Tom Frost was one of Yosemite’s early big wall specialists who made important first ascents. He passed away on Aug. 24, after a battle with cancer, at age 81.
Frost was a member of the Stanford Alpine Club when he attended the university before graduating in 1958. His illustrious climbing career was about to get going and once it did, Frost built a catalog of amazing big walls and alpine lines.
While making the first ascent of Kat Pinnacle with Yvon Chouinard in 1959, they designed and built the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton or RURP. The tiny piece of gear would be instrumental in their completion of some of the world’s biggest climbs at the time. The pair later joined forces in business for Great Pacific Iron Works and Chouinard, Ltd.
In 1960, he made the second ascent of The Nose with Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Joe Fitschen. The next year, Frost and Chouinard made the first ascent of the northeast face of Disappointment Peak IV 5.9 A3 in the Grand Tetons.
That fall, Frost, Robbins and Pratt made the first ascent of Salathé Wall, named for Yosemite climber John Salathé. After a few trips up and down to resupply, they reached a roof that Frost overcame by using cutting edge aid techniques. The climb took 11 days of climbing and the 36-pitch route was rated VI 5.10 A3. In 1963, he and Edmund Hillary made the first ascent of Kangtega in the Himalayas and made a school and hospital for the local Sherpas.
Then in 1964, Frost, Robbins, Pratt and Chouinard made the first ascent of the North America Wall on El Capitan. Robbins said 1965 American Alpine Journal, “The nine-day first ascent of the North America Wall in 1964 not only was the first one-push first ascent of an El Capitan climb, but a major breakthrough in other ways. We learned that our minds and bodies never stopped adjusting to the situation. We were able to live and work and sleep in comparative comfort in a vertical environment.” The climb led British mountaineer Chris Jones to say, “For the first time in the history of the sport, Americans lead the world.”
A few years later, Frost travelled to the Cirque of the Unclimbables in the Northwest Territories. He was joined by Jim McCarthy and Sandy Bill, and they made the first ascent of the southeast face of Lotus Flower Tower, which is now a classic.
“These routes were life changing experiences and I spent the next 50 years trying to understand their importance,” Frost said to Chris Van Leuven in a story for Adventure Sport Journal called Legends of Yosemite: Tom Frost remembers the Golden Age.
In the late 1960s, Frost and Chouinard began to design ice climbing gear, such as an alpine hammer with a droped pick. They soon began marketing adjustable rigid crampons made of chrome-molybdenum steel. Next, the pair invented the hexentric, which is still manufactured and sold today.
Over the next decade, Frost took part in an Annapurna South Face expedition, reached the summit of Ama Dablam on a filming expedition and returned to Kangtega and climbed a new route with Jeff Lowe.
In the late 1990s, Frost returned to big wall climbing and repeated The Nose, North America Wall and the Salathé Wall with his son, Ryan, on the 40th anniversary of the route’s first ascent.
Frost almost always brought a camera with him and many of his images are now regarded as some of the best of his generation. Author and photographer Glenn Denny said this about Frost in No Guts, No Glory: A History of the Stanford Alpine Club, “Most of the climbing photos you see now are prearranged setups for the camera on much-traveled routes. The impressive thing about Frost is that his classic images were seen, and photographed, during major first ascents. In those awesome situations he led, cleaned, hauled, day after day and–somehow–used his camera with the acuity of a Cartier-Bresson strolling about a piazza. Extremes of heat and cold, storm and high altitude, fear and exhaustion, it didn’t matter. He didn’t seem to feel the pressure.”
In 1997, Frost filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service to save camp four and convinced the American Alpine Club to support the suit. The effort was successful and Camp 4 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Tom is the kindest and gentlest and most generous person I have ever met, with never an ill word to say of anyone,” said Royal Robbins in a piece titled Standing on the Shoulders: A Tribute to my Heroes. “He is also a man of courage and leadership, as witness his recent vanguard role in the effort to save Camp 4 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.”
In a piece for Outside Online, Van Leuven quoted Alex Honnold as saying, “Tom proved a great example of how to do it right. He was a high-end climber who had a balanced family and work life. What a legend. Hopefully he’s satisfied with the life he lived—certainly the rest of us are inspired by it.”