There’s a palpable energy within Yosemite Valley. One that has inspired past and present generations alike to seek adventure, exercise curiosity, and pursue self-discovery. Like many who have come before me, I have always felt a magnetic pull to this incredible place. The landscape’s unwavering indifference to those within it is strangely comforting. Perhaps it relieves the heavy burden of expectation weighting on our shoulders. Or perhaps the smell of pine needles and the sound of the bumbling river are simply soothing to the soul.
While the granite walls are quiet and unresponsive, they are deeply saturated with the rich and ever evolving history of those drawn to this landscape. They line the Valley like a series of blank sheets, which, over time, have been etched with the artful stories of dreamers and creators. Each story builds upon the last and creates a foreword for future stories to come. Of all the personalities that have graced the walls of Yosemite, Royal Robbins left a particularly influential impact, forever changing the direction of climbing’s story.
Robbins came onto the Yosemite climbing scene in the 50’s, after learning to climb at Tahquitz Rock in Southern California. While the long list of first ascents and ground breaking climbs he achieved throughout the 60’s are incredibly impressive, it’s the strong sense of ethic and style he brought to those climbs that has fostered my deep sense of admiration. Robbins’ outlook that “Getting to the top is nothing. How you do it is everything”, built a foundation for a certain consciousness within climbing that still prevails today.
Robbins’ deep respect for the natural world was a major catalyst behind the “clean climbing” ethic that he so firmly believed and practiced. Comparable to his hero, John Muir, Robbins truly believed in, not only the importance of wild spaces, but the human spirit’s necessity to interact with those wild spaces. A man who was willing to walk the walk, Robbins put great thought behind every piton or bolt placed on route. He regarded the decision to alter the rock of “enormous importance” because “like a single word in a poem, it can affect the entire composition”.
In 1967, after an inspiring visit to the UK, Robbins made the first ascent of the classic Yosemite crack, Nutcracker (5.8, 500’), using only passive, easily removable protection (rather than pitons, which were hammered into cracks and scarred the rock). This was the first time a first ascent in Yosemite was completed using only removable nuts for protection and marked the beginning of the clean climbing revolution.
Robbins’ use of clean climbing techniques was not only stimulated by sustainability, however. He also recognized the innate need for personal challenge – a primal drive for adventure and struggle, which had been lost from everyday life. Robbins wanted to preserve the opportunity for adventure. He believed that bolting your way up a climb was not, in fact, climbing. Doing this eliminated the intrinsic challenge and was not in good style. Rather than bringing the mountain down to your level, Robbins believed the climber must rise to the occasion. “What a pleasure to climb a fine route and find no traces of those who have come before and to leave no mark of one’s passage… to use art instead of force.”
In addition to the frugal use of pitons and bolts, Robbins often attempted continuous ground up ascents and opted out of fixed lines, minimizing the opportunity for retreat and maximizing the committing nature of these walls. On the 1964 first ascent of North America Wall (originally VI 5.8 A5), Robbins, Chouinard, Frost, and Pratt pioneered what was, at the time, the hardest big wall climb in the world in this bold style. They completed the route in a ten day continuous push, without the use of any fixed ropes. Robbins has attributed this style as a stepping stone from the foundation laid by those before him. He particularly respected John Salathé, who used his impressive technical skills to make progressive first ascents with minimal bolts during a time when style was not in the forefront of most climbers’ minds. Decades later, his bolts are still deemed necessary and his routes are still highly respected.
Robbins’ vocal promotion of this “clean” climbing ethic was met with some resistance. Warren Harding, in particular, seemed to approach his climbing in the opposite style as Robbins – using siege tactics and certainty not shying away from the use of bolts. Although he openly opposed Harding’s tactics and even rebelled against them by chopping bolts on his 1970 route, Wall of Early Morning Light, Robbins later admits to a certain level of respect he held for Harding. “I admire Harding because he is a great exponent of individualism, which I think is one of the most important features of climbing… Good to have a man around who doesn’t give a damn what the establishment thinks.”
Robbins himself was drawn into the world of climbing through the hopeful prospect of finding himself, just like the inspiring characters of the climbing literature he poured over. As a seemingly misplaced 15-year-old, the idea that the mountains could shape your character was a powerful draw. He came to understand that “the mountains we conquer are not those on the horizon: supreme, cold, and taunting, but rather those within us: of fear, weakness, and ignorance. These were the true high peaks. And, when we could stand on top of them we would indeed be ‘on top of the world’”.
It was a lesson that served him well throughout life. In his early 40’s, Robbins developed severe psoriatic arthritis in his hands, making it difficult to continue climbing at a high level. In true Robbins style, he merely saw this as an inner mountain that needed conquering, so he turned to a new adventure – kayaking – which gave him the same sense of exploration, but was easier on his body. He chased first descents from the rivers of the Sierra to waterways around the world. He even hauled his kayak up and over the slopes of Mt. Whitney (the tallest mountain in the lower 48 – 14,495 feet) in the adventurous quest of making the first descent of the 55-mile Kern River. Although Robbins was just as successful in his kayaking pursuits, he was “first, last, and always a climber”. His stories will forever be woven into the granite walls of Yosemite Valley and the consciousness of climbing.
Robbins built off of the foundation laid by those that came before him. He drew bits and pieces of his ethic from individuals he admired, such as Muir and Salathé. In the same manner, I find myself shaping my personal ethics and standards from the groundwork placed by Robbins. In the same manner, I find myself standing on the shoulders of those who came before me. Thanks Royal Robbins, for not only giving me and my fellow climbers a lift, but for doing so with the utmost respect and style.
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In memory of Royal Robbins
“When I touched the rock, it had it turn touched my spirit, awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a hidden memory of a previous existence, a happier one. While I was climbing, it was glorious to be alive.”
Robbins, Royal. “Royal Robbins on the First Ascent of the North American Wall.” Rock and Ice Magazine. Ascent, 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.
Robbins, Royal. “Standing on the Shoulders: A Tribute to My Heroes.” 2000. Voices from the Summit: The World’s Great Mountaineers on the Future of Climbing. Ed. John Arnatt and Bernadette McDonald. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2000. N. pag. Print.
Robbins, Royal, and Sheridan Anderson. Advanced Rockcraft. Glendale, CA: La Siesta, 1990. Print.
Sherrill, Stephen. “Nutcracker: The Birth of Clean Climbing.” A Royal Robbins Blog. N.p., Aug. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.