Thomas John (Tom) Higgins (1944-2018) was a cutting-edge Californian rock climber who logged many first and first free ascents. He pushed standards using a purist, free-climbing style.

Tamara Robbins, daughter of Royal Robbins, announced the news on that Higgins had died.

Higgins started climbing in the 1960s at Stoney Point near L.A. In 1963 he made the first free ascent of Blanketty Blank at Tahquitz Rock at 5.10c.

Tom Higgins

With his partners, they placed protection bolts on lead. In 1968 at Joshua Tree, he did the first free ascent of Left Ski Track on Intersection Rock, one of the first hard 5.11 free climbs at the time.

In the late 1960s, Higgins began climbing in Yosemite with a number of partners. He did the first free ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock.

With Chris Jones, he did the first free of Serenity Crack and other first ascents, including Punch Bowl, The Peanut, Owl Roof, The Void among others.

He used a wooden, adjustable crack machine to train his skills.

In Tuolumne Meadows, he established Lucky Streaks, Nerve Wrack Point, The Vision, Fairest of All, Curve Like Her, Thy Will Be Done and Piece de Resistance.

In 1976, he and Chris Vandiver made the first ascent of the Shake and Bake, ground-up drilling on lead. Higgins wrote about their first ascent here, in it he said:

There we stood surrounded with evening sounds of insects, frogs and birds and yellowing walls going to purple, this time not with trepidation but deep and abiding joy. Strangely, in that moment, neither of us wanted to do the climb ever again, as if that way we could forever imbue its impossible feel and honor the fates or gods allowing us to leave our flat and routine world to tip toe up the strong, improbable and now somber wall before us. Of course, we both did climb Shake and Bake again, enjoying it in a different way than the first time, perhaps forgetting those gods or fates, but not what they permitted us.

Tom Higgins on the first ascent of Shake and Bake

In the late 1970s, climbing styles in Tuolumne and elsewhere changed and Higgins wrote a critique called “Tricksters and Traditionalists” for the Sierra Club publication, Ascent.

Higgins authored an introduction to Don Reid’s 1983 Rock Climbs of Tuolumne Meadows guidebook (“A Climbing Commentary”) on Tuolumne new route development and changing climbing styles.

The term traditional climbing coined in the article describes the prevailing style up to the mid-1970s and now denotes a camp and philosophy of climbing: “traditional climbing” as opposed to “sport climbing.”

In the 1980s, Higgins made first ascents and first free ascents all around western U.S.A.

Higgins maintained a web site of articles and pictures about his routes and partners. There’s also a collection of fiction, climber obituaries and style commentaries.

Higgins was a leading climber who helped push free climbing standards and many of his routes have become classics. Visit here for words and photos by Higgins.

Tom Higgins on Crack of Despair in Yosemite