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Basic Rockcraft by Royal Robbins

Guide Review of Classic How-to-Rock-Climb Book

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Basic Rockcraft by Royal Robbins

Basic Rockcraft by Royal Robbins

Basic Rockcraft by Royal Robbins is exactly that—a premier on basic rock climbing techniques including movement, equipment, belaying, rappelling, aid climbing, knots, pitoncraft, nutcraft, as well as a great section on climbing ethics and style. The book, which was published in 1971, is somewhat dated but still chock full of useful information by Robbins, a master climber and at the time, one of the best all-around climbers in the world.

Learn to Climb the Yosemite Way

Basic Rockcraft was, when it first came out, simply the best book about learning how to rock climb the Yosemite way. Nothing else came close. Its only competitors were Alan Blackshaw’s Mountaineering and, of course, the seminal Freedom of the Hills, written and published by The Mountaineers. But as Robbins pointed out in the book’s introduction, “There is no authoritative treatment of modern rock climbing techniques as developed in America, and especially in America’s foremost rock climbing area, Yosemite Valley.”

Robbins Helped Develop Big Wall Climbing

Many of today’s climbing techniques that most climbers take for granted were forged on the crucible of Yosemite’s big walls, including El Capitan, Half Dome, Washington Column, and Sentinel Rock in the 1950s and 1960s and Royal Robbins was a big part of the development of those techniques. While much of the book is, of course, out-dated, there are lots of useful tips and thoughts that still hold true. Basic Rockcraft as well as Advanced Rockcraft, its 1973 sequel (both of which sold over 400,000 copies), laid the framework for today’s how-to-rock-climb books like John Long’s How to Rock Climb and my own KNACK Rock Climbing book, both from FalconGuides.

Equipment Section Out of Date

The equipment section of Basic Rockcraft is, of course, dramatically out of date. Royal advises that the “beginner needs little equipment;” “Tennis shoes or hiking boots will suffice;” and the preferred rope length is 150 feet. He also recommends using a Swami belt, a length of webbing wrapped around the waist, to tie the rope into because body harnesses were hardly in common use in 1971. Robbins also discusses the merits of different piton hammers; the new-fangled “artificial chockstones” or nuts; as well as bolts, which he called “a blessing and a curse.”

Hip Belays and Dulfer Rappels

Royal Robbins, Yosemite rock climbing legend and author of Basic Rockcraft, in Yosemite Valley in 1967.

Photograph © Steve Roper

Ditto for the book sections on belaying, rappelling, and the almost lost art of pitoncraft. When Royal wrote Basic Rockcraft, the hip belay was the preferred style of belaying. He discusses both the sitting hip belay and the standing hip belay since belay devices, which were just catching on in Europe, were not easily available or used in the United States. Likewise the rappelling section covers how to do a Dulfer rappel, which is the old-time classical rappel style with the rope wrapped around the body for friction, as well as the carabiner brake rappel.

The Art of Pitoncraft

The use of pitons has gone by the wayside since the book was published in 1971. Nuts were introduced to America from Britain at that time and a clean climbing ethic was adopted by most climbers because pitons, which are hammered in and out of cracks, permanently damage and scar the rock. In the interest of rock preservation, pitons are now only used on extreme aid climbs or sometimes on sections of rotten rock where a cam or nut won’t hold. The pitoncraft section, however, is informative to read. It gives you the low-down on different types of pitons and how to properly place and remove them. This section in Basic Rockcraft, coupled with the advanced piton techniques taught in Advanced Rockcraft, teach you how to use pitons on aid climbs—still a worthy climbing skill to know.

Ethics and Style Section Really Rocks

Basic Rockcraft really shines in its section on Ethics and Style along with wise bits of information gleaned from Royal Robbins’ vast climbing experience. Robbins was a pioneer of free climbing and promoted the value of clean climbing with nuts, which lead to the end of the piton era. First and foremost, Robbins had a strict ethical code of climbing values. The style in which someone climbed a cliff was more important than how hard it was or if they reached the top. To Royal, it was more important to climb in a soulful way and show proper respect for the rock by climbing with what it offered, rather than by placing unnecessary bolts and pitons to make it easier or to lower the climb’s standard to a lowest common denominator.

Preservation and The First Ascent Principle

Royal Robbins describes ethics as “actions which directly affect others in the climbing community” and style as “the methods and equipment used, and the degree of ‘adventure’ involved in the ascent.” He breaks down climbing ethics further to two considerations: “Preservation” and “The First Ascent Principle.”

Robbins calls preservation the “primary ethical consideration,” which means “leaving a route unchanged so others may enjoy…the creation of those who made the first ascent.” His First Ascent Principle calls a “climb a work of art, a creation of the men who made the first ascent.” Robbins says, “Better that we raise our skill than lower the climb.” These ethical musings are still debated today, and Royal’s arguments are just as valid today as in 1971.

A Classic Climbing Book

Basic Rockcraft still belongs on the bookshelf of any climber who is interested in the history of American rock climbing, the evolution of Yosemite big wall technique and free climbing, or who likes a raucous ethical debate. Robbin’s ethical considerations outlined in this book and Advanced Rockcraft are worth the small cost of this thin classic volume. Oh, the funny cartoons illustrating the book by Sheridan Anderson also enhance Basic Rockcraft’s status as a classic climbing book.

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