To call Royal Robbins a rock climber is to call Picasso a painter; is Babe Ruth just a hitter? Steph Curry a good passer? Robbins changed the way people thought of rock climbing; changed the way they climbed, changed even their perception of nature. He changed his world.
Robbins not only made rock climbing safer, he helped eradicate practices that marred the “temple.” He died Tuesday in Modesto; he was 82.
Many of Modesto’s most famous began their lives here but achieved glory elsewhere. Not Robbins. Born in West Virginia, raised in L.A., he found his passion in Yosemite. But much of his adult life was spent making the world better from his home base – Modesto.
Bee stories featured him often and not all were about climbing. He was active in Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club and he created an enormously successful business. He encouraged those who worked for him and those who knew of his fame and those who didn’t. Into his 70s, Robbins worked with kids, showing them the ropes and teaching them that the real victories were in facing challenges, not just reaching the top.
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That doesn’t mean he didn’t reach the top. Robbins was the first to complete a “Grade IV” climb in the United States., in 1957. He was the first to climb El Capitan’s Salathe Wall, the first up the North America Wall and the first up the Muir Wall and many more. He climbed the Alps and the Andes, but Yosemite had long since captured his heart.
Perhaps his most important climb came in 1967, when Royal and his wife Liz made the first ascent of “The Nutcracker” – using only removable protective devices. That flew in the face of traditional big-wall climbers like Warren Harding, who drilled hundreds of holes to screw hooks and bolts into the rock. A war for the soul of climbing ensued.
In an article for Rock N’ Ice magazine, Robbins called those who drilled holes “vandals in the temple.” Eventually, his reverence for climbing without defacing the rock won.
It was never personal. One night, in 1968, Robbins was lowered down the South Face of El Cap to help an exhausted Harding – his nemesis – reach safety.
Robbins first visited Yosemite as a Boy Scout, then returned a few years later to find his destiny. It’s also where he found his wife Liz – one of the world’s best climbers. They lived like vagabonds in Camp 4, which still exists largely thanks to Robbins. After the floods in 1997, the Park Service wanted to convert it into employee housing, but now it is protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
He once wrote for The Bee giving advice about the best way to hike Half Dome (start at 3 a.m.; if you see cumulus clouds, turn around). He was as much a philosopher as a climber. Asked why he climbed, Robbins said: “A mountaintop is a symbol, a symbol of challenge we are capable of overcoming if we set our minds and hearts to the task.”
And, “Conquering mountains is not what it’s all about. It’s about the changes that go on inside you. The mountains are the anvil on which a climber forges his character.”
A sign on his wall at Royal Robbins, Inc. read: Adventure is a Point of View. “If you realize that then you apply that to everything you do – boom! Everything’s an adventure. It’s the challenge of making people’s lives better that day.”
About the dangers of climbing, Robbins once told a Bee writer: “Half Dome makes a pretty good gravestone.” If only we could see it from Modesto.