Climbing pioneer, inventor, entrepreneur, author, world-class kayaker, wicked old dude that’s punched more time cards on life’s clock than a 6 a.m. line at Starbucks. Talking to these folks unnerves me and stabs my ego with a pitchfork. My excitement seems tempered by a feeling of self-loathing stirred by thoughts of a dull life. I often feel I won’t provide much of a foil for these goliaths of rock climbing, which thankfully I won’t have to since frontrangebouldering.com and ClimbTalk creator, Mike Brooks, and his superhero sidekick Smokey do most of the talking. But I was more eager than usual to ask Royal Robbins (just say it…Royal Robbins…) some questions about his life, since I’d ingested the first volume of his autobiographical opus, “My Life,” the night before.
Curiosity stirred as I opened his book the night before the interview. What kind of self-absorbed turd constructs a seven-story temple of his life and then has the gall to publish it…bit by bit…charging readers dough the whole time? What sort of entitled old curmudgeon would we be talking with?
I finished the book two hours later, with a sigh and sweaty palms. The guy ain’t entitled, nor is he self-absorbed. He lived more life in that first volume than many take to the pine box at the end of our own stories. He spoke openly about the sticky travails that most of us remember not to mention to anyone after they occur. His story riveted me, basically, and I would never, ever, pigeon-hole “To Be Brave” as merely a climbing book. It is a master work of friendly non-fiction, like a fairy tale read by Yoda. I have yet to read a better rock climbing or mountaineering autobiography. I’m sure the money I eagerly part with for the second volume will again raise a bar that Royal once again set himself.
Scared shitless while Mike rung up Royal in the studio, I chewed my Trident and guzzled water, frantically moistening that cotton swab where my tongue used to live. Royal’s rich baritone, friendly cadence, and occasional bewilderment at his own celebrity, however, instantly quelled my sewing machine leg. Hearing Royal talk is like snagging an ascent off life’s tick list. 2,000 feet off the deck in running shoes and laced into a swami belt, of course…
Enjoy an interview with one of our national treasures.
Mike Brooks: Royal Robbins is one of the pioneers of American rock climbing and an early advocate of clean climbing. Royal’s bold Yosemite ascents have set a standard of excellence that is still important today. Royal Robbins, thank you for joining us.
Royal Robbins: Thank you, Mike. You’re very kind with those words.
MB: Now, why do you say that, sir? You know that you’re a legend…
RR: Well, it doesn’t seem like it to me. I’m just doing what I love.
MB: Your new book, “To Be Brave,” is the first part of a seven volume series titled, “My Life.” Why did you choose to write that now?
RR: Well, what else you going to do? Because I’m not actively climbing the big walls these days, I needed something else to take my energies, my creative energies, shall we say. And there’s enough material for seven volumes which are not big ones, but little ones. It’s just a question of whether I can hold out that long!
MB: What is the next in the series going to be about?
RR: The next one in the series will be mainly about climbing, about my youth, and getting into climbing in Southern California, and it finishes with the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome. It’s called, by the way…this was given to me by a friend, because I had used it and he picked up on it, and the name of the book is “Fail Falling.” The message there is – which I describe in the book – that you shouldn’t give up…ever. If you’re going to fail, it’s okay to fail falling, especially if you have enough rope.
MB: Like you mentioned, one of your goals in your new books is to inspire people and to show them what is possible…
RR: That’s true, because that was done for me by my exemplars, and I thought, “Well, payback is a good idea.”
MB: Who were some of your mentors during your early formative years?
RR: Well, my scout masters, Phil Bailey and Al Wilkes. John Salathe, John Muir. John Salathe because of what he did, and John Muir because of what he did and what he wrote. And the writers, in particular, American writers, were Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I got a lot from them and they basically gave me encouragement, so I want to encourage others. And foreign writers, I got a lot from Dostoyevsky, especially his “Brothers Karamazov.” I love that book. I never wanted it to end. He was pretty influential, as was Joseph Conrad, the Pole who learned to write English and learned to write it so well that he became an outstanding English novelist.
MB: I love Conrad, as well. I talked to Pat Ament…
MB: He said your gift to climbing was your genius. And I hope I’m paraphrasing him correctly, and that you had no fear. Is that true?
RR: No. No, I had plenty of it, I think. In fact, I have said and I believe that I wouldn’t want to climb with anyone who wasn’t afraid. I think that fear is useful. I think that sometimes you have to do what is the right thing to do, in spite of being afraid.
MB: Now, that’s getting back to ethics and climbing. What exactly was your initial impetus to be so ethical about your climbing?
RR: I would say that the reason I took the path I did in climbing was, once again, I learned from the people that went before on whose shoulders I stood, reaching up for the next holds. John Salathe and John Muir were outstanding examples, especially Salathe. He always did things the hard way, and so we wanted to do them the same way and never take the easy way out, because it’s good for you to do things that are challenging and hard. You always come out better for it.
MB: That’s probably true. Now, going back to 1964, that was a significant year in your climbing. Tell us what that was like, that year, 1964.
RR: Well, it was a good year. I remember, earlier in ’64…it might have been the autumn; we made a film of climbing the West Face of Sentinel Rock. In October of ’64 we climbed the North America Wall, the Southeast Face of El Capitan. That took us ten days and maybe was the hardest technical rock climb in the world at the time. It no longer occupies that space, of course, but in those days it was. And then in December of 1964 we were invited to the American Alpine Club meeting in Philadelphia. That was heady stuff. There I met John Harlin, and because of that Liz and I, the following year, went to Switzerland, where we ultimately took John’s place as director of sports at the American High School there.
Smokey: Wow, what was that like?
RR: Well, it was a darn good duty. Liz and I had experience teaching skiing, and most of what we taught at the American School, of course, in Switzerland, was skiing. Since school took place mostly during the winter…there’s wonderful skiing in Switzerland. We also taught climbing there, and to some extent soccer, to get the kids ready for skiing.
MB: In your rock crafts books, “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft,” what was the driving force to produce these books?
RR: That’s interesting. The reason I produced those books, was I wanted to…of course, I was in awe of Gaston Rebufat’s books on climbing, which were French and had wonderful pictures in them. I thought, “If you’re going to write a book on American climbing, you have to come up to that standard.” The publisher of La Siesta Press, Walt Wheelock, talked to me and he convinced me to write a couple books for him…or, a book, and then later another one. And later on I could do my magnum opus, so to speak. But the books I did for him were so good and they came naturally because I wasn’t frozen, partly because of what he said. He said, “Well, just write a couple for us.” So, when you’re writing you want to write the truth and I think that’s what I did in those books and they live and they’ve sold pretty well. And I wanted to base my life story on that size book. The first one came out a little bit bigger, but the idea was two smaller books [and they] were pretty good. So, that’s why.
MB: I talked to a few people to prepare for this interview, like Bob Culp, I tried to get a hold of Layton Kor, I talked to Gary Neptune, and I also talked to John Sherman. He had a couple questions he would definitely like me to ask you. One is, at the time, back in the ‘60s, how important was it to you to be “the man” in climbing?
RR: That’s a tough question to answer. As far as I know, I wasn’t. It wasn’t important. It was important to me to do things well and write. To be “the man”? Maybe I was; it never occurred to me.
MB: What I mean by that is, the person that people looked up to for an example; to set the correct example.
RR: Once again, I don’t know. My posturing at that time might lead one to believe that I had an inflated sense of self, I don’t know. I don’t think I did. It’s a long time ago.
MB: Sir, you bring up an interesting question. You said, your “posturing.” Can you elaborate on that?
RR: It’s mainly the way that others perceived me. I might have been perceived as a little bit arrogant. But I don’t think I felt that way, I was just trying hard. It might have come across as arrogance, I’m not certain. That’s what I mean by posturing.
MB: And John Sherman also wanted me to ask you, how did you let Harding beat you up El Cap?
RR: Well, Harding got there first. He actually invited me to join him at one stage when he was about halfway up and I didn’t want to because it was his show. It was his climb. And he’d got there first because we did Half Dome first and I think he thought, “Okay, you guys have Half Dome, I guess I’ll have to do one better.” Half Dome is 2,000 feet high and El Cap is 3,000, and El Cap at the time, we didn’t think it could be done any other way than the way Harding did it. But, we didn’t want to do it that way – that is, using fixed ropes and a lot of time.
MB: So, you didn’t want to use siege tactics like fixed ropes, et cetera. Why, specifically, was that so important to you?
RR: My answer is: You don’t use siege tactics because it ensures success, or so it seemed to us. Now, there are other questions. Going up fixed ropes, they may be chewed through by rats or abraded through by the wind blowing them back and forth across the rock. So, there’s some question about going up fixed ropes. At the time, they seemed to us to mean the same as assured success, and we wanted doubt. We wanted the issue to turn on our efforts and our skill and our spirit.
S: So, tell me about ascending and jumaring. Did you use prusiks? Did you come up with an ascender, is that true?
RR: We didn’t. We used the ascenders; we used prusik knots first on the second ascent of El Capitan we made in seven days. We used prusik knots on that occasion. I can’t remember exactly when jumars were introduced into the Valley, but they came from Germany. They grabbed the rope nicely, just as you could with prusik knots, but they were much faster, and easier to use. So, we gravitated toward them and started using them as soon as they were available.
S: I also wanted to ask you about the ledge. What kind of ledge systems…did you just find ledges to stop on? Were you hanging during the night from sacks? What kind of equipment did you use for initial ledge systems?
RR: At first, in the early 1960s, before the North American Wall, and so forth, we found ledges. They were part of the climb and the idea was that you climbed something that had ledges on it. Later on, with Sentinel Rock, for example, and the Southeast Face of El Capitan, we had to do without ledges. In that case, you used bivouac gear; hammocks or you sat in a belay seat.
MB: It seems from my perspective that you were an earlier [practitioner] of innovative techniques and equipment. Where did that come from? How come you were such an innovator at the time?
RR: I don’t think I thought of myself as an innovator. People like Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost were much more inventive than I was. I got by mainly because I wanted it so badly.
MB: Interesting. Could you summarize the experience of growing up and climbing with Chouinard?
RR: I didn’t grow up with Chouinard. I met him in the San Fernando Valley, the climbing area there. He had quite a reputation at the time. I’ve since climbed with him several times, and really enjoyed the occasions. He’s a very smart guy and very creative. As I said about his company that he has, Patagonia, he has shown a lot of integrity. That is, I think, even stronger than his inventive ability, the fact that he does what he says he’s going to do and he keeps his word and he stays true to his ideals.
MB: Getting back to your equipment company and clothing line, if we can talk about that. What was the impetus to start your gear and clothing line?
RR: Our first essay in our company was importing and distributing mountain climbing equipment and that was something I knew about so I figured that I could do that. At the time, in 1968 when we started it, climbing in the United States was just catching on, so we started out there. And in the mid-1970s, Liz got into designing clothing, and so we became a clothing company. We did this partly by piggy-backing with our friends at Esprit, who built that company into a huge success, and we also got a lot of help from Patagonia on how to get things made off shore.
MB: Mr. Robbins, Dave McAllister would like to ask you a few questions pertaining to your new book.
DM: Royal, getting back to the book. First of all, I was struck by the honesty. It rings true to a life lived on the rock and you hold no punches. Just in the first eight pages, you refer to yourself or allude to yourself as “crazy,” and you often follow that statement or question with “perhaps, perhaps I am.” And then you go on to quote Chesterton, “The adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane.” Do you believe that people who are pushing the envelope on the rock or exceeding their own expectations, does it take a bit of a cavalier attitude to risk or danger, or a bit of craziness?
RR: Well, I use “crazy” there because that, at least back in those days, was the generally accepted view of climbers. “Why do they go out and risk their lives? We don’t understand…they must be crazy.” The reason we do it is because of the rewards we get inside of us. And we don’t really think it’s crazy; we do it because, just as a crazy person does, it seems reasonable to us. But, I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to people who look upon us and say, “They must be crazy.”
DM: Right! And you say at another point in the book that in an imagined monologue with Warren Harding, when you’re soloing the West Face of the Leaning Tower, “We mustn’t take this stuff too seriously.”
RR: Well, I took it seriously. Harding took it less seriously. I think his ideals, in many cases, were right on. I like it.
DM: Also, on that very same ascent, you say that you climbed “in a state of high tension.” Can you talk about that a bit and how that state of high tension led you to success?
RR: I think what I meant was you’re keyed up when you’re on a climb. You’re very alert; very tense, in a certain sense. At the same time you have to be relaxed to be able to make the moves. So, you have to have a lot of self-confidence. Which, when we climbed the face of Half Dome, we made an attempt on that which we didn’t have the self-confidence. We were in awe of this wall rising straight above us 2,000 feet. That, of course, was in 1957. This was after that, and I had more confidence in myself, more faith.
DM: I have one more question that I think is interesting to climbers such as myself and many others who want to manifest the talent that they may not have. You talk in the book how talent didn’t manifest itself in your young life, but rather in dreams. You write that you didn’t understand that perseverance was a gift.
DM: And you talk about resiliency, and toughness, and spunk. I was wondering if you could spend a moment telling us how you think that pluck and perseverance can lead to success on the rock when maybe you aren’t the most talented climber out there, but maybe you have one of the most talented minds.
RR: I think that perseverance can lead to success because if you don’t give up, you just might succeed. Most of the time when we fail at something, it’s because we decide that it isn’t worth the effort, and so we give up. I’m thinking that if you want to succeed and you don’t give up, you persevere and you show pluck and spunk and you hang in there, that the chances increase of your success. They don’t guarantee it, of course.
MB: That’s a good point you made, Mr. Robbins, about saying that perseverance is a gift. I believe that is true, sir. I would like to know, what were some of the scariest climbs you did?
RR: Well, I got so I knew Yosemite pretty well and felt pretty much at home there. But when I climbed in the Alps, for example with John Harlin on the West Face of the Dru, I guess it was 1965, it was scary. A rock came from far above, just missed me; it hit my partner in the leg, because he was sitting belaying me, protecting me with the rope. At one point we climbed up something that I thought…I described it later and said it was like “climbing on crockery, and the whole thing will come down in one enormous rock fall one day.” Well, unfortunately, I was right about that. It did come down. In fact, there was a picture of the rock fall in one of the climbing magazines a while back. That route has in effect disappeared, but at the time it was scary. I am very impressed with the danger in the Alps and the danger in the high mountains.
MB: You have a strong Colorado connection with people like Layton Kor and Pat Ament. What did you learn from the Coloradoans?
RR: What I learned from Layton Kor was how to go fast. I’ve climbed with him and mainly you try to keep up with him. Pat Ament is just a very, very creative and wonderful character; a friend – a good friend – who’s very creative and liable to do almost anything. Climbing was just one of the many things he did. He played chess and wrote songs and poetry and he’s a good writer. So, I don’t know that I learned about climbing by coming to Colorado, but Colorado has some of the best rock and some of the best weather of anywhere. We have that in California, too, but Colorado has that in spades. You got rock around Boulder, from Eldorado Canyon to the Flatirons, of course, and Boulder Canyon. And you’re not very far from the high peaks, so good for you! I can’t wait to get back there, it’s a wonderful place. You’re lucky to live there.
MB: Thank you, sir. You did the first free ascent of the “Yellow Spur” with Pat Ament. Tell us about that experience.
RR: I mainly remember that the weather was so good. We had a beautiful, perfect day. It was good climbing with Pat because I could always rely on him to overcome the hardest parts.
MB: What?? How interesting. And you also climbed “The Final Exam” and “Athlete’s Feet” on Castle Rock. Those are great climbs, by the way. Tell us about those climbs.
RR: Thank you. Once again, I was pointed at them by Pat. Well, he was responsible for my getting up a lot of things in the Boulder area.
MB: Do you remember those ascents? I know it’s been awhile…could you tell us about the experience?
RR: I remember we climbed the gully, which is over there near “The Final Exam.” And “Athlete’s Feet,” all I remember there was the difficulty of the mantle onto a kind of shelf and using aid up higher when it got into this crack climbing.
MB: I’ve read Pat Ament’s book called “The Spirit of the Ages.” In that book it talks about that you would climb in sort of a tennis shoe instead of climbing shoe. Why did you choose that?
RR: I climbed in Tretorn tennis shoes, which is a Swiss tennis shoe, because they were comfortable and they stuck so well to the rock. The combination just attracted me and so I used them a lot. I guess, in a way, they were the precursors of the modern climbing shoe.
MB: Now, is it true that during all your arduous, cool ascents you did in the early days of the Valley, you guys wore swami belts?
RR: When we first started in the Valley we just tied the rope around our waists and then swami belts were a big, logical step forward. We didn’t think of harnesses, and so forth. They were too complicated. The nice thing about swami belts is you tied the rope directly to your – instead of around your waist – to the swami belt, which went around your waist. It was generally made of one inch to three inch nylon webbing, and the nice thing about that was it gave you extra rope. Well, maybe only five or ten feet of extra rope, but it was enough, at times, when you were straining to get to the end of the pitch…to have that extra rope it was very nice.
MB: I see. What are some of your most joyous climbing moments that you remember?
RR: I would say joyous climbing moments [were] more experienced in places like Tahquitz Rock in Southern California and Tuolumne Meadows of Yosemite. You have wonderful free climbing and good weather. And you don’t have to knock a lot of pitons and struggle up cracks. You climb on holds that are there and it’s generally speaking less strenuous and more demanding.
MB: On the cover of “Advanced Rockcraft,” it seems like the gentleman climbing is climbing a slab, and it looks like its top roped. Is that true?
RR: I think that’s right…I’d have to get it out to see it. But, the gentleman climbing is myself, of course. I think the picture was taken at one of our “Rockcraft” classes, and I think I have a top rope there.
MB: So, I couldn’t imagine you top roping, and that begs the question: Do you climb indoors?
RR: I climb indoors now. I wish I had invented indoor climbing; I would have loved to have done so but I didn’t know how to get holds to stick the way they get them to stick these days. I just didn’t know how, otherwise I would have done it. We have a climbing gym here in Modesto, and I climb there. It’s called Stonehenge. I climb down there a lot, sometimes three times a week.
MB: Modesto, California, that’s where your son Damon has a “Camp Four Wine Café,” is that true?
RR: That’s true. He has a wine café; we go there often [to] eat and to have a glass of wine and it’s named after… Well, we spent so much time in the climber’s camp in Yosemite Valley, camp four…
S: So, you mentioned earlier about teaching skiing in Switzerland and that may be where you picked up those shoes, but what I’m interested in is, what’s it like to be an educator?
RR: What I like about teaching climbing is the look of joy and “oh boy, I discovered something” in the eyes of the people that I’m imparting this knowledge to. I love the fact that they are discovering something that they didn’t know existed. And when you see that in other’s eyes and you know you’re responsible for it, then it gives you a good feeling.
MB: Now, Mr. Robbins, are you still climbing and if so, what are some of your local favorites?
RR: I’m still climbing, but not at the level I was. These days I concentrate on what I call “classic moderates.” That means 5.6/5.7 difficulty, and down at the climbing gym I try to stick to those numbers. When I go out and climb, it’s a little easier because it’s less steep than the climbing gym. You use smaller holds, that’s true, but that’s a matter of experience as opposed to strength.
DM: You were talking about teaching. I know Boy Scouts was a large part of your life, so can you talk about how the Scouts affected you, and your standing relationship with them?
RR: That’s a long time ago, but I owe the Scouts a debt of gratitude because they turned me around. I wanted something, and they got me out of the streets of Los Angeles and into the out-of-doors, into the mountains, into that good stuff. They got me into climbing, so I owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. These days I go out with the Scouts and teach climbing to some extent, and usually it’s several times a year. And I’m a member of the Greater Yosemite Council, which is the Boy Scouts group here in Modesto.
MB: You’ve been listening to Royal Robbins. Royal Robbins is one of the pioneers of American rock climbing and has a new autobiography out called, “To Be Brave”, which is the first of a seven volume series titled, “My Life.” For frontrangebouldering.com and ClimbTalk on KVCU, I’m Mike Brooks.
RR: Thanks, Mike.