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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.

RRNutsToYouSummitMay1967A1

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.

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Royal Robbins eco-conscious clothing

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2 Comments

  • Reply Craig April 22, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    Stephen, thanks for this great article! One thing-you left out Tom Frost, the co-founder of Chouinard Equipment, the photographer of several of these images and the designer/co-designer of many clean climbing devices.

    • Reply Stephen Sherrill April 22, 2016 at 7:44 pm

      Craig – you’re absolutely right! Tom’s contributions to rock climbing are truly incredible. He hit the triple crown of achievement – great climber with numerous big wall first ascents, artist whose iconic photographs defined the Golden Age of climbing, and Stanford-educated engineer who help create the foundations of contemporary climbing equipment. I’ve added some updates to the post. Please tell Tom we say hi!

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