Wall climbing

Royal Robbins on the FA of Yosemite’s North American Wall

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This article first appeared in Ascent 2013 (rock and ice issue 2010). Published since 1967, Ascent has a long tradition of documenting the pivotal ascents of pioneers and world writers such as Robbins, David Roberts, Reinhold Messner and others.


Pratt strains to reach an item on the lower slab of the wall. Photo: Robbins Royal Collection.

One of my most prized possessions is an oval blind gate carabiner with “RR” engraved on it. The initials, of course, stand for Royal Robbins. The carabiner was his and he talks about a time, around 1957 to 1971, when he owned not only the carabiner but Yosemite itself. The northwest face of Half Dome was his, by all means. So was the left side of El Cap where he had his Wall Salatheand made the first solo of the big stone, via the Muir wall in 1968. Then there were his countless challenging free runs, done in glorified hiking boots or “RR” as they were called, hats off to the man.

By the time I retrieved the carabiner, left attached by Robbins to a lower point on the Wall of early morning light in 1971 and hooked up by me and my mate Mark Herndon in 1982, Robbins was long gone from the valley, having quit rock climbing and taken up kayaking, a milder activity for his arthritis.

Robbins’ legacy is long but his actual climbing career was relatively short, a point that surprises most climbers today. He started climbing in 1947, made his first trip to Yosemite in 1952, got serious in 1955, and stopped climbing less than 20 years later when he was just in his 30s. Countless climbers have stayed in the game far longer than that, and their climbs, like his, are measurable.

It is his influence that is incalculable.

To note, Basic and Advanced Rockcraft, written by Robbins in the early 1970s, sold over 400,000 copies and imparted knowledge such as carabiner-to-brake abseiling and Jumaring, techniques that now seem obvious but have never been taught. invented only by taking risks. The books and the way Robbins wrote about rock climbing pushed the sport into a purer form. Robbins was a stylist and was one of the first climbers to insist that there was more to climbing than first ascents. You could climb the roads faster. Increase engagement by not using fixed ropes. Free help moves. Minimize bolts.

“I realized,” he said in Mountain in 1971, “that the ultimate challenge of mountaineering is the one that most demands the maximum of human qualities”.

Robbins was very competitive, and outspoken. “I was part of a group that reacted against the older generation’s lie that there was no competition,” he said. “Climbers who think competition has no place in climbing and want to avoid it are wrong… For the most part, it’s just fashion.”

Quick to criticize climbers he perceived to be in bad shape – he thought very little of Ed Cooper, an outsider who had never climbed Yosemite but had spent 38 days besieging the Dihedral wall. Robbins took his ethics to the limit when he began cutting what he considered to be an excessive number of bolts on Warren Harding. Wall of early morning light. He stopped clearing bolts after just four throws when he discovered the climb was not just a bolt ladder and instead had the hardest nailing he had ever encountered.

Yvon Chouinard sorts out the hardware of the day. In 1964, nuts and cams were still a thing of the past, and you could either drive a pin in or climb unprotected. Photo: Robbins Royal Collection.

When John Long arrived in Yosemite in the early 1970s, Robbins and his generation – including Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt, Glen Denny and others – had already left. The valley, Long said, was empty. The roads were there to be taken and it was up to the next generation to grab them and push the slopes into the stratosphere. As Long and his band of climbers ticked astromanmade the first one-day ascent of The nose, and generally shattered all conceptions of what could be free-climbed, they weren’t so much driven by how they would go down in history, but by what Robbins would think. Their mantra, Long says, was “Don’t let Robbins down. We had to keep the unknown quotient as high as possible.

In the following story, taken from Robbins’ 2012 autobiography, My life, Volume 2, The Golden Age, he reminisces about one of his greatest rock accomplishments, the first ascent of El Cap’s North America wall. In the background, when Robbins attempted the wall, there were only two lines on El Cap: the Nosedirected by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore in 1958, taking 47 days and securing ropes almost the entire length of the cliff, and the Wall Salathe, climbed in 1961 by Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt. On the Salathe, Robbins’ team set the Heart Ledge ropes about a third up, then cut the ropes for the push up. Dropping the fixed ropes represented a new level of commitment and risk – if they didn’t make it, or if there was an accident, it would have taken days for a rescue to reach them. The prospect of being stranded on the sea of ​​stone was real and terrifying.

the North America wall, however, was an even bigger step in terms of risk and confidence. The wall was steeper, harder, looser and the line less obvious
than anything that has been tried before. Robbins, who had become even more competitive by this time, was eager to be the first to climb the wall to “add to his reputation”. Indeed, he thought more in terms of “doing climbs for glory than doing them just for fun”.

To this end, he decided not to use a fixed rope. They would make the ultimate splash by going all at once.

But first, Robbins did some investigative polls. On the first excursion, with Glen Denny, he climbed 400 feet before ripping a hairpin and Denny burned his hands holding the drop. Then Robbins and Denny, along with Frost, climbed halfway up the wall, placing 18 bolts and rappelling from the large ledge they called “Easy Street”. After that, they were ready to go down in history.

Duane Raleigh

Royal Robbins on the first ascent of the North American Wall

I had thought of the North America wall the whole year or even longer. We didn’t want to use fixed ropes, but we weren’t sure if we could climb the face either. Having climbed Proboscis the year before, in 1963, and before that, the Direct northwest face of the semi-dome and Salathe, I felt we had reached the point in Yosemite where we expected to climb a wall. But we didn’t expect to climb the North American Wall in particular. There were too many unknowns. For example, we didn’t know where the road went or even if there was a road – the southeast face of El Capitan didn’t have the continuous fissure systems of the southwest face and the Salathe. Also, an El Cap route had never been established without a few landlines. Well, we wanted an adventure, and climbing the southeast face of El Capitan without umbilical cords would be a surefire way to have one.

Tom Frost rides high on the north american wall during the first ascent. Photo: Royal Robbins Collection.

The “we” consisted of Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and me. Glen Denny was unavailable. We took a look, inviting Pat Ament from Colorado. He couldn’t go, so we asked Yvon Chouinard. Yes, Yvon would be our fourth. It was good to have him on the team. For one, Yvon was not a regular in the valley, having done most of his early ascents in the Tetons. So we couldn’t be accused of recruiting only Yosemite veterans. We knew from Chouinard’s past experience that he was a very skilled climber, as well as an inventor and maker of pitons. But he had something else: he had a certain self-confidence. It was hard to quantify, but he had it. And if someone believes in him, the others believe in him too. We were no exception and we were right. On the North America wall, Yvon has proven himself worthy again and again. Frost was Yvon’s partner in the business and manufacture of climbing gear, as well as his climbing partner on the first ascent of the West face of the sentinel rock. I had often climbed with Tom, who was not only a very good climber, but also had a keen sense of humor. Our team was complete and solid. We would need a strong team for this wall.

The valley was still in the grip of an Indian summer. It was very hot, especially in El Capitan, facing south. Finally, on October 22, we couldn’t wait any longer: November and its thunderstorms were soon to arrive. We hauled loads down the road in the sweltering heat. Yvon and Tom climbed the first pitch, and the four of us bivouacked at the foot of the wall. Yvon was almost sleepless.

The next morning, with the relentless sun beating down on us, we continued. Tom and Yvon were leading, while Chuck and I were following with the bags. On the next two lengths, two pitons tore off. The falls are stopped immediately, but the peaks that come out show the fragility of the nailing.

The heat was stifling. If it continued to stay warm, our 60 liters of water would not be enough. We had normally planned a liter and a half per man per day. So under “normal” conditions (i.e. Sentinel Rock north face) we would have enough water for 10 days. But with the heat on a south-facing road, we might run out.

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