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New Book on the Climbs and Life of Royal Robbins

Royal Robbins: The American Climber will be available on Sept. 1, 2023

Royal Robbins was one of America’s greatest big wall rock climbers during the golden age of Yosemite rock climbing. He pushed the limits of aid and free climbing, ushering in an approach and style that inspired generations of wall climbing enthusiasts.

A new book about Robbins by award-winning author David Smart is being published by Mountaineers Books in September of this year. Smart is the co-founder of Gripped magazine, editorial director at Gripped Publishing, and author of five guidebooks. His biography of Austrian Paul Preuss was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize, and his biography of Italian climber Emilio Comici won that prize along with the Banff Award for Climbing Literature. Other honours include the H. Adams Carter Award for Mountain Literature from the American Alpine Club.

The book is called Royal Robbins: The American Climber, and it chronicles his early years growing up as a kid in Southern California, the push and pull between being an aspiring banker or one of the original Camp 4 dirtbags, and his later decades as a father, husband, kayaker, and the trailblazing founder of the outdoor apparel company that bears his name.

It gives a tour of his climbing history, covering Yosemite, the Tetons, the Gunks, the Alps, the United Kingdom, and more from the 1960s onward. It features star characters such as Liz Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, John Harlin, Steve Roper, Warren Harding, Tom Frost, and Doug Tompkins. We touched base with Smart to hear about his new book below. Pre-order Royal Robbins: The American Climber here.

Who was Royal Robbins? He was the leader of climbing in Yosemite in the 1960s, beginning with the first ascent of Half Dome in 1957 with Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick. He invented American big wall climbing with the first continuous ascent of the Nose, the first ascents of the Salathé and North America Walls, with his frequent partners, Yvon Chouinard, Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and others. He helped invent the modern grading YDS system, pushed hard in free climbing, made some of the first north American rock climbing road trips, was one of the first American climbers to garner a reputation internationally, introduced clean climbing to America and pioneered the outdoor industry. He was also an intellectual, a prolific writer and a man with serious convictions, bred partly from growing up poor.

What was it about Royal that made him become such a legend? He would be one of the most important figures in climbing just for turning Yosemite, a backwater in climbing in the 1950s, into the world centre of rock climbing. But he was also a communicator, a writer, who published his convictions, his achievements and his foibles. He influenced the whole climbing scene. He was also an enigmatic personality, constantly on stage due to his pre-eminence. At times he could come across as arrogant or eccentric, but he was also deeply committed to his circle and the wider community. People wanted him to like them.

What were some of his best routes? There’s too many to record here. The Salathé, the North America Wall, the Northwest Face of Half Dome, dozens of Yosemite and Tahquitz free routes. The American Direct on the West Face of the Dru in Chamonix are a few absolute highlights.

He was an iconic Yosemite climber, but did he have an impact anywhere else? He brought Yosemite climbing culture, and the prospect of visiting the sunny Valley, to the UK, where he climbed a lot. With Gary Hemming and John Harlin, he introduced European climbers to the Yosemite scene. The fact that he traveled extensively through the U.S., making first ascents in the Tetons and Wind Rivers in Wyoming, the Needles of South Dakota, Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah, the Gunks and many other places showed that his vision for climbing included the entire American scene.

How did he inspire a generation of climbers? Ethics. The notion that there ought to be rules to the game. His life showed how complicated a proposition that is, but the vision, the struggle with the ideals, remained. On a personal level, he mentored and learned from the young climbers, who in turn, tried to match and improve upon his record. In a way, however, they never did routes that exceeded the significance of his climbs.

What motivated you to write a book about him? I’d written about European climbers Paul Preuss and Emilio Comici, who also had high ideals, were fascinating, complicated, human individuals and led the world climbing scene. Robbins seemed to naturally come next, as he shifted the whole focus and cultural centre of climbing from Europe to America. There was a lack of a modern biography of Robbins. The family, and particularly Tamara and Liz Robbins, his daughter and widow, respectively, as well as many of his friends, encouraged me and provided unpublished letters and papers that shone fresh light on Robbins. After I interviewed Glen Denny, a climbing partner of Royal’s, he passed away. Malian writer Hampate Ba wrote that a “dying man
is a burning library.” It seemed an opportune time to collect all of these stories. Towering figures in their fields, like Robbins, or for that matter Beethoven or Van Gogh in their fields, challenge every generation to come to terms with what they mean for the tradition. This is my contribution to that understanding.

Will the readers be shocked by anything that wasn’t previously public knowledge? Shock is a pretty subjective response. As a biographer, not much shocks me. The book has new (to most readers and me, anyway) insights into what made Royal who he was. There’s a lot of unpublished material he wrote about famous incidents like the removal of the bolts from Dawn Wall, and his struggles with being a climber before there was much societal support for it. His personality and its roots and expressions are explored as well as I could. His relationship with Warren Harding was definitely more nuanced and friendly than most people think it was. Camp 4 was a pretty wild place in the 1960s, in the best sense, as far as I’m concerned, but the reader can come to their own conclusions.