Royal Robbins climbs high on the Salathé Wall in 1961
Standing on the Shoulders: A Tribute to my Heroes
By Royal Robbins
The future may be unclear but I can't imagine that, as of the new millennium, all of the old laws of the universe will have been put to rest. It seems certain to me that whatever men and women have always needed, and need today, they will need in the future. And it seems certain to me that whatever forces have driven or pulled men and women toward the heights in the past, and compel them upward in the present, will be at least as forceful in the days to come.
To my mind, two such forces stand out. One is our need for the natural world. We are made to be part of nature. Our connection to that world is our connection to sanity. Henry David Thoreau famously said, "in wildness is the preservation of the world." That seems intuitively right. Can anyone imagine keeping one's sanity in a world where nothing existed but New York and Los Angles? But what is it in wildness that fills that crucial need in the human spirit? What is that soothing balm? I can't say it's God's presence. We all experience that differently. But we could say it's God's handiwork. The natural world is soothing and refreshing because it is God's creation - yes - but more important, it is God's creation unsullied by human invention. It is the presence of Divine Creation along with the absence of human contrivances that soothes and delights the soul, and that provokes the soul to say, "I have come home."
On TV, in films, in picture books, and through virtual reality in cyberspace, we can reproduce nature with uncanny exactitude. But to what benefit? It's all "wonderful," and intellectually and emotionally stimulating. But it's not the same and will never be the same as the real thing. A cyberflower and a cybersunset only make us yearn for the real flower and the real sunset. Nothing man can do or make can approach the majesty of a real mountain, a real Half Dome, a real Matterhorn. Ultimately if our world were only steel and glass and cyber happenings, then a single tree, a single leaf, or a single blade of grass would be a wonder because it is not man-made. It is natural .
The other need that isn't going to evaporate is the thirst for personal challenge. This craving drives men and women to climb mountains, and so to discover who they are and what they may be. We are the spawn of ancestors whose daily lives were struggles for survival. We need adventure. It's in our blood. It will not go away. The mountains will continue to call because they uniquely fulfill our need for communion with nature, as well as our hunger for adventure.
That's about all I can see of the future, that the human needs for nature and adventure will not become obsolete. They will be filled. The drama will be played out. I would rather talk about the past, for what's past is prologue. And the ideals and spirit that moved the earliest and greatest climbers will continue to motivate climbers in the future.
My first hero was my scoutmaster, Phil Bailey. The Boy Scouts introduced me to climbing when I was 12 years old. I dabbled for several years, until my fate as a climber was sealed at age 15. It was not a mountain that provoked my commitment to vertical strife and vertical striving, but the words of a book - a history of mountaineering by James Ramsey Ullman. The title, High Conquest, sets the stage and the book captures the romance of mountaineering in a way that recent histories fail to do - they have too much polish and too little innocence. Written in 1941, Ullman's book looked forward to the end of the world war, when men would again rise their eyes skyward, not in fear of planes coming to drop bombs, but rather to seek the high summits that would draw them to a different type of conquest - High Conquest.
And what is this "high conquest"? In answering that question, the book stuck a deep responsive cord in my sole, for Ullman wrote not about the conquest of the large chunks of rock pushing upward out of the Earth's crust, but rather about the mountains inside the mountaineer. A quote from George Leigh Mallory leads us to the conquest that is the true subject of the book: "Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves." And so I came to see that the mountains we conquer are not those on the horizon: supreme, cold and taunting, bur rather those within us: of fear, weakness, and ignorance. These were the true high peaks. And, when we could stand on top of them we would indeed be "on top of the world."
To a 15-year-old, unsuccessful at school and seemingly everything else, this promise of the mountains being the anvil upon which the climber could forge his character was powerful and convincing. I saw my destiny: I would become a climber! And so it was that the ringing words of Ullman and the inspiring epigram of Mallory combined to seal my fate, to provoke a lifelong commitment to the craft of climbing.
I was now pointed at climbing literature, and my second book was a novel by Andre Frisson-Roche, about a young apprentice guide in the French Alps who, after the death of his father in a lightning storm on the Petit Dru, grows to strength and maturity as a climber. After reading First on the Rope I knew that was where I always wanted to be - at the sharp end, finding the way.
My first heroes were these authors and the characters in their books. After that I was inspired by other heroes of the quest for summits - by Herman Buhl, Anderl Heckmair, and Heinrich Harrer; by Gaston Rébuffat and Lionel Terray; by Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin; but particularly by the great Italian climber Walter Bonatti. Bonatti created a range of sterling climbs, but his solo, first ascent of the Southwest Piller of the Dru stands out magnificently as an inspired achievement. Here was a granite buttress, over 2,000 feet high, accessible only after facing the dangers of the Dru Couloir. No solo of this sort had ever been done in the western Alps. It was a steep, difficult, technical rock climb, exceeding anything that had yet been done - even in the comparatively friendly and sheltered environment of Yosemite Valley. And it was carried out over a period of six days in the violently stormy French Alps, high on an isolated mountain above the dangerous Dru Couloir.
The Bonatti Pillar is a masterpiece, a shining example of the truth of Geoffrey Winthrope Young's dictum, "It isn't getting to the top that counts. It's the way you do it." This ascent, even with a partner, would have been a terrific accomplishment. To do it solo added hugely to the feat. My solos of the Leaning Tower and El Capitan owe much to Bonatti's early example, but they don't rise to his lever because he was so ahead of his time. I was only imitating. Absent Bonatti's example, my climbs would have been more visionary and daring. I was standing on the unseen shoulders of my great predecessor.
I never met Walter Bonatti, but I met and climbed with a couple of my other mountain heroes, Joe Brown and Don Whillans, two legends of British climbing. Joe and Don and others like them grew out of the English working class after the Second World War. When I first met and climbed with Joe in North Wales I found him affable and cheerful, a friendly and ebullient spirit of the crags. Tom Patey's song about Joe contains the stanza,
In the shadow of Dinas Cromlech,
Where luckless leaders fall,
The Corner it was towering high,
And Joe uncommon small.
But his heart was as big as the mountain,
And his nerves were made of steel -
It had to go, or so would Joe,
In a monumental peel.
Of course, Joe did make the first ascent of the Cenotaph Corner, one of his superb test pieces in Britain. I climbed it with him in 1964. It was too hard for me that day to take the sharp end, so I was treated to a performance by the master on one of his finest routes. He climbed with an economy of effort that left me breathless - never a wasted move. The only other person I have seen climb with such grace is Chuck Pratt. Brown inspired me as a supreme artist of the crags.
Like Joe, Don Whillins was "uncommon small," but the smart thing was not to refer to Don's size in his presence. Apart from his notorious pugnacity, Don was one of the world's leading climbers, both on pure rock and in alpine conditions. His routes on rock were often described as, "like Whillans, short and tough." He was the master of vicious little climbs, easy to fall off, and frequently lacking protection.
What I particularly admired about Don was his granite-like common sense and his supreme calm in the face of danger. Like all climbers, he must have been a romantic at heart, inspired by the siren call of the summits. But when he was on the mountain, Don was the ultimate realist. He saw the situation with perfect clarity and never let his emotions, his dreams, or his ambitions get in the way of lucid thinking and crisp decision-making. I often thought that if the going in the mountains got tough, and I found myself in a grim situation with survival the issue, the man I would most want to be with was Don Whillins.
The remaining heroes on my list are Americans. The first is John Muir: immigrant Scot, explorer, mountaineer, conservationist, and bard of the American outdoors. Muir is, of course, more famous for his poetic pleas to save our natural heritage than his mountaineering exploits, but he was a true mountaineer. Who can forget, after having once read it, Muir's gripping description of his hairbreadth escape from death during an unroped solo ascent of Mount Ritter in his beloved Sierra Nevada? Picture him, frozen into immobility in a steep corner, unable to advance or climb down, desperate, terrified, and about to accept the inevitability of death in hot blood when a sudden inspiration, as if sent by a guardian angel, enables him to escape alive. His account is now a classic of mountaineering literature. But Muir's biggest impact upon the American climbing world has been not through his climbing writing; it has been through his message of the sacredness of the natural order and the desirability of leaving it natural and unsullied.
American climbers have long lived by this principle. The American Alpine Club's mission statement includes as a goal, "the conservation and preservation of the mountain environment." When I joined the Sierra Club, I learned right from the start, "to leave it as you found it." This applied to trail, camp, and picnic spot, but especially to the rock on which we climbed. That meant pitons were not left in place. They were removed.
In Europe it was otherwise. The Alps were (and are) studded with pitons. But American climbers under the goad of Muir's eloquent articulation of the "leave no trace" philosophy of resource stewardship, became committed to leaving the rock as much as possible in its natural state. They removed pitons, partly to preserve that quality of naturalness in and of itself, but also because they valued the exploratory qualities of the first ascent and wanted, as nearly as possible, to reproduce and relive the original adventure. Americans took great pride in not leaving a single piton even on an extended climb. Ultimately this commitment led to the conversion, in American climbing, from destructive pitons to rock-friendly artificial chockstones.
Another American who has deeply influenced me is John Salathé, who came to America from Switzerland at the age of 45. He was a blacksmith, allowing him to respond creatively to a need he perceived in following the Muir ethic while scaling the great Yosemite walls - hard steel pitons. Salathé dreamed of doing continuous big-wall climbs, which would require hundreds of pitons. Carrying a rack of 20 or 30 pitons meant some might be used dozens of times. The soft iron pitons available at the time (imported from Europe or purchased at Army surplus stores) simply were not adequate. They quickly became deformed and useless.
Seeing a need for which no tool existed, Salathé hand-forged hard steel pitons out of, as legend has it, the metal used in the axles of Model A Ford cars. This invention would revolutionize American climbing. Salathé then proceeded to put the pitons to good use in scaling the three hardest routes in the country - routes on which the technical difficulty at the time probably exceeded anything in the world. Among those were the Lost Arrow Chimney and the North Face of Sentinel Rock.
These climbs were great leaps forward - multi-day ascents requiring extreme physical fitness, commitment, determination, and great technical skill in placing pitons for direct aid. Salathé excelled in this latter skill, possessing an uncanny ability to get pitons to stick in almost nonexistent cracks. But in addition to his great technical skill, and indeed abetting and supporting and fostering it, was a sense of style that would set a standard for generations of climbers to come.
In those days Yosemite climbing required the occasional bolt, or sometimes a string of them, to overcome truly blank sections of otherwise climbable rock. Always present was the temptation to get out the drill before it was absolutely necessary, to take the easy way out, rather than screw up one's courage and work tirelessly and inventively to find a way to get up without resorting to the detested expansion bolt.
Amazingly Salathé never succumbed to this temptation. His bolts were always deemed by later parties to be "justified." How hard that is to do. How remarkable that he did it in his day, without the goad of competition. No one would have faulted him for placing twice as many bolts. He was competing only with himself. What was he thinking? Where did he get this sense of style? Why did he set these almost impossible high standards for himself? We don't know. He didn't write or talk about these things. His eloquence on such matters was pure action and his actions were, to us, spellbindingly persuasive. American climbers who have been quite different had those of us who followed in Salathé footholds not been so deeply impressed by the courage and commitment to excellence of this thoughtful, taciturn, Swiss blacksmith who came to California and taught Americans a thing or two about climbing. On his shoulders, so many of us have stood - reaching for higher holds.
There are three other men I admire for qualities I would like to possess. The first is my climbing companion Chuck Pratt. I have said many times that Chuck was the best climber of our generation. I was always in awe of Pratt's ability to float effortlessly up the hardest off-width jam cracks. But he was not just a jam crack specialist. His mastery extended to face climbing, slab climbing, and aid climbing. Pratt could do it all, as well as balance on chains between fence posts and juggle half a dozen items at once. He was also the best writer of our generation: his masterpieces The View From Dead Horse Point and The South Face of Mount Watkins are classics of climbing literature. I admired and enjoyed and attempted to emulate Pratt in all of these areas. Although failing, I was none-the-less prodded to higher achievement by the example set by Charles Marshall Pratt.
But beyond and above these deeds and talents, Pratt is my hero because of the kind of person he is - the very best of climbing companions: jovial, keenly witty, with a sense of humor that has a laser beam focus on the absurdities of the universe and the hands we are dealt in the cosmic poker game. I once heard the phrase, "only the pure climb gracefully." I know Pratt would wince at being called "pure," being as much a sinner as the next man. But when it comes to climbing itself, well, that is almost sacred to Chuck. Pratt, more than perhaps anyone I have known, has always climbed, first and foremost, and last and finally, for the climbing experience itself, for the rewards that come directly from the dance of man and rock. Climbing for Chuck is a life-giving elixir, and he has always wanted to keep it as pure as possible: uncorrupted and unalloyed by gain, fame, or ambition, or any sort of debasement. Chuck has kept his integrity.
Another friend in this class is Tom Frost. Along with Chuck, he was my closest climbing companion in the golden age of Yosemite climbing. I guess I looked at climbing with Tom as more of an adventure than with Pratt. With Pratt along, success was more certain. But nothing was lost in companionship or laughter being with Tom. His optimism and high spirits were infectious and always uplifting. Tom is the kindest and gentlest and most generous person I have ever met, with never an ill word to say of anyone. He is also a man of courage and leadership, as witness his recent vanguard role in the effort to save Camp IV in Yosemite. And he continues to possess the true spirit of climbing. Just a couple of years ago, at age 60, with his son, he climbed three big El Capitan routes, one of them the North American Wall.
My last example is a young contemporary less than half my age. He is the Canadian named Peter Croft. Peter has been my hero for many years, ever since he came blazing out of nowhere with his stunning free solo ascent of Astroman on Washington Column in Yosemite. Tom Frost and I had made the second ascent of this route, mostly with direct aid in the early sixties. That one could climb this route without resorting to direct aid was impressive. To do it without a rope was astonishing. But such was Peter Croft's level of mastery. That it was mastery, and not mere daring, was proven by a string of free solos of similar stature, executed to perfection. This mastery was also shown in, among other feats, his ascent with John Bachar of The Nose of El Capitan and the Northwest Face of Half Dome in one day. This was far ahead of its time in American climbing.
To be one of the great climbing stylists in the world and to remain unassuming, modest, generous, and always in touch with the essential joy of climbing; to always seek in one's climbing to reproduce that first original wonder that got us hooked, as Peter does, is to add to achievement the qualities of the human spirit that create a person about whom one can say, "That is a man."
I have looked back rather than forward because looking forward is to "see through a glass darkly," in St. Paul's noted phrase, and I have gotten my ideas and inspiration from the past. But there are some observations about the future I think we can make, based upon the lessons of the past. As I said earlier, quoting Shakespeare, "What's past is prologue." But just what is the past? However far the future extends, we shall always need the natural world preserved and available as the natural world. And we shall need the opportunity to play out the drama of personal conquest that mountains provide.
The qualities of the climbers who inspired me will be needed as much in the future as they have been in the past. It will remain true that getting to the top is not the main thing, but rather the tools and methods we use to get there. With the proliferation of climbers and growth of population, it will be even more important to leave as little evidence of our passage as possible. We shall still need vision and boldness and courage and prudence. A sense of style will never go out of style, and standards, so high that we reach and maintain them only by striving mightily, will always be part of the climbing game. But we may also expect that, among other things that will go marching into the alpine future, there will be camaraderie. Yes, conflict and cross-purposes among climbers are a natural part of the human condition. But overall, and in the long run, the brotherhood of the rope has prevailed. Fellowship among comrades who share danger and who trust their lives in each other's hands has always been a powerful impulse in the climbing world. This fellowship, this brotherhood of the rope, or, for those who wish a more gender-neutral term, this Spirit of the Rope, lives and breathes and never dies. It is a powerful force. It has love in it. We have often heard of esprit de corps. What of Esprit de la Corde, that unseen thin line connecting climbers, through time and through space? Viva Esprit de le Corde. Long live the Spirit of the Rope.
Royal Robbins was a leader of Yosemite's golden age of big wall climbing. His ascents showed how Yosemite's
biggest walls could be climbed. The message from these climbs always was this: "It isn't getting to the top that counts. It's
the way you do it."
This, Royal's master treatise on climbing style, was presented at the November 2000 Banff Mountain Film Festival.
About this article Chuck Pratt exclaimed, "It's genius!" three times in conversation with Tom Frost soon after
they both had read it. Tom agreed.
This, Royal's master treatise on climbing style, was presented at the November 2000 Banff Mountain Film Festival. About this article Chuck Pratt exclaimed, "It's genius!" three times in conversation with Tom Frost soon after they both had read it. Tom agreed.
Published with permission of the National Geographic Society from the book Voices from the Summit: The World's Great Mountaineers on the Future of Climbing. Edited by Bernadette McDonald and John Amatt. Copyright © 2000 Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. Available where all books are sold.