Our Heritage TimelineThe Royal Robbins Story
1952 YOUNG ROYAL
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
LATE 1950s DRAWN TO YOSEMITE
In the late 1950s, 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 it. “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
1957 NORTHWEST FACE OF HALF DOME
In the summer of 1957, Royal, Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick made the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, CA.
1960 THE MYSTIQUE OF THE VERTICAL WORLD
Watchers in the meadow. The golden age of climbing had begun.
1960s CAMP 4
“Camp 4 was situated on the north side of the road just across from Yosemite Lodge. It is, and always was, a scruffy place. That’s one of the reasons we liked it so much: it wasn’t neat and orderly like other campgrounds in the Valley. When we first went there, in the early 1950’s, it was already the climbers’ camp, a spot dotted with large boulders and with campsites in irregular places. I guess the Park Service thought it was good enough for climbers. They were right. “We spent a lot of time in Camp 4, talking about literature, philosophy, girls, life in general, and of course, our next climb.” — Royal Robbins
1960 THE NOSE PREPARATIONS
preparations for what would be the first continuous climb, and second ascent, of the massive Nose, on El Capitan. Most of the pitons seen here were handmade by Yvonne Chouinard, and were specially designed to be used and removed without harm to the rock. On this legendary climb, some of them would be placed 30 times. Not one was left behind. Royal was an early proponent of clean climbing, using hardware that protected the climber, without sacrificing the integrity of the rock. “We are made to be part of nature. Our connection to that world is our connection to sanity.” — Royal Robbins
1960 ROYAL AND LIZ
“Initially Royal Robbins reminded me of a Berkeley professor. After climbing with him on Cathedral Peak, I realized this aloof, quiet, contemplative demeanor concealed intensity and passion. Royal required unproven feats of his imagination, spiritual and physical tests not yet dreamed of – a need that would drive him to make ascents other people couldn’t comprehend. Climbing was new to me, but the integrity underlying Royal’s pursuits was something I knew I could rely upon in any circumstance. To the bewilderment of my family and friends back home, I adopted his eccentric-seeming way of life”. —Liz Robbins
1961 THE SALATHÉ WALL
Royal, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt attempt the first ascent of the iconic Salathé Wall, El Capitan, at the time considered the most difficult big wall grade 6 climb in the world. “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
1961 EL CAP SPIRE
“Half way up the Salathé Wall we discovered the ledge El Cap Spire, the most spectacular any of us had seen. As I followed Chuck’s lead, Royal reposed atop the Spire, waiting, before resuming the hauling of our supplies. We were amazed by the elegance and natural beauty of this place, and the accommodation to climbers traveling through that it represents. In fact, the whole route felt like the Creator made it just for traditional climbers who would feel the love and fall in love in return. It also felt like a world class route. To me (this picture) communicates attributes peculiar to big wall climbing, namely, the just being up there, and the extended partnership with Earth and Sky. Experience suggests that these associations connect us with our roots, with ourselves, with the Whole. No wonder big wall climbs are transformational.” – Tom Frost
1961 EL CAP SUMMIT
“We finished the climb in magnificent weather, surely the finest and most exhilaratingly beautiful Sierra day we had ever seen. The air was cool, but the direct sunlight was warm and friendly. All the high country was white with new snow and two or three inches had fallen along the rim of the Valley, on Half Dome, and on Clouds Rest. One could see for great distances and each peak was sharply etched against a dark blue sky. We were feeling spiritually very rich indeed as we hiked down through the grand Sierra forests to the Valley”. – Royal Robbins
1962 AMERICAN DIRECT, AIGUILLE DU DRU, MONT BLANC RANGE, FRANCE
From July 24-26, 1962, Royal Robbins and Gary Hemming, made the first ascent of the American Direct route of the Aiguille du Dru, in the Mont Blanc Range in France. “The finest route [I’d] made under alpine conditions.” – Royal Robbins
1963 DIRECT NORTHWEST FACE OF HALF DOME, YOSEMITE, CA, USA
Richard (Dick) McCraken, who Royal climbed Yosemite’s Far West Face of Rixon’s Pinnacle with in 1963, was to become an important figure in Royal’s climbing and joined Royal for a new idea: a two thousand-foot line on the open expanse of unclimbed wall to the right of the Northwest Face route on Half Dome. This would be the “Direct” Northwest Face. 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 Royal Robbins Spirit of the Age by Pat Ament]
1964 THE NORTH AMERICA WALL, EL CAPITAN
On October 22, 1964 in the midst of an Indian summer, Royal Robbins and his strong crew of Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard could not wait any longer as to climb the North America Wall of El Capitan. Storms would be coming with November, so it was time to tackle the wall. You can read Royal’s account of the climb in Rock and Ice. Pictured here: Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard on the El Capitan summit, ten days after leaving Yosemite Valley floor. “The big four – Robbins, Pratt, Frost, and Chouinard – together seemed to exert a very strong moral force, Pratt silent and brilliant, Frost cheerful, humble,and friendly, Chouinard impish, quite sharp and critical yet skillful, a great trend-setter, and Robbins an almost Buddha-like presence, a supreme dignity tinged with courage to say and do controversial things, a sort of moral leadership in both words as well as deeds. There is little doubt that without the core of Yosemite activists in the early 1960s… America would have been a far less ethical place, climbing-wise, in the last thirty years.” —Ken Wilson
1964 BIVY IN THE BLACK CAVE
Scaling the North American wall, El Capitan, Royal with Yvonne Chouinard, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt. “The North America Wall was the climb of our lives. More difficult and more serious than anything we knew. It all came together for us here.” – Royal Robbins
In the mid-1960s, Royal had been asked to come to Switzerland to teach. Lured by some of the biggest unclimbed walls in the world, and the opportunity to ski, Liz and Royal spent two years in the Alps. When they returned to California, they brought their friends a slew of excellent climbing gear unavailable in the States. This was the early beginning of what would become Royal Robbins the company.
1967 CLOTHING COMPANY INSPIRATION
“When we got to the top of Half Dome, a tourist took our camera and agreed to take a photo of us as we stood there. When we looked at that picture, we said, maybe we’d better get in the clothing business.” – Liz Robbins
Royal was one of the first and most vocal proponents of clean climbing: using removable nuts for protection rather than pounding pitons into the granite cracks. This practice, along with a very sparing use of bolts, minimized damage to the rock. In 1967 he and Liz made a first ascent using this new technique which was revolutionary in the U.S. at the time. Royal named the new route Nutcracker, a classic to this day. It marked an important evolution in climbing: clean.
1967 FIRST FEMALE ASCENT OF HALF DOME
Liz Robbins was the first woman to ascend the face of Half Dome, and the first woman to ascend a grade 6 climb anywhere in the world. “On the tenth year anniversary of Royal’s first ascent of Half Dome he surprised me. It wasn’t something we had talked about … By saying, “Let’s go climb Half Dome together,” and I said, really? and he said, sure! So we went up and we climbed it.” – Liz Robbins
1967 THE RR YOSEMITE BOOT
The venerable French boot company Galibier asked Royal Robbins to design a new climbing boot. The RR Yosemite became an instant classic.
1968 SECOND ASCENT AND FIRST SOLO, EL CAPITAN, YOSEMITE, CA, USA
Liz and Royal top of El Capitan after Royal’s first solo.
1968 MOUNTAIN PARAPHERNALIA: THE BEGINNINGS OF ROYAL ROBBINS
“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. 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. 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”
1969 TIS-SA-ACK, HALF DOME, YOSEMITE, CA, USA
Photo taken (by Glen Denny) after Royal and Don Peterson’s 1969 first ascent of the Tis-sa-ack route on Half Dome, the fourth major route on Half Dome. Half Dome was originally called “Tis-sa-ack”, meaning Cleft Rock in the language of the local Ahwahnechee people.
1969 FIRST ASCENT OF MT. NEVERMORE & MT. JEFFERS, ALASKA
On an excursion to the Cathedral Spires in the Kichatna Mountains of Alaska, Royal, Joe Fitschen, and Charles Raymond were the first to climb two formidable peaks, which they named Mt. Nevermore and Mt. Jeffers.
1971 SWEATER CRAFT
Liz in the Lake District of England, working with ranching families to bring wool sweaters to the U.S. The rugged, sturdy sweaters she brought home were the start to a 45 year tradition of Royal Robbins sweater craft. . . . 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 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. 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.
1979 THE BLUEWATER® SHORT
Liz and Royal weren’t really looking to start a business. They just wanted to fill a need. So Liz sewed a pair of shorts that worked and looked great. They moved, and they held up to the tough Yosemite granite. She called them the Billy Goat Short, and quickly followed up with the Bluewater® Short. Both were in high demand, and remain best selling products today.
1980 ROYAL ROBBINS COMPANY CULTURE
The team grew organically, and was organized around Royal’s belief that a healthy company meant healthy people. Parties, sunrise hikes, trips and celebrations were a natural part of their lives together. “I wanted to be remembered for the leadership of my company in a joyful way. People had fun.” — Royal Robbins
1982 COMPANY NAME CHANGED TO ROYAL ROBBINS
In 1981, Liz added shirts to her designs. Whereas Liz had been criticized on occasion for being content to go second on the rope behind the master, she now was visibly in the pilot’s role and was, according to Royal, “the leading spirit of the business.” The name of the business was changed from Mountain Paraphernalia to “Royal Robbins” in 1982. Royal was reluctant to use his name because “it might lead in the direction of a big head.” But his name was well known. By using it, the business would be given “a personality” – particularly in terms of marketing clothing. Royal also realized, with a sense of increased responsibility, that it would show his customers that he stood behind his products. The goal was to measure each design to the specifications of quality, comfort, durability, and a look that had a sense of the earth and a sense of the values of Liz and Royal Robbins.
1983 WORLD CLASS KAYAKER
Royal recognized kayaking as a frontier nearly equal to the unclimbed Yosemite walls of the ’50s. As in climbing, he found himself a bit obsessed: studying maps, determining with a calculator the vertical drop per mile of a river, and planning helicopter approaches to difficult put-ins. Adventure was, and had been for a long time, his way of life. Queried as to whether adventure kayaking meant as much to him as climbing, Royal replied “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.” – Excerpted from Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age
1990 THE ROYAL LEGACY
Our annual company trip to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, an epic Royal Robbins team trip in the late 1990s. “We played as hard as we worked.” – Michael Millenacker, Director of Sales and Marketing 1995 and CEO as of 2015