodson


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