Royal Robbins, one of the country’s legendary rock climbers, died last month at age 82. He made his reputation climbing big walls in Yosemite and influenced the sport’s history with his promotion of climbing ethics.
It so happens that I was reading To Be Brave, the first volume of Robbins’s autobiography, when he passed away at his home in Modesto, California.
Published in 2009, To Be Brave covers his early childhood into his teenage years. Robbins grew up in southern California without a father and started down the path of juvenile delinquency. When he was 12, he and two friends got caught burglarizing homes and spent a few days in a juvenile jail.
Shaken by his arrest, Robbins joined the Boy Scouts—“the best decision of my young life”—and fell in love with the outdoors. The Scouts introduced him to rock climbing.
His first roped climb was on Fin Dome in the Sierra Nevada while on a Boy Scout camping trip. By today’s standards, Fin Dome is not much more than a scramble, but for young Royal, then 14, it was high adventure. He writes that he “clambered like a monkey” up the granite blocks. “The movements came naturally, as if climbing was in my blood. I was at ease with the steepness and the exposure.”
Though bright, Robbins did not do well in school (or with the girls) and sometimes saw himself as a failure. In climbing Fin Dome, he found a calling. “I had learned there was a power within me that I hadn’t dreamt existed, a power to climb,” he says.
Back home in Los Angeles, he bought some primitive gear (including hemp ropes “that had been discarded by trucking companies as worthless”) and read about climbing techniques in books. He tried to interest other boys in climbing. They’d hitchhike to the San Gabriel Mountains and practice on whatever crags they could find. “My climbing partners from [his junior-high school] were game for just one outing,” he recalls. “A mere taste of the experience had been enough for them. After that it was ‘No thanks!’”
When he couldn’t find a partner, he climbed alone. This is always dangerous, but especially for a tyro—even if the tyro is Royal Robbins.
On one of his solo outings in the San Gabriels, Robbins started up a chimney-like feature in a cliff on Mount Williamson. He had a rope, three soft-iron pitons, and one carabiner. For the first few hundred feet, he put in no protective gear. The rope merely trailed behind him. Then he came to a bulge that would force him to leave the safety of the chimney. He hammered one of his pitons into a nearby crack.
“Wanting to save my only carabiner for possible use higher up, I untied the rope from my body, passed the end through the eye of the piton, and tied it back around my waist,” he writes. “Reaching below the piton, I pulled up 30 feet of rope, tied an overhand loop, and clipped it to the rope around my waist with the carabiner. Now I felt much safer. If I fell, the rope running through the piton would hold me.”
Or so the teenage Robbins thought. Unlike modern nylon ropes, however, hemp ropes do not stretch and so are likely to break under a shock load. That’s why early climbers lived by the motto “The leader must not fall.” If Robbins had climbed much above the piton and slipped, the mistake might have been his last. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I realize now that such a fall almost certainly would have broken the rope or pulled the piton out,” he says.
On a later occasion, he did suffer a dangerous fall. After pounding in a piton, he asked his partner to pull the rope taut. “I leaned back, applying my full weight to the peg,” he writes. “It instantly popped out of the crack. Tumbling over backward, I crashed onto the rocks at the base of the cliff.”
Luckily, he only sprained an ankle and broke a wrist. Two weeks later, he hitchhiked back to the crag with his arm in a cast. “I was astonished to see a couple dozen adults with ropes, rugged climbing clothing, and jaunty alpine hats,” he says. “Real climbers!”
They turned out to be members of the Sierra Club’s Rock Climbing Section. Over the next several years, Robbins climbed frequently with the Sierra Club, enabling him to hone his skills without risking his neck. “At last I had discovered true companions in the vertical endeavor,” he writes.
Robbins dropped out of high school, partly out of academic frustration, partly to give himself more time to climb. He would go on to become one of the most famous climbers in the world and, years later, to found the Royal Robbins clothing company. His later adventures are covered in two other volumes, Fail Falling and Golden Age.