Royal Robbins, goodbye to America's legendary climber
On 14 March 2017 American rock climbing pioneer Royal Robbins passed away. Aged 82, Robbins was one of the best American climbers during the ’60’s and ’70’s, the period known in "Golden Age"" of Yosemite Valley climbing. Robbins was a pioneer and advocate of clean climbing, i.e. without pegs and expansion bolts, and one of the most vocal proponents of the need to protect the rock and environment.
Born on 3 February 1935 at Point Pleasant in West Virginia, Royal Robbins spent his early childhood growing up in Los Angeles. Aged 14 he went on a boy scout trip to the High Sierra mountains, and this experience marked the start of a lifelong love affair with nature and the outdoors. During this trip he was introduced to climbing and following a fall he joined the Sierra Club, the famous Los Angeles climbing club. It was here that he met other young climbers such as Yvon Chouinard, TM Herbert and Tom Frost who, in the future, would add important chapters to the history of rock climbing.
Robbins initially served his apprenticeship repeating various existing routes, a highlight being his 1952 second ascent of the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite, at the time considered the hardest rock climb in the country. Robbins first left his mark in 1957 by establishing the Regular Northwest Face on Half Dome; climbed during five difficult June days with Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick, the Regular NW Face heralded a new level of difficulties for big wall climbing in North America and was the first of its kind to be graded VI.
In 1960 Robbins teamed up with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost to make the second ascent of The Nose on El Capitan in a mere seven days; Warren Harding had needed 45 spread out over 18 months. A year later Robbins created what is considered his absolute masterpiece: the first ascent of the legendary Salathé Wall on El Capitan. Forged over nine and a half days in 1961 together with Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost, this route is one of the all-time monuments to free climbing and perhaps the most logical line up the entire 1000m face. Above all though, it was the style of the first ascent of the Salathe Wall that proved ground-breaking: ropes were fixed on the lower third only before the trio delved into the unknown, for six days up into a face that was still practically unclimbed. Furthermore, a mere 13 expansion bolts were placed, compared to the 125 used three years previously by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore during the 45-day first ascent of The Nose. The Salathé set an extremely high standard, in terms of style, for future generations.
In the ensuing years Robbins carried out numerous other first ascents, highlights being the North Wall of Sentinel Rock in 1962, the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome in 1963 as well as the famous American Direct climbed in July 1962 up the West Face of Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc range together with Gary Hemming. Robbins later summed up this ascent as "the finest route I’d made under alpine conditions" and this experience paved the way for his August 1965 first ascent of the American Direttissima on the same peak with John Harlin.
Robbins’ routes were characterised by a highly limited use of expansion bolts and pegs, and over the years this became his climbing Leitmotif. So much so that in 1967 he catalysed another pivotal moment in rock climbing: together with his wife Liz Robbins he made the first ascent of Nutcracker Suite on Ranger Rock. Considered an absolute valley classic, this was the first climb in the United States to have neither pegs nor expansion bolts, but only removable nuts for protection. As such, it marked the start of the clean climbing revolution.
In spring 1968 Robbins outdid even himself with his 10-day, first ever rope-solo ascent of El Capitan via the Muir Wall route. This ascent, which also happened to be the first solo of a grade VI climb, crowned 12 years of climbing activity in Yosemite. That same year he and his wife Liz - who a year earlier had made the first female ascent of Half Dome - created the "Mountain Paraphernalia" clothing company. This soon changed name to "Royal Robbins" and rapidly transformed into one of the world’s leading outdoor clothing companies.
Robbins was also a highly active and talented kayaker. Asked one day about the importance of this sport and whether it might represent as much to him as rock climbing, Robbins answered "No. 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."