Rock climbing pioneer, educator and icon Royal Robbins died Tuesday at his home in Modesto at age 82.
Robbins, who had a cabin in Pinecrest, is remembered for the first ascents of vertical rock formations Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, for his environmental advocacy of clean climbing, or limiting the ecological impact of climbing sportsmen, and founding the clothing company that bore his name.
Rock climber John Long, 62, said that his generation of climbers earned their notoriety on the heels of Robbins’ trailblazing exploits from Idyllwild, Joshua Tree and Yosemite all the way to the mountain ranges of Europe.
“Everyone who came after Robbins was walking in footsteps,” he said. “As you were climbing up the technical ladder into the hardest stuff, you were doing what Robbins had first done.”
Long described Robbins as a “Prometheus” and a “mythical kind of figure” in the sport of rock climbing. But despite his monumental achievements, he was a “gracious, common and encouraging” character.
Robbins was one of many climbers to participate in an exploration of previously considered “impossible” climbs during “The Golden Age of Yosemite,” roughly between the mid-1950s until 1970.
Throughout his career, Robbins authored books “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft,” which detailed guidelines of climbing that maintained the original integrity of the rock. Robbins developed first-of-their-kind free climbing techniques of “great creativity,” Long said, to ensure that climbers completed their ascents with minimal or no environmental impact.
“You cannot approach any rock in the same naked raw unrehearsed way that Robbins and his generation could,” Long added. “He was like a mariner looking at open ocean.”
Long and Robbins met in 1978, Long said, when he was recruited to work as a trainer at Robbins’ climbing school in Telluride, Colorado.
“He was determined to make his way in the world writ as largely as possible,” Long said. “But he didn't want to be seen as being better than anybody else. He was ferociously self assured and focused … anyone who climbed with him, even if they were scared, they knew he could get you where you were going. That’s what he could do better than anyone.”
Keri Greene, a member of the Friends of Pinecrest organization, a group of “recreation advocates for anyone who loves Pinecrest,” lived two cabins down from Robbins and his wife, Liz, in Pinecrest.
“He was congenial around Pinecrest,” she said. “He and his wife kept a low profile, but he was really dedicated to encouraging young people and fostering young people to enjoy and appreciate the outdoors.”
Robbins often would host “adventure weekends,” Green recalled, with herds of young people congregating outside of his cabin with climbing equipment.
“Every year, up until a few years ago, he would show a film about his life at the Pinecrest Theater for the Forest Service and answer questions,” she said. “There were a lot of people that were introduced to his life and how he developed a love of climbing.”
Green also recalled the story of Royal Robbins’ clothing company.
After a particularly treacherous and steep climb, Robbins and his wife looked at each other’s tattered and worn clothing and “they said something to effect of ‘we need to upgrade our look,’ ” Green said.
And from there, in 1968, the Royal Robbins clothing company was born.
Even today, the company website features a “Pinecrest Plaid” long-sleeved flannel shirt.
After decades of accolades for his climbing exploits, it was Robbins’ influence on the conservationist and sustainability movements of Yosemite that persisted into his retirement years.
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said that, over his 21 year career as a ranger, he had the opportunity to get to know the man who “always thought of the parks above all else.”
“He always was very down to earth and nice and engaging and a fierce advocate for Yosemite National Park and all national parks,” he said. “He was truly an icon, and I felt very privileged to know him.”
Robbins, as a board member of the Yosemite Conservancy, always offered a distinct perspective, Gediman recalled, about how decisions “would improve the park, help preserve the park for a lot of folks.”
Following his career as a professional sports climber, Robbins turned to adventure kayaking in Yosemite National Park and elsewhere. Notably, in 1983, Robbins kayaked the Tuolumne River from Tuolumne Meadows to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
“He was a hero not just because of what he did but how he did it,” Long said. “His hands went over every iconic rock formation imaginable.”