Tom Frost, of Oakdale, a key figure in a generation of Yosemite big-wall pioneers in the 1960s and a gritty godfather of climbing photography, died on Aug. 24. He was 82 years old.
Frost did multi-day ascents on El Capitan with other legendary climbers, authors and gear heads like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt. What set Frost apart is he was one of the few to carry a camera and film, and he understood how to use them, capturing dramatic perspectives no one had seen or photographed before.
“They were very good photographs,” Ken Yager, president of the nonprofit Yosemite Climbing Association, said Thursday from his residence in El Portal. “The things he photographed are iconic climbs. What’s important are him and Glen Denny were the only photographers documenting the golden age.”
Frost’s photographs were first-time views of the vertical world in Yosemite Valley, because he was up there climbing walls that, until he and his partners were there, had never been climbed before, Denny told organizers of “No Guts, No Glory: A History of the Stanford Alpine Club,” a photo exhibition 18 years ago in the Bay Area.
“The impressive thing about Frost is that his classic images were seen, and photographed, during major first ascents,” Denny said in the year 2000. “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.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson was a pioneering urban-based photographer in the use of discreet, Leica rangefinder cameras in the 1930s and became globally famous as a master of candid photography and street photography. Frost also worked, in the 1960s, with a Leica screw mount camera, a collapsible 50mm lens, and black-and-white film.
Frost’s photos show such details as the hardware, slings, ropes, packs and clothing climbers used as well as their sometimes grimy faces, gnarled fingers, and hard-to-imagine exposure on vertical and overhanging cliffs thousands of feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley.
Frost was born in Hollywood in the late 1930s. He studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University and he knew people in the Rock Climbing Section of the Los Angeles Sierra Club. He climbed at Tahquitz Rock above Idyllwild and he came to Yosemite Valley in the late 1950s.
In Camp 4, where climbers plotted their adventures in Yosemite Valley, Frost teamed up with Robbins and Pratt for historic first ascents of the Salathé Wall in 1961, and then, with Robbins, Pratt and Chouinard, the North American Wall in 1964, both on El Capitan. He also climbed in the Tetons, the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas.
From 1965 to 1975, Frost worked with Chouinard to develop essential protection gear, including knife-blade thin pitons called RURPs, and clean-climbing protection gear called Stoppers and Hexentrics.
Later in the 1990s, Frost campaigned to preserve Camp 4 from closure by the National Park Service. Backed by Robbins, Chouinard and the American Alpine Club, the effort got Camp 4 listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Camp 4 is still there today.
Frost’s photos can be found in multiple rock climbing books, including Robbins’ “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft,” published 1971 and 1973, Chouinard’s “Climbing Ice,” 1978, “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America,” by Steve Roper and Allen Steck in 1979, and Pat Ament’s “Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age,” 1998.
In 2009, Frost told Climbing Magazine, “I picked up the camera because I had discovered a world in Yosemite so much more beautiful than I’d ever seen.”
In May this year, Frost told Chuck Graham with Photographer’s Forum that he considered himself an amateur when he was climbing. He said was just doing documentary work as a member of the team.
“I was the guy who brought the camera along,” Frost said. “It was 99 percent being in the right place at the right time.”
Frost said that one day in 1960 somebody in Camp 4 handed him a Leica camera before he and Robbins, Pratt and Joe Fitschen started the second ascent of The Nose on El Capitan. He learned how to use the camera, use the light meter. They went up on the climb shooting about one roll a day for seven days.
“Those were basically the best seven rolls of film that I have,” Frost said. “Another plus was being influenced by Ansel Adams. I much preferred black-and-white film, so darn good for Yosemite.”
In addition to Chouinard’s tributes to Frost’s photography, Flatlander Films has documented perspective from Lyn Hill, a leading competitive sport climber and the first person to free climb The Nose in 1994, and Tommy Caldwell, who completed the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall with Kevin Jorgeson in January 2015, and made the first ascent of The Nose in under two hours with Alex Honnold in June this year.
Frost spent his final years in Oakdale so he could stay close to Yosemite. He came to Yosemite Valley last fall and spent time with Honnold in El Cap Meadow.
Steve Grossman is working on a yet-to-be-published biography of Frost and he said Thursday, “Tom Frost, as far as rock climbing photography, is the best there is of his generation. He is a guy who always got the shot. A lot of people carry cameras but he always got the camera out and documented what he was doing. And what he was doing was cutting-edge stuff, in Yosemite and all over the world.”
Grossman’s book about Frost is expected out later this year. Flatland Films has been working for seven years on a feature-length documentary about Frost. In October at the Oakdale Climbers Festival, Frost and Robbins will be remembered in a tribute, “Reflections on the Golden Age of Big Wall Climbing in Yosemite.”
There will be no charge for the program, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Oct. 12 at Gene Bianchi Center, 110 South 2nd Avenue, Oakdale.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.