Sitting down with rock-climbing royalty |

Sitting down with rock-climbing royalty

Jeremy Evans
Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tribune Royal Robbins, born in 1935, is one of the pioneers of rock climbing. Robbins is known for his numerous first ascents, including many at Yosemite, as well as his voice on the ethics of climbing. Robbins believes in the clean climbing style of the sport, which avoids damaging rocks and the natural landscape by not using bolts and pitons on the rock.

Now that Tioga Pass Road has opened for the season, providing quicker access to Yosemite National Park from Lake Tahoe, the Tribune felt it was time to honor one of the park’s pioneers. Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter Jeremy Evans and Visual Director Jonah M. Kessel recently caught up with rock-climbing legend Royal Robbins.

Robbins is responsible for many first ascents in Yosemite, including several routes on the park’s most famous granite monoliths – Half Dome and El Capitan. He is married to his wife, Liz, and has two children. Even at age 73, Robbins remains active.

Well, I am retired, and that’s when you get busy. I support causes (my wife and I) believe in, like the Yosemite Club, Boy Scouts of America, Continental Divide Trail Alliance – those are three that are fairly up there. I also travel and visit our son and daughter. And we are praying for grandchildren.

There used to be three – Ireland, Greece and Israel – but we’ve been to Ireland now, which is just wonderful, so I still have those two left. Africa, people tell me, is wonderful. I’ve been to North Africa, but I don’t consider it as being to Africa; I consider it Asia.

I wouldn’t want to do it again, but my favorite is what we call the Salathé Wall on the southwest face of El Capitan. If I could have only one climb to my credit, I would want that one.

It was a big adventure; it was new. It pushed us to the limit at the time. I was with two wonderful companions. It’s the perfect climb. It’s got great bivouac spots. It’s got great variety, and it’s got great challenges. Plus, when you consider the location, it’s just about the best place in the world.

I am not an authority on the current state of climbing right now, but what I would say is that there is an element of adventure that exceeds anything that I can imagine when we were trying to push the limits. There is incredible athleticism as well, but what elicits my wonder and admiration is those who are doing cutting-edge stuff and exhibiting a lot of personal mastery. You just have to give them credit.

I’m not leaving this world (laughter, then a pause). … That’s too dangerous of a question. I can’t answer that. Both are so important to me. Climbing is important. My family is important. My wife is important. Life is important. Acting in the right way is important. Those things have been important all along, and they still are.

Speaking in front of 30 people (laughter). … When I first started public speaking, I was happy to project the slides and stand behind the projector and describe what the people were seeing anyway. Now, I like to be in front so I can touch the hearts of my audience.

I guess I take the view that’s different than the “accepted” view. It doesn’t seem that different to me. It always was crowded. Way back when we were there, we thought it was crowded. But you can get away from the crowds easily by just walking off the trail. Not too long ago, I went kayaking on the Tuolumne River, and in a state of 30 million people, we were all alone. It was just a perfect day. If you select your days carefully, you can be all alone.

That’s an interesting question. River running and rock climbing are related in that they both get your attention, but they are very different. And my heart belongs to climbing first. I would always choose that first, because that’s what meant the most to me, that’s what is natural for me. River running is another thing. It’s very challenging – and wonderful and beautiful – but it’s different from climbing.

Age: 73

Residence: Modesto

Claim to fame: Numerous first ascents as a rock climber and river descents as a kayaker. Founder of Royal Robbins apparel company (


1952: Tahquitz Open Book, California. First 5.9 in America.

1957: Northwest Face of Half Dome, Yosemite, California. First grade VI climb in America. With Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas.

1961: Salathé Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite. Hardest big wall grade VI climb in world at the time. With Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt.

1962: American Direct, Aiguille du Dru, Mont Blanc Range, France. With Gary Hemming.

1963: Direct NW Face of Half Dome, Yosemite. With Dick McCracken.

1964: North America Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite. With Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard.

1964: The Prow, Washington Column, Yosemite. With Glenn Denny.

1964: Danse Macabre, Devils Tower, Wyoming.

1964: Final Exam, Castle Rock, Boulder, Colo. With Pat Ament.

1965: American Direttissima, Aiguille du Dru, Mont Blanc Range, France. With John Harlin.

1967: Nutcracker, Yosemite. An early all-nut protected route, now a Yosemite classic.

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