These days the name Royal Robbins is synonymous with the clothing company. Ask most young climbers about Royal Robbins and they’ll probably say, “Oh yeah, they make like hiking shorts and stuff.” But the true story is that Royal Robbins was simply one of America’s greatest rock climbers and maybe the most influential. When I was learning to rock climb as a teenager in the late sixties, Robbins was a bona fide bad ass; Royal was kicking it like Chris Sharma and Dave Graham do now.
Robbins Defined Big Wall Climbing
Born in 1935 in West Virginia, Royal grew up in southern California and learned his rock skills at Tahquitz Rock where he established one of America’s first 5.9 routes. In the 1960s, Royal Robbins, along with his fellow pioneers Yvon Chouinard, Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, T.M. Herbert, and Warren Harding, defined the sport of rock climbing on the big walls of Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite's Golden Age of Big Walls
The Yosemite Valley resume of Royal Robbins reads like a Hollywood walk of stars. Robbins did first and early ascents of all the Yosemite big walls with the best American climbers of that Golden Age, including Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, and Layton Kor.
Robbins' Yosemite Resume of Climbs
In 1957 Robbins did the world’s first Grade VI route, the Northwest Face of Half Dome. On El Capitan he did the second ascent of The Nose; the first ascents of The Salathé Wall and The North American Wall; the first solo ascent of El Capitan via The Muir Wall; and the controversial second ascent of The Wall of Early Morning Light. Other notable big walls done by Robbins were the first ascents of Tis-sa-ack and the Direct Northwest Face on Half Dome, The Prow on Washington Column, and, in 1962, the American Direct on The Dru on Mont Blanc, the hardest rock climb in the European Alps at the time.
First Ascent of West Face of El Capitan
This climbing quote comes from a 1968 article about the first ascent of the 2,000-foot West Face of El Capitan, which Robbins wrote for Ascent magazine.
In an American Alpine Journal report on the climb, Robbins called the West Face “the plain Jane sister of the Salathé Wall.” He climbed it in early June, 1967 with T.M. Herbert, who, Robbins says, “has the amazing ability to distill the essence of contemporary life and spit it at you and you roar until your sides ache, all the while crying softly inside.”
Enjoy Royal Robbins' thoughts about climbing and climbers.
“We’re at the base of a three-hundred-foot arch. We must pass it. That means surmounting an overhang beetling with convolutions and jutting corners. In other words, a crag. And we are cragsmen! Much better to be a cragsman than a mere rockclimber. A crag still has an air of adventure about it. A rockclimb is mostly technique nowadays. So we go crag climbing. First it’s back and foot, then bridging in a shallow groove. Loose rock is treated gingerly and the key is a slotted nut at the lip of the overhang. The door opens and it’s a new world—firm rock, cracks, hollows, spikes, and knobs. Joy comes in a rush as the muscles work swinging upward in balance past an occasional runner. The easy going is interspersed with bits of questioning calling for quirky answers. A hand jammed and the opposite foot set high in a hole and move up in one fluid motion pivoting and changing the jam to a lieback and reaching for the next spike above. When you do it right, it feels right.”