A few weeks ago, I wrote about the early life of Royal Robbins, the legendary American rock climber who died last month. At the time of his death, I had been reading To Be Brave, the first volume of his autobiography. It ends when Robbins is still a teenager.
His second volume, Fail Falling, covers the years 1950 through 1957, when Robbins emerges from a somewhat troubled adolescence to become one of the most celebrated climbers in the country.
Robbins started climbing seriously and perfecting his art with fellow climbers from the Sierra Club in southern California. Most were older and more experienced, but he soon proved himself to be the equal of any of them.
He really made his mark in 1952 when, still just 17, he and Don Wilson climbed Open Book on Tahquitz Rock. Robbins led the hardest pitches. It was such an intimidating route that it had not been repeated since its first ascent five years earlier, by John Mendenhall and Harry Sutherland.
Not only did Robbins and Wilson climb the route (in tennis shoes), but they did so without aid—that is without standing in slings or resting on the rope. They used the climbing rope and pitons only for protection in case of a fall, but they never fell. In the sport’s parlance, this is known as free climbing as opposed to aid climbing.
It is often said that that Robbins and Wilson’s feat broke new ground as the hardest free climb in the country. Open Book is rated 5.9 on the Yosemite Decimal System scale. By today’s standards, it’s still a fairly tough route, but much harder ones have been done. Evidently, Mendenhall and Sutherland used aid during the first ascent, though perhaps not on the difficult first pitch.
“For many years my free ascent of the first pitch of the Open Book was considered to be the original 5.9 at Tahquitz,” Robbins writes. “Recently it has been said that John Mendenhall climbed that pitch free on the first ascent in 1947. By 1952 he had become one of my heroes. Now my admiration for him is all the greater.”
Incidentally, Robbins, Wilson, and Chuck Wilts came up with the Yosemite Decimal System for rating climbs in 1953, basing it on an earlier system developed by the Sierra Club. The earlier system divided outings into six categories: class 1 (walking), class 2 (rough walking off trail), class 3 (scrambling with hands and feet), class 4 (rope needed), class 5 (pitons and rope needed), and class 6 (aid climbing).
Free climbs fall in fifth class and vary widely in difficulty. The shortcoming of the Sierra Club system was that it failed to differentiate between easy and hard climbs.
“We solved the problem by placing a decimal point after the first number followed by a second number indicating the actual level of technical difficulty,” Robbins writes. Thus, the first Yosemite scale ranged from 5.0 (very easy) to 5.9 (then extremely hard). Today’s scale ranges up to 5.15.
I’ve read elsewhere that the original scale was based on ten climbs at Tahquitz. However, a Sierra Club newsletter (Mugelnoos, August 13, 1953) that introduced the new system contained a chart showing that the club rated all of the climbs at Tahquitz Rock. At the time, there were 27 fifth-class climbs. The only other 5.9 was The Innominate. This, too, had been first free-climbed by Robbins.
“This new way of classifying climbs caught on in Yosemite Valley and made its way across the United States as the Yosemite Decimal System, but it was born at Tahquitz Rock,” Robbins says.
As he improved, Robbins started to regard the older climbers in the Sierra Club as overly cautious and gained a reputation as a risk-taker. One time, an older guy chastised him for failing to clip the rope to a protection bolt on a short climb at Joshua Tree in California.
“You better clip in,” he said. “You never know. You might get vertigo.”
“What?” I almost laughed. “After 3,000 feet of exposure on the Lost Arrow [at Yosemite]? It’s not a problem.” I started to move up.
“Clip into that bolt!” he shouted, as if he were a drill sergeant.
Robbins did as he was told, but after the man walked away, he unclipped from the bolt and continued climbing.
“Once again I had broken the rules,” Robbins writes. “The old school thought the same standards should be applied to everyone, but it just wasn’t true. People had different abilities: some could climb confidently where others would fail. I knew when I was close to falling. I knew when I needed protection. I would let my instincts be my guide.”
In 1957, then 22, Robbins gained lasting fame by taking part in the first ascent of Half Dome, the iconic cliff at Yosemite. His partners on the epic climb, which took five days, were Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick. Among the gear and other stuff they hauled up the 2,000-foot rock face were three climbing ropes, two rappel ropes, two haul lines, 45 pitons, 25 bolts, hammers, hand drill, 13½ quarts of water, and all their food.
The classic route is known as the Regular Northwest Face Route. Rated 5.12, it consists of 23 pitches. Although the route is well known today, Robbins and his partners weren’t sure they’d find a way to the top. When they encountered blank sections of wall, they drilled holes in the granite and inserted expansion bolts. Hammering the drill was tiring and tedious. On one pitch, Gallwas pounded away for five hours to place seven bolts.
In a celebrated maneuver, Robbins avoided one blank section by running across the vertical rock to reach a ledge, swinging on the taut rope “like a pendulum on a clock.” He tried it several times in vain. “I realized that the success of our venture was at stake,” Robbins writes. “I had to make it, so my next effort was all out. In a fury I raced back and forth, legs churning. At the end of the arc my hands reached out and clutched the ledge.”
Mind you, they were hundreds of feet above the ground.
After a few more days of difficult climbing, they were not far from the top, but they didn’t know what to expect. Would the rock be climbable? If not, could they retreat? Gallwas was leading. “The suspense became acute,” Robbins writes. “What would he find?”
“I looked down at the way we had come up. I really didn’t want to go back down there,” Robbins says.
“As Jerry moved up moved up, I noticed that, more and more, he was leaning out, searching the wall to his left. Suddenly, he shouted, ‘A ledge!’ There’s a ledge! An amazing ledge.’”
Today this long, narrow shelf is known as the Thank God Ledge. The first party shuffled and crawled along it to reach some cracks, which they then climbed. After a few more pitches, they were at the top.
Greeting them with water and sandwiches was Warren Harding, a rival of Robbins. In the years ahead, the two would clash over climbing styles. Harding often would lay siege to a cliff over weeks, months, even years, rappelling in between assaults and leaving ropes in place. Robbins championed a “purer style,” climbing a cliff in a single, prolonged push. Harding gained fame in 1958 by leading the first ascent of El Capitan, a bigger cliff than Half Dome.
But El Cap was still in the future. Half Dome was the big news of 1957.
“We thought we had conquered the world,” Robbins writes. “I was proud of what we had done, but still restless and unsatisfied. Whitman’s words resonated: ‘Out of every fruition of success, no matter what, comes forth something to make a new effort necessary.’”
Robbins would go on to do more difficult climbs, described in his third volume, The Golden Age. In the decades since, other climbers have accomplished things that even Robbins could not have imagined. In 2008, for example, Alex Honnold climbed Half Dome solo. No ropes, no protection; just a chalk bag, some water, and a few energy bars. His time: two hours, fifty minutes.