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The First Ascents of Royal Robbins

February 26, 2017
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The first ascent is a magical exploration. Whether it’s a big wall or a bouldering problem, it takes imagination, vision and a desire to go where no one has gone before. It requires a belief in the possibility of the undone, that the until now impossible is possible.

Today, with climbing growing in popularity, first ascents are a product of discovery and skill, as many of the iconic routes have been claimed. First ascents today often come from difficult to reach areas or impossibly technical or otherwise difficult routes (the 2011 first ascent of the Shark’s Fin of Meru by Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk comes to mind).

In the 1950’s, as Royal Robbins and his compatriots descended on Camp 4 to usher in the Golden Age of Yosemite, Big Wall climbing was in its infancy. The sheer mystery of what would happen up there on the wall ranked alongside the great explorations of mankind – Shackleton in Antarctica, Mallory on Everest, or even Armstrong on the moon. It was a combination of skill, tenacity and courage.

When you’re first as many times as he was, Royal turns out to be an appropriate name. He learned to climb in the San Fernando Valley near his childhood home in Los Angeles, and then brought his skills to the next level at the iconic Tahquitz Rock in the San Jacinto Mountains southeast of LA. In 1952, he made the first free ascent of Open Book, at that time considered the hardest rock climb in the country.

Soon thereafter, he turned his attention to Yosemite. While he’s most known for his exploits there like the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome to the the first solo ascent of El Capitan, his resume is far longer than that.

Here are some of our favorite first ascents:

  • 1957: first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, USA. This was the first grade VI climb in America. With Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas.
  • 1960 The Nose, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, USA. Second ascent. Royal’s rival (and friend, don’t believe everything you see in the movies) Warren Harding beat him to it, making the first ascent in 45 days over an 18 month period. Royal did it in 7 days with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost.
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Celebrating the 2nd ascent of The Nose of El Capitan. Royal’s pants are having some fit issues.

1961 Salathé Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, USA.

This was considered the hardest big wall grade VI climb in world at time. With Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt.[2]

“Climbing as we know it would not exist without Royal Robbins. The way we move, behave, and even think, even 30 years after his Yosemite reign, shaped by Robbins. His competitive drive was the impetus for Yosemite ’s Golden Age, a period of such progress that it may never be matched. Robbins’ laundry list of firsts stretches around the globe, but most remarkable is the Salathé Wall in 1961, a serpentine, natural line that he, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt pioneered in semi-alpine style with just 13 bolts – a hole count that remains El Cap’s lowest.”—Duane Raleigh

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Royal on the 1961 first ascent of the Salathé Wall. Photo by Tom Frost

 

“The finest route [I’d] made under alpine conditions.”

– Royal Robbins

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The Aiguille du Dru in the Mont Blanc Range of France

1963 Direct NW Face of Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, USA. With Dick McCracken.

Two other climbers – Ed Cooper, from Washington, and Californian Galen Rowell – had begun fixing ropes on this very route. As Royal felt, they were attempting to bring back the expeditionary themes that climbers had wished to transcend.

June 11, 1963, when Cooper and Rowell were taking a break from their efforts, Royal and McCracken rather impolitely stepped in and began their own attempt of the route. They did not care how Cooper and Rowell might respond. – Excerpted from Pat Ament’s Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age

  • 1963 Robbins Route, Mount Proboscis, Logan Mountains, NWT, Canada. With Jim McCarthy, Layton Kor and Dick McCracken.
  • 1963 West Face, Leaning Tower, Yosemite, CA, USA. Second ascent and Yosemite’s first wall done solo (Grade V).

1964 North America Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, USA.

With Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard. Royal’s classic account in Rock and Ice tells it better than we ever can.

The Big 4 - Frost, Robbins, Pratt, Chouinard - atop El Capitan's North America Wall.

The Big 4 – Frost, Robbins, Pratt, Chouinard – atop El Capitan’s North America Wall. Photo by Tom Frost.

 

  • 1964 North Face, Mount Hooker, Wind River Range, Wyoming, USA. With Dick McCracken and Charlie Raymond.
  • 1964 Danse Macabre, Devils Tower, Wyoming, USA. With Peter Robinson.

The Park Service required Royal to wear a hardhat on this first ascent, God forbid, instead of his trademark white cap. In fact, Royal would later write that “helmets are a bother.” In the intervening years, we’ve decided to put up with that nuisance.

  • 1964 Final Exam, Castle Rock, Boulder, CO, USA. With Pat Ament.
  • 1964 Athlete’s Feat, Castle Rock, Boulder, CO, USA. First free ascent with Pat Ament.
  • 1965 American Direttissima, Aiguille du Dru, Mont Blanc Range, France. With John Harlin.

1967 Nutcracker, Yosemite, CA, USA.

With Liz Robbins. Now a Yosemite classic, this was the first major all-nut protected first ascent in the United States, marking the birth of “clean climbing” in this country (later popularized in Doug Robinson’s seminal 1972 article The Whole Art of Natural Protection published in the Chouinard Equipment Catalogue).

  • 1967 West Face, El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, CA, USA. First ascent with TM Herbert.
  • 1967 North Face, Mount Geikie, Canadian Rockies. First ascent with John Hudson.
  • 1967 North Face, Mount Edith Cavell, Canadian Rockies. First solo ascent.
  • 1968 Muir Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, USA. First Grade VI solo first solo of El Capitan.
  • 1969 Mount Jeffers and Mt. Nevermore, Cathedral Spires, Kichatna Mountains, Alaska, USA. With Joe Fitschen and Charles Raymond.
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Victory!

 

  • 1969 The Prow, Washington Column, Yosemite, CA, USA. With Glen Denny.
  • 1969 Tis-sa-ack, Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, USA. With Don Peterson.
  • 1970 Arcturus, Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, USA. With Dick Dorworth.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Cap Munday March 16, 2017 at 2:05 am

    I met Royal in Camp 4 in 1964 as a marginal climber with great respect for he and his cohort. I am so saddened by his passing. His death reminds me of my secrete imagining that his accomplishments could be repeated by me. HA. What an icon! I am so glad I was able to share just a little tweak of it. Rodger Derryberry, Kurt Kupper, Sheridan Anderson, and others who I knew well come to mind. All of us revered Royal.

  • Leave a Reply to Cap Munday Cancel Reply