Multitudes gathered in Modesto, California, on March 12, to honor the life of Royal Robbins, who died a year ago today on March 14, 2017, at age 82 after a long illness.
Most climbers are aware of the Robbins’ numerous contributions to climbing: since he did the first free ascent of the country’s first 5.9–Open Book, Tahquitz Rock, California–as a teenager in 1952, he pushed free-climbing standards as well as raising ethical ones; he made the first ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face in 1957 with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas–the first Grade VI in the US–and established new techniques for big-wall climbing that are still pertinent today; authored several books and founded a gear and clothing company that still bears his name. But Robbins was much more than just a climber–he was a loving, contributing member of his Modesto community.
In an email, Modesto resident John Mensinger recalled several organizations in which he and Robbins participated over the years:
Royal was active and well respected in Modesto. He was a member of the Modesto Rotary Club and served a year as president…. He volunteered to take at-risk youth climbing in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He was on the board of the Central West Ballet Company…. He also was on the board of the [Greater Yosemite] Council of the Boy Scouts of America…. I am sure he was involved in other organizations as well.
“People were always Royal’s first priority,” said Loren White said at the podium during the memorial. White is a longtime employee of Royal Robbins LLC and current vice president of operations for the company.
This virtue was emphasized by other speakers, including two former students of the Leysin American School in Switzerland where Robbins served as the athletic director accompanied by his wife, Liz, from 1965 to 1967.
“It was a very short time in their lives, but it actually changed my life,” said Kathy Galvin. “Royal was our ski coach, our climbing instructor and overall mentor…. He told me, after I had been having a bit of a problem on one of the climbs, ‘You know, a woman can do everything a man can do on these rock walls. You just need technique, and you’ll be better.’ That has stuck with me my entire life. So I want to thank Royal…. Whereas he was my coach, instructor and mentor, Liz was my role model, because she was doing it–she was right there with him! I wanted to be just like her, I adored her.”
Another former Leysin student, John Feasler, said Robbins was instrumental in his acceptance into Colorado School of Mines: “I was told that I would “probably not be able to get into that school,” he said. “Royal took it upon himself to write a personal letter of recommendation…. Without a doubt that letter…truly impacted my life.”
“If anybody had five PhDs in ‘life,’ Royal had ’em,” said Bill Derr, a friend of Robbins since they were in elementary school together. “He had absolute honesty, integrity, character, determination, superb inter-personal relationship skills, [he was] a friend for life…who stayed in touch…. Even though our friendship was separated and we went our separate ways, we did stay in touch pretty well over the years.”
“I wanted to be Royal Robbins when I was 14,” said Ron Kauk, who grew up to earn his own place in the Yosemite history books for pushing the limits of free climbing in the 1970s through the ’90s. “I was in high school in the back of the room reading Basic Rock Craft [one of Robbins’ instructional books],” Kauk said. “Looking at that book, I knew something was possible…and that carried me on to many things, even tying into the rope with Royal Robbins…. I had the greatest honor to write an introduction to one of his books, and in the thought process of that introduction, I remembered myself being in the back of that classroom in awe of his whole story. Later down the road, I asked him what it was like to come back into Yosemite Valley after all these times and all these years, and he responded that it was simply a sense of awe. That touched me so deeply because there is something in the human-ness of Royal, through his evolution of youthful enthusiasm and competition…to recognize the humility of it all, ultimately the ego and so forth, that it does go beyond words…. There is a momentum of his energy along with the other ones of that era that I think deserves to continue to go with the story we want to promote for the future. I feel that he holds the treasure of the intellect and spirituality of our climbing community, and I don’t know how we will do it or if we will do it, but there is something here to continue….”
“Many people think ‘rich’ means money and material things,” Tamara Robbins said, quoting a passage her father had written in a notebook. “But true riches are inside of us and are unseen connections between us. True riches are love, gratitude, hope, enthusiasm, optimism, friendship and joy.”
Keen for adventure
There was a drive for adventure and learning at the root of everything Robbins did.
“He used to talk about continuous improvements–whatever you’re doing today, you can do better tomorrow,” Feasler said.
When his arthritis prevented him from climbing with his usual intensity in the mid-1970s, he turned his focus to kayaking.
“When I met Royal, he was in his 40s and I was in my 20s, and I had been kayaking for longer than he had,” Neusom Holmes said. “He was a man who was a little bit past his peak, actually, and also had arthritis… and yet he was the guy who thought up these first descents…. There are a lot of stories about Royal being the master of this, and the master of that. But on those trips it was really just as gutsy to be out there, doing 50 miles of river that had never been done, without the perfect body for it, and yet there he was, laying it on the line in a very dynamic sport in which you cannot predict exactly every thing….”
Robbins went on to complete historical and visionary first descents, most notably the “triple crown,” when he paddled the last three great rivers in the Sierra that had yet to see a descent: the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin, the Kern and the Middle Fork of the Kings River.
“We used to call him the icy commander, especially kayaking,” said Yvon Chouinard, who joined Robbins on several big adventures through the years. “He’d be the first one to go around a blind corner and he wasn’t smiling, let me tell ya…. We used to say he had ponderous proportions of perseverance….”
Robbins’ accomplishments consistently revealed a person who was always keen to learn and adapt, no matter how small or inconsequential the challenge may have been. About the same time that he picked up kayaking–in his middle age–he started taking tennis lessons from David Earle at the Modesto Racquet Club. Originally he played with his right hand, Earle said, but his nagging arthritis led to him to eventually play with his left.
He was known to encourage others to challenge their limitations as well.
When I was still young, Dad gave me one of many lessons about doing things “the right way.” A group of climbers was playing cards or dice, and I tried to participate. Someone offered to help explain the game to me. Dad said, “Don’t help her. That’s my daughter. She will learn it on her own.” His implication was that to give me an advantage was actually to hinder me. Through the years, he was loving, but tough.”
Damon Robbins recalled a time when his dad was severely injured with several broken bones from when “a mountain fell on him,” but Royal refused to rest and recover because he had planned a three-day company retreat that entailed an adventurous “treasure hunt.”
“He had all these great ideas of what to do and, because he was kind of almost dead, he couldn’t do much of that, so he tasked [me and a friend]–I was 11 or 12, maybe 10–to set the entire course…. There were points he would laugh and it would hurt so bad but he couldn’t control himself…. He was laughing so hard that people would laugh around him, and then he would laugh more. There was this beautiful symbiosis of pain and love and suffering.
“In his last months he struggled to walk,” Damon continued. “He struggled to eat, to breathe. He struggled. But honestly, you never really knew it. He was so graceful. He insisted until his last day that he was dressed every morning: button-up shirt, dressed in sharp khakis–never jeans…nails clipped, hair combed, and his beard trimmed. He never allowed the struggle to take his dignity…. He never, ever once complained…. Living and dying well is something he thought about often…. His last ascent, I like to think, might have been his greatest.”
A more in-depth story about the life of Royal Robbins can be found here.
A New York Times article about some of Robbins’ ideas by Alpinist editor-in-chief Katie Ives can be found here.