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Our Heritage

A Classic Tale: Liz Robbins’ Tells the Story Behind Four Iconic Royal Robbins Lines

December 20, 2016
Liz Robbins

Liz Robbins, Royal Robbins’ co-founder and former head of design, fell into designing clothing simply because the gear that she and Royal needed didn’t exist. “I had never really designed clothing, and I wasn’t really interested in clothing, to be honest,” Liz says. “I started out by making belay seats and hammocks for Royal out of ripstop nylon on a Singer sewing machine in my daughter’s nursery. Everything I did was based on a functional and practical need at the time, which made the creativity part really fun.”

Liz was an accomplished climber in her own right (she was the first woman to climb Half Dome in Yosemite Valley in 1967, on the 10th anniversary of Royal’s first ascent), and as she got handier with the sewing machine, she started designing clothing as well as equipment. “Nothing was as flexible as Royal wanted,” Liz explains. “He always had to lift his leg as high as possible in case there was a rock around, even while we were hiking. And that’s where the Billy Goat® waistband came from: it allowed flexibility in the waist and the body without wearing stretchy, Polyester things.”

This ethos – functional need leading to creativity – was the inspiration for some of Royal Robbins’ most iconic mountaineering heritage pieces. We asked Liz to give us the background on four classic styles that are still available to adventurers today.

The Classic Billy Goat® Short
In 1975, Liz designed the Billy Goat® Short, the company’s first original piece of clothing.
“I was told by everybody in the industry that no one would ever wear a pant or short with elastic in the waist,” Liz says. “Elastic waists only existed in swim trunks and that’s not what I had in mind at all. It was a real effort to get the waistband to look the way I wanted it to: I had to do it with a single needle, over and over, to make the stitching look more masculine, to make the legs comfortably wide. It was just a good idea and it worked out really, really well. It turned out to be extremely popular, and that was the beginning of our business with clothing.”

Liz says that Royal insisted on testing every piece of clothing before it was put into production. “He would test it by going out hiking or standing in the office and picking his knee up to his chest. He’d say: ‘You know, this isn’t comfortable enough,’ or ‘It’s still not giving me enough room,’ and we’d work on it until it was comfortable. He’d tell us what the piece of clothing needed to do, and we’d make it happen.”

LIZFROMA

Sweaters
Another piece of clothing synonymous with Royal Robbins is the Lakes District-inspired sweater. When Liz and Royal traveled to the Lakes District in northwest England to go climbing, Royal would climb in any weather, while Liz preferred to opt out if it was raining.

“I loved the Herdwick and Swaledale sheep in the area – they were beautiful,” Liz says, “and I discovered in the village they had a little industry, with little machines in their homes, simple machines, and they were making beautiful sweaters, and I worked my way into getting to know people.”

At the time, Liz says there wasn’t a market for sweaters – from climbers or outdoor shops. “The shops wouldn’t even think about selling clothing products. They said they didn’t know it, didn’t want it, and they weren’t that kind of store. I said to Royal: ‘You know, if we call these sweaters tools, and if we change the design slightly, we might be able to get around it.”

Liz altered the shape slightly, added leather patches to the shoulders for carrying backpacks, and left the natural oil in the sweaters so they retained the “earthy” smell of sheep. And that, she says, got their product into stores. “We became really well known for our sweaters.”

LIZPOSES

Flannel Shirts
Liz pulled a lot of inspiration for her clothing design from traveling. “We spent a lot of time in Europe, Royal and I,” Liz says. “First thing after we were married we moved to Switzerland. When you travel, you experience a different sense of style, color, fabric, how people dress.”

Royal Robbins’ flannel shirts were inspired by those early travels, and were brought to life with stubborn ingenuity.
“What is it about flannel shirts that make you reminisce? The first flannel we did was in Portugal. They had nice cotton flannels, they did a good job,” Liz says. “Because of the way I did things in those days, which was primitive, it didn’t occur to me to use flannel that existed. The way we created our plaids was to do them thread by thread to see what combination they made. The tricky part was that you didn’t know until you crossed colors what color you’d come up with. In the early days, we would sit on the floor with threads and do it by hand. Later, when we could do it somehow with a computer, it got a little easier. We did beautiful plaids. I remember them very clearly.”

The Go Everywhere® line
In the mid-1990s, Liz recalls things changing from the 1960s and 1970s when they first started out. “We had lifestyle changes,” she says. “That’s when we did a lot of traveling. For us, business and climbing and travel were always connected, and Royal wanted something he could keep his trail maps and climbing maps and passports in, so I went to work and made a shirt that suited that need.”

At the time, the style Royal preferred to wear collared shirts, so they took the newly developed washable, wearable synthetics, combined it with great pockets and built the shirt that became the Expedition, which is still in the line today. They quickly expanded with pants and shorts in addition to tops, and the Go Everywhere® line was born.

The lifestyle sportswear designs that had been so successful in cotton, were applied to new synthetic, performance fabric technologies. In many cases, the designs were almost exactly the same (the cotton canvas Bluewater Short served as the model for the Backcountry Short for instance).

LIZINCUT
“We needed those things and I could create them with some of the fabrics that we had available to us,” Liz says. “They turned out to be fabulous products: shirts, and zip-off pants.”

As Liz and Royal’s own needs changed, their products changed. “That’s always been the essence of Royal Robbins: practical leads to creativity,” Liz says. “Function was always number one, I’ve always had a fundamental interest in it, and that’s where our tagline ‘style with mountaineering heritage’ came from. You have to try and keep your soul, keep whatever it is that has made you unique, in a world where that’s not easy. It’s nice to remember the beginnings of some of our pieces, it’s nice to know that they’re still in our range. I hope that will be the case for a long time.”
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Inside Royal Robbins Our Heritage

Sweater Craft: a History of Sweaters as Gear

November 11, 2016
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Sweater Craft is as old as the company itself. Royal and Liz originally began selling gear – pitons, ropes, hammers, nuts – out of her father’s garage in Modesto, CA. Soon thereafter, they added apparel to Mountain Paraphernalia roster of goods, becoming essentially the first outdoor apparel company (which they originally called Mountain Threads).

But before they could do that, there was a problem: climbers and adventurers didn’t want CLOTHING, they wanted GEAR.

Sweaters as Gear

Sweater Craft originals with Liz Robbins

Liz Robbins with original Sweater Craft

Despite being famous for first ascents in Yosemite Valley, CA, Royal and Liz spent a lot of time in Europe, especially England. On climbing trips in the Lake District of northwest England, Liz found a fun diversion when the rain started coming down.

She began working with local women to help them redesign their sweaters to fit climbers better.

The Herdwick and Swaledale sheep’s wool made for rugged, durable sweaters that, with slight improvements were ideal for cool weather climbing. The only problem was that climbers didn’t want to buy apparel, they wanted to buy “tools.”  

By marketing these heavy wool sweaters as tools, the Robbins’s found success in a new totally category for outdoor – Sweaters as Gear. This success led to Robbins’s to pivot and make the Royal Robbins company into a pure outdoor clothing company by the mid-70’s.

Sweater Craft

Many clothes are made. Sweaters are crafted. We call our collection of sweaters Sweater Craft in honor of the original sweaters that Liz imported. These hand-made beauties kept climbers warm and looked good.

Sweater Craft today

Sweater Craft at play in the Sierras

 

A Legacy of Environmental Responsibility

The promotion of clean climbing, marked by his first ascent of Nutcracker in 1967, was one of Royal’s proudest accomplishment. The legacy of environmental responsibility and of sustainability remains with the company today. When it comes to sweaters, we believe in the ethical treatment of our sheep. That’s why we only use non-mulesed wool.

Throughout our business, whether it’s using bluesign® approved fabrics, plant-based fibers, or Tencels and Modals from sustainably-managed forests, we are constantly looking to build on Royal’s leadership. It is a Core Value of our brand.

 

Our Heritage

Half Dome: First Ascent of the Northwest Face

June 24, 2016
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Half Dome. The iconic rock, with its sheer face and rounded back, overlooks the majesty of Yosemite Valley. Though today its face is climbed several times a day, it was at one point the zenith of big wall climbing.

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Royal Robbins – Day 1 of the first ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, 1957. Photo: Mike Sherrick

In June of 1957, Royal Robbins, alongside Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick, made the first grade VI climb in the United States: the sheer, Northwest Face of Half Dome. The five day climb set a new standard in American big wall climbing.

While George Anderson first reached the summit in 1875, he did so along the route now marked with the famous Half Dome cables (you can make the same trip – more info here).

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Royal’s four Half Dome First Ascent Routes: A – Regular Route (FA 1957) B – Arcturus (FA 1970) C – Direct Route (FA 1963) D – Tis-sa-ack (FA 1969)

The Birth of Big Wall Climbing: The First Ascent

The first ascent of Half Dome’s face was a major step forward in climbing, due to its length and its difficulty. It was the sheerest, highest wall ever climbed by an American. The techniques—aid climbing, hauling gear, bivouacking on the face—required to climb big walls were still in their infancy. Gallwas brought along homemade pitons he’d recently designed, modeled after John Salathé’s own hard-steel pitons.

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Some of the gear used by Robbins, Sherrick and Gallwas

“If we got stuck,” said Royal in the second volume of his autobiography, Fail Falling, “it would take days for rescuers to reach us…A rescue like that had never been attempted, for the very good reason that a wall like Half Dome had never been climbed.”

Royal Robbins wrote, “We feared the enormity of the wall…. We dreaded having to reach so deeply within ourselves and maybe find ourselves lacking.”

A Failed First Attempt

In 1955, Royal, alongside the legendary Warren Harding, Gallwas, and Don Wilson, attempted the same climb, but turned back after a mere 400 feet. Royal wrote:

“We crept away form there like whipped curs, with our tails between our legs. We had dared what no else had dared, and we were found wanting. I didn’t like the feeling, and vowed to return.”

Success at Last

From June 23 to June 27, the three-man team made climbing history. As they peeked their heads over the Visor of Half Dome, they were greeted by old friend Warren Harding, who had been unable to get to Yosemite in time to join them. Though competitive at all times, he was also a gracious friend – he’d brought food and wine!

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Royal on the Face. Photo: Mike Sherrick

June is Heritage Month at Royal Robbins. We are thrilled and grateful to have two incredible pioneers and leaders – Liz and Royal Robbins as founders and mentors. Liz Robbins currently serves as Senior Advisor to the brand.

Royal Robbins Performance Clothing

Our Heritage

Mountain Paraphernalia: The Beginnings of Royal Robbins

June 21, 2016
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“This importing business sure is a can of annelids [worms].”

– Royal Robbins

Before they called the company “Royal Robbins”, there was “Mountain Paraphernalia.” In 1968, Royal and Liz Robbins started selling climbing gear under the name Mountain Paraphernalia. A few years later, they added clothing, which they called Mountain Threads. The heavy wool sweaters they imported from the Lake District of England started a long tradition of great Royal Robbins sweaters. By the 1980’s, the company was known as Royal Robbins, as it still is today.

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The Mountain Paraphernalia graphic tee celebrates the original business founded by Royal and Liz Robbins

Royal and Liz married in 1963, and in the late ’60’s, Royal was working as the assistant manager of Liz’s father’s paint store in Modesto, CA. Royal had recently designed one of Galibier’s original rock climbing boots – the RR Yosemite – so he had an in with a major footwear company.

“I was working as assistant manager at the paint store, but I wasn’t too good at it. Luckily, mountaineering at the time was hot in the U.S., so Liz…and I saw selling climbing footwear as a perfect opportunity,” said Royal in the May 1985 issue of Backpacker.

They imported Galibier boots, Edelrid ropes, Ultimate Helmets, Salewa, Peck nuts and pitons, and a host of lesser known products. He was the U.S. distributor for Mountain Magazine and stocked British climbing books.

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Here’s Royal himself chiming in on SuperTopo to share details in 2009.

“Hi, everyone. Tamara alerted me that something was afoot on SuperTopo. I think a history of the business is wonderful. I love seeing those old ads. I don’t remember that we were ever sued for an equipment failure. That happened (I believe) to Yvon Chouinard and he (I understand) started Patagonia as a result. As far as I can remember, we started the clothing business because we were piggy-backing on the great success of Esprit and Doug and Susie Tompkins, who helped us get started. “Mountain Letters” was what we called our publishing and distributing business. I think we expected checks to be made out to “Mountain Paraphernalia”, or, later, to just “Robbins”. We changed the name to “Robbins Mountain Paraphernalia” and later to “Robbins Mountain Gear” to make it easier for our customers to make payments to “Robbins”. Also, there was the name recognition factor. We thought “Robbins” carried more cache (sp?)than “Mountain Paraphernalia”…

“Thanks to all of you for making the past come alive. I am not going to mention specific names for fear of leaving someone out, but you guys and gals are in my heart, so thanks again.

Best,
Royal Robbins”

Shop our heritage graphic tee collection.

tees

Our Heritage

Heritage Month: First Ascent of the Direct NW Face of Half Dome

June 16, 2016
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June is Royal Robbins® Heritage Month. Why? Well, it just so happens that Royal achieved two first ascents of routes on Half Dome in the month of June.

Over five days starting on June 11, 1963, Royal and Dick McCracken made the first ascent of the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome. Nearly six years to the day after Royal’s first ascent of the NW Face of Half Dome, he and McCracken undertook the significantly more imposing Direct route up that iconic rock wall.

Aside from its difficulty, two things set this climb apart:

First, Royal and McCracken wore helmets, a first for them in Yosemite, to protect themselves from casual hikers throwing rocks from the summit.

Second, they made a statement that first ascents should not involved fixed lines by bypassing those of Galen Rowell and Ed Cooper, who were preparing to climb the route.

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Royal’s four Half Dome First Ascent Routes: A – Regular Route (FA 1957) B – Arcturus (FA 1970) C – Direct Route (FA 1963) D – Tis-sa-ack (FA 1969)

We’ll let Royal tell you in his own words, as published in the third volume of his autobiography, Royal Robbins: The Golden Age.

 

“Our line [the Direct Route] starts hundreds of feet to the right of the Regular Route, and goes up the middle of the face to meet the Regular Route 500 feet from the top…Dick and I started on June 11. We wore helmets, a rarity in Yosemite as the rock is so good. But hikers on top of the Dome, not expecting climbers to be on the fact below, might toss off debris.

“It was raining, but…we figured that sometime in the five days we expected to be on the wall, there would be a return to the normally sunny June weather. We began by climbing to and then following an easy chimney up a curving crack. Cooper and Rowell’s tempting fixed lines [left over from an early failed attempt] hung nearby, but we avoided them. We went onto the blank granite and…managed to get above this impasse and reach a ledge about 500 feet up for our first bivouac.

“Somewhere near the bottom [of the second day’s first pitch], I thought I heard Liz’s [Liz Robbins, Royal’s wife] voice calling from the summit. Soon after, lightning struck above us, but I told myself, “That wasn’t Liz you thought you heard. She wouldn’t be on top of Half Dome with clouds about.”

[As it turned out, Liz had in fact be on top of Half Dome and had called down to Royal. She hiked down used the cable system and only just reached the bottom when lightning hit. She was safe, but two other hikers were not so lucky.]

Liz_Halfdome

Liz Robbins descending Half Dome just before lightning strikes. 1963.

“On the third day, we continued up the flake system, meeting the Regular Route coming in from the left at Sandy Ledge. This ledge is about 500 feet from the top, so we ultimately climbed 1,500 feet of virgin rock to reach the line that Jerry Gallows, Mike Sherrick, and I had taken in 1957 [on the historic first ascent of Half Dome’s NW Face]. We then followed the regular northwest face route to the summit.”

 

 

If you’re interested in reading further, you can find Royal’s autobiographies on Amazon.

 

Highly Durable Cotton Canvas Shorts Designed to Withstand the Wear and Tear of Yosemite’s Granite

Our Heritage

Nutcracker: the Birth of Clean Climbing

April 22, 2016
ROBBINS VENTURES UP onto a virgin El Cap, pitch 5, the Salathé Wall, Yosemite Valley, California.  First ascent in 9½ days by Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost, September 1961.

“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 the spring of 1967, Royal and Liz Robbins approached an unclimbed route in the Yosemite Valley armed not with a climber’s traditional protection gear – pitons and bolts – but with removable chockstones, or nuts. Their successful first ascent of this route on Ranger Rock, christened Nutcracker Suite, marked a turning point in climbing – the beginning of the clean climbing revolution. Never before had a major American first ascent been completed using only removable nuts for protection – by climbing clean.

Nutcracker pic

Before 1967, American climbers hammered pitons (metal spikes) directly into the rock to anchor their
protective roping. Generally, climbers would hammer pitons into cracks in the rock, but at times, when those cracks ran out, climbers would drill bolts right into clean rock faces, permanently scarring the natural beauty. Over time, the repeated hammering and removal of pitons into cracks mars and weakens the rock, potentially causing large flakes to fall off.

(This recent LA Times article explains the science behind the sensitivity of Yosemite’s granite)

As Royal described, “Years of placing and removing pitons have worn the cracks [at Tahquitz Rock] so much as to change the routes.”

 

But going beyond the environmental impacts of using pitons, Royal felt that they detracted from the integrity of a climb. In a 1961 letter to Summit Magazine, Royal wrote,” “Generally speaking, bolting is not climbing; it is the elimination of climbing difficulties by the tedious hit-twist method.”

 

Pitons

Royal preparing his pitons and other gear for the second ascent of the Nose of El Capitan (1960). Photo by Tom Frost

 

In the 1950’s, English climbers began using machine nuts for protection. By the 1960’s, starting with John Brailsford, British climbers were manufacturing nuts made from steel, aluminum, and polymers. In 1966, on a climbing trip to Great Britain, Royal caught the clean climbing bug. It had as much to do with adventure and risk-taking as it did with sustainability.

“Rockclimbing is a man’s sport in England [Editor’s note: I think today we would use the term “courageous person”], somewhat like bullfighting…I think we can learn a lot from the British, and I see a place in the U.S. for the concept that placing a lot of pitons is not good style.”

He continued to say that the English “are forced to learn the craft more thoroughly in order to climb safely” while Americans, with their reliance on pitons “bring the climb down to his level with ironmongery.”

When climbing clean, removable nuts must be inserted into pre-existing cracks in the rock, and when those cracks inevitably run out, long unprotected sections of a climb might follow. But as Royal said, “Better we raise our skill than lower the climb.”

 

“Better we raise our skill than lower the climb.”

 

Royal and Liz returned from a second Great Britain trip in the spring of 1967 and headed straight to Yosemite, with a bag full of removable nuts. Nutcracker was the first clean first ascent of a big wall in the United States.

Royal quickly became the most vocal proponent of clean climbing, advocating for the use of chockstones and nuts in a seminal article in the May 1967 edition of Summit Magazine.

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RRNutsToYouSummitMay1967A3 Summit Magazine – May 1967

 

The backlash was swift, focusing on misguided assumptions about the safety hazards of the seemingly minimalist nuts. As Royal’s great climbing partner Chuck Pratt said, “Nuts to you!”

But Royal didn’t hold back on his advocacy. During the Golden Age of big wall climbing in Yosemite, Royal Robbins was known for his, at times, aggressively moralistic viewpoints, which caused disagreements, perhaps most famously with another Yosemite climbing legend, Warren Harding.

Harding’s liberal use of pitons and other artificial aids on the virgin rock face El Capitan’s Dawn Wall during his (and Jim Caldwell’s) first ascent in 1970, caused Royal and Don Lauria to set out a year later to claim the second ascent with the intent of cutting out the bolts left behind by Harding. Ironically, Royal gave up cutting the bolts after the first few pitches, due in part to the difficultly in getting them out, but also after recognizing the sheer difficulty of the climb and the scope of Harding’s achievement.

Royal’s manner may have rubbed some the wrong way, but he started a revolution.

However, it wasn’t until 1972, when the Chouinard Equipment Company (precursor to Patagonia and Black Diamond), founded by one of Royal’s great climbing partners Yvon Chouinard (they were part of a four-man team that claimed the 1964 first ascent of the North American Wall of El Cap), published its first catalog, which featured an article by Doug Robinson.

 

“The Whole Art of Natural Protection” brought clean climbing to the masses. While Royal may have been first, it was Robinson’s article that got the clean climbing boulder rolling. Robinson and Tom Frost, the legendary climber whose photographs (several featured in this post) came to define Yosemite’s Golden Age, went on to design several innovative clean climbing devices.

Royal would go on to write two books, Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft, highlighting clean climbing and other techniques.

Advanced Rockcraft

Basic Rockcraft (1971) and Advanced Rockcraft (1973)

Today, although bolts continue to be used here and there, the average climber never uses a hammer or drill. The safety trade-offs once necessary for clean climbing have been eliminated.

The respect for the natural world, and the integrity of the experience, is widespread, just as the ethos of environmental safekeeping has spread across the world. But in the outdoor industry, sustainability started in the clean climbing revolution, and that started with Royal.

For Royal, climbing was not solely about reaching the summit, but about the style in which one did so. “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.”

 

 

The photograph at the top, titled “ROBBINS VENTURES UP”, shows Royal ascending “a virgin El Cap, pitch 5, the Salathé Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, California.  First ascent in 9½ days by Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Tom Frost, September 1961.” Photograph by Tom Frost, a co-founder of Chouinard Equipment and early designer of clean climbing nuts and other gear.

Shop eco-conscious Royal Robbins styles here.

Royal Robbins eco-conscious clothing

Our Heritage

Royal Robbins in the New Age of Climbing

February 19, 2016
Royal Robbins on the North America Wall, El Capitan 1964

Royal Robbins new age of climbingIn the late 1950’s, the vertical walls of Yosemite Valley were terra incognita, as seemingly remote and inaccessible as the moon. Royal Robbins was part of a new age in climbing, led by a handful of future-legends who shared a whole new way of seeing the Sierra Nevada granite: as one big invitation to climb.

“We need adventure. It’s in our blood. It will not go away. The mountains will continue to call because they uniquely fulfill our need for communion with nature, as well as our hunger for adventure” —Royal Robbins

Our Heritage

Young Royal’s First Glimpse of Yosemite

February 1, 2016
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1952: Young Royal’s first glimpse of Yosemite was on a rock climbing trip with his scout troop. Standing at the base of El Capitan, his response to being told that no one would ever be able to climb it was, “why not?”

“To a 15-year-old, unsuccessful at school and seemingly everything else, this promise of the mountains being the anvil upon which the climber could forge his character was powerful and convincing. I saw my destiny: I would become a climber.” —Royal Robbins

Royal Robbins Yosemite

Our Heritage

A Tribute to Tom Frost & the Golden Age of Climbing

November 6, 2015
(Tom Frost) '64 (NA Wall El Cap)- Big 4 - Frost, Robbins, Pratt, Chouinard

Very few legends have been as present behind the camera as they have in front of it. Tom Frost is one of those legends, notching first ascents of both the Salathé Wall and North American Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite with our own Royal Robbins, along with several others in the Grand Tetons, Canada, and the Himalayas.

In addition to his accomplishments on the wall, Tom is a fervent conservationist and incredible photographer. His 1974 essay on clean climbing is a milestone piece in the history of sustainability in the outdoor industry. His iconic photos of some of the greatest moments in climbing stand alongside Carleton Watkins, Glen Denny, and others in documenting the history of Yosemite.

Our friends Tom Seawell and Jeff Wiant at Flatlander Films recently kicked off an Indiegogo campaign to fund a documentary chronicling Tom’s life and accomplishments. The film will feature luminaries like our founder Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Doug Robinson, and Lynn Hill, alongside today’s greatest climbers Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, and Kai Lightner, a rising star in the climbing world.

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Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt, Royal Robbins

[blockquote source=”Steve Grossman”]”The film is a tribute to the visionary who redefined climbing style, the engineer who helped revolutionize climbing equipment, the artist whose iconic photography documented the most celebrated first ascents on Yosemite’s big walls, and the conservationist who lead the international effort to save historic Camp 4, the traditional home and meeting place for Yosemite climbers.”[/blockquote]

Join us in supporting this incredible adventure at the film’s Indiegogo page.

We are proud to be a small part of this historic project.

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Royal and Tom