Royal Robbins got into rock climbing “through the Boy Scouts,” he once said, “and I got into the Boy Scouts because I got out of jail as a kid, and that seemed like a good choice.” The rugged cliffs of Yosemite Valley exerted on him an inescapable pull, drawing him away from a childhood of train hopping and petty theft — and into a life of outdoor adventure and personal challenge.
Mr. Robbins, who became one of the most celebrated rock climbers of his era, as well as an environmentalist, memoirist and founder of an eponymous outdoor clothing firm, died March 14 at his home in Modesto, Calif. He was 82. His daughter, Tamara Robbins, said the cause was progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable disorder of the brain.
Mr. Robbins rose to prominence among rock climbers in the 1950s and 1960s with his participation in first-ascent expeditions of some of Yosemite’s most daunting landmarks. They included the 2,000-foot-high northwest face of Half Dome in 1957 and the 3,000-foot Salathe Wall of El Capitan in 1961.
He became famous not only for his feats, but also for the signature technique he perfected and popularized in achieving them. It was dubbed “clean climbing,” a style that insisted on minimal use of the anchors, called pitons, that climbers traditionally drove into crevices in the rock as they made their ascent. As Mr. Robbins saw it, a climber should leave his cliff unscathed — a tabula rasa for the next climber.
“A first ascent is a creation in the same sense as is a painting or a song,” he once observed. Like the selection of “a single word in a poem,” the placement of a single piton “can affect the entire composition.”
His style fueled a rivalry with another school of climbers represented by Warren J. Harding, who were more aggressive in their use of climbing aids. Harding tweaked Mr. Robbins and his acolytes as “Valley Christians.” Mr. Robbins called Harding and his followers “vandals in the temple.”
“Royal believed the goal is to raise yourself to the level of the climb rather than bringing the climb down to your own level,” Tom Frost, a fellow climber, said in an interview. “We committed ourselves to the wall, and in a sense, when you do that, the wall owns you until it either spits you out at the bottom or at the top.”
Mr. Robbins wrote guides for rock climbers regarded as classics, “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft.” Beginning in 2009, he published a three-part memoir, containing the volumes “To Be Brave,” “Fail Falling” and “The Golden Age.” In the books, he reflected on his near-religious adoration of climbing.
“When I touched the rock, it had in turn touched my spirit, awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a hidden memory of a previous existence, a happier one,” he wrote. “While I was climbing, it was glorious to be alive.”
In 1967, Mr. Robbins and his wife, Liz, ascended the Nutcracker route in Yosemite relying solely on gear they could take back down with them. The same year, the couple ascended Half Dome, with Liz becoming the first woman to reach the top. A photograph from the journey showed the couple in such raggedy gear, Liz Robbins later recalled, that “when we looked at that picture, we said, ‘Maybe we’d better get in the clothing business.’ ”
The next year they founded Mountaintop Paraphernalia, now known as Royal Robbins. The couple sold the company in 2001. In the intervening years, Mr. Robbins developed a form of arthritis that stopped him from aggressive rock climbing. He started kayaking — replacing the thrill of ascents, it was often noted, with the thrill of descents.
“Danger’s important,” he once told the Modesto Bee. “You need it. It’s good for you. It makes you more alive.”
Royal Shannon Robbins was born in Point Pleasant, W.Va., on Feb. 3, 1935, and grew up in Los Angeles. A stepfather, James Chandler, obliged Mr. Robbins to go by Jimmy Chandler, according to the Bee. Mr. Robbins later returned to his birth name.
He confessed to the San Francisco Chronicle that he had been a “bad boy.” In an early show of bravado, he would climb atop a boxcar train and, while it was in motion, leap onto the top of another oncoming train. Dropping out of high school, he told the Denver Post, was the “best thing that ever happened to me” because it allowed him more time to climb. He recalled being transfixed by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American transcendentalist philosopher.
Mr. Robbins was divorced from his first wife, Grace, before marrying Liz Burkner in 1963. Besides his wife, of Modesto, survivors include their two children, Tamara Robbins of Moab, Utah, and Damon Robbins of Modesto; and a half sister.
Mr. Robbins was the subject of a biography, “Royal Robbins: Spirit of the Age,” by Pat Ament. He preferred not to indulge in the language used by some climbers and their admirers, who spoke of the “conquest” of a peak.
“Whether you conquered a mountain or conquered your weakness, I think that you can think of it either way,” he told the publication Outside. “It depends on the climber.”
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