Remembering Royal Robbins

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A brush with a legend who defined what it means to be a climber

As a rock climber who grew up in Ohio, I didn't really get to climb a ton of rock, especially in the pre-gym era, but I took a few trips a year to West Virginia to visit Seneca Rocks or The New. Sparse but character-defining.

I spent the rest of my time reading the mags about the latest eye-popping achievements—or books like Beyond Risk: Conversations With Climbers, a collection of interviews with climbing royalty like Hillary, Lowe, and Messner. I was most captivated by the brash Yosemite climbers, particularly Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. What they did was truly exploratory, and their rivalry highlighted that vastly different personal styles could both find a home in climbing.

I was a teenager, so of course I identified with the wine-swilling Harding more, but then one Christmas, amid the CDs and Doc Martins, I unwrapped a present from my Aunt Connie that actually lasted: Royal Robbins' Rockcraft books, which she found in a Bay Area bookstore. They presented some practical advice (just some—pitoncraft and jammed knots were not in my purview, though they were the only climbing technique guides when they were first published), but the opening lines to Basic Rockcraft struck a chord.

From a used bookstore in San Francisco | Photo: Shannon Davis

What is Rockclimbing?
A boy clambers barefoot up a tree. He does it for the pure joy of climbing; 'why' doesn't matter. It is exciting. New. There is a bit of danger. The thrill of adventure in going somewhere he has never been. He might do the same thing on a building or on an easy, rock cliff. And from this raw beginning springs a desire to venture onto steeper walls, smoother ones.

When I read that, I knew on a basic level I was a climber. Having that idea–that climbing for the pure joy of it is all that matters–put forth by the godfather of modern rock climbing has made all the difference, for me, an average climber at best.

Royal leading the third pitch of El Capitan's Salathé Wall | Photo: Tom Frost, Wiki Commons

Years later when I was hired as the Editor-in-Chief of Climbing magazine, I promptly got a dispatch from an assistant of Royal's asking me to contact him, I was stoked to talk to one of my heroes.

Here's a transcript of our chat, which ran in the February 2013 issue of Climbing. Do yourself and your partner and your family and friends the biggest favor, and let his last line sink in....

***

"Royal would like you to ring him," the email read. "You may call at your convenience." Looks like I'd just been summoned by Royal Robbins, one of the most influential rock climbers in American history, a guy who defined the heyday of Yosemite climbing and set the foundation for modern free climbing. Growing up in the Midwest, I'd been enamored by stories and interviews of Robbins (and his iconoclastic match Warren Harding). Even though this mysterious email was certainly about Robbin's Proust-sized memoir project—at the time, a proposed seven-book series!—I was psyched to call. I wondered what he'd think of todays biggest climbing feats.

SD: So, your middle name is pretty sweet.
RR: Haha. Yes, Shannon. My middle name is Shannon.

Do you keep up with current climbing news, particularly some of the accomplishments in Yosemite this past year?
Truth of the matter is that I try to ignore it, but it's impossible with what's going on up there. It was a very impressive year—today's climbers have no right to do such outlandish things! I wish I had done them myself, and that's the ultimate compliment.

[ed. note: Yosemite had a big 2012. Among the highlights: Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold linked the South Face of Mt. Watkins, Free Rider on El Capitan, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in 21 hours, 15 minutes, free-climbing all 70 pitches (up to 5.13); Honnold then proceeded to solo all three routes in 19 hours and later team up with Hans Florine to claim the speed record for the Nose of El Capitan in a blazing 2 hours, 23 minutes, 15 seconds; Hazel Findlay put up the second free ascent of Pre-Muir (5.13c/d, 30+ pitches) on El Cap; and Mikey Schaefer completed Father Time, a 200-foot 5.13 on Middle Cathedral after 60 days of work over two years.]

Royal Robbins on first ascent of Salathé Wall, El Capitan | Photo: Tom Frost, Wiki Commons

We just gave Alex Honnold a Golden Piton Award for his big wall prowess. What do you think of his free solos?
Alex is a fine young man, but I can't say I'm happy about it. There's no way one can be sure of sticking to the rock.

Would you give it a shot if you were in your prime in the Valley today?
I'd attempt Half Dome—there's something to hold on to there, but El Cap? I don't know. I'd try to be in the running, though, for sure. But I might be outclassed!

If we were going climbing right now, anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Without question, Tuolumne Meadows. For quality climbing combined with amazing scenery, there is no competition. Anywhere.

What gear that didn't exist in your day would you be most excited about now?
Sticky rubber! You are lucky today.

How should climbers get the most out of every climb?
Same way we always have. Be safe. That's the best way to climb for as long as possible.

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