Ideas

Remembering Royal Robbins

One of the fathers of modern rock climbing, Royal Robbins died on March 14, 2017. Somehow this news escaped me and that fact has been bothering me for the past few weeks since learning about it.

I haven’t climbed in over thirty years but I can say without a doubt that Royal Robbins influenced my climbing more than anyone. Actually, he influenced more than my climbing, he influenced my life.

Basic and Advanced Rockcraft

Robbins wrote two small but extremely influential books that remained the instruction manuals for climbing for many years (they’re dated now although collectors items): Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft.

What these books have in common is an emphasis on process: getting to the top is less important than how one gets there, clean climbing (at the time we were moving away from pitons), spare equipment to save weight and keep things simple, and, most importantly for route pioneers, finding routes that follow crack systems and have an aesthetic sense about them (as opposed to bolting straight up a face). Robbins’ nemesis, Warren Harding played the wild, bad guy to Robbins’ good guy. Truth be told, they both pioneered great routes in Yosemite although in very different styles.

Another thing these books have in common is that they are illustrated with great humor by Sheridan Anderson (best known for The Curtis Creek Manifesto one of the best fly-fishing books ever written). Without Anderson’s illustrations the books would have fallen flat, very much like the collaboration of John Muir (writer) and Peter Aschwanden (illustrator) in How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Complete Idiot (also called “the Idiot Book”).

I’ve used Anderson’s drawings of Robbins to illustrate this post. Note that Robbins routinely wore a white flat cap and Anderson’s illustrations usually have him in glasses and said cap.

Yosemite Method

Robbins used Yosemite Valley as his climbing laboratory because it has stable weather, and large, glacier-carved cliffs of incredible exfoliated granite with crack systems that make building spectacular routes possible. He climbed all over the world but Yosemite remained his home base for much of his climbing career and his particular methods and style are aimed at the type of rock climbing found there.

I got into and almost out of climbing before Steve Jobs and Apple came out with the Macintosh but Jobs and Robbins had something in common besides both being from California: they both worshipped process. As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon Fine Arts department I used to hear: “the process is the product” which is another way of saying what Steve Jobs said about building the Macintosh: “the journey is the reward” which is another way of saying what Robbins said: how you get to the top is more important than getting to the top.

This meme has been a running idea in my life since first encountering it in the early 1970’s.

Nutcracker

Robbins “put up” (made the first ascent) on hundreds (thousands?) of climbs but what marked and marks his climbs is that they, for the most part, have become classics: people want to repeat them because they’re beautiful, fun, and interesting.

The one Robbins climb that most aspiring rock climbers have to do is called Nutcracker. It’s on a cliff known as Manure Pile Buttress (seriously) and while it’s not as epic as something like The Northwest Face of Half Dome (another Robbins first ascent), it’s a great climb of moderate difficulty.

Robbins and his wife Liz first climbed Nutcracker in 1967 and it was the first climb of any significance that was done without pitons: Robbins only used wedges of aluminum on slings called nuts stuffed into cracks to protect the climb, thus the name (a first ascender gets to name the route and Robbins was known for having fun with route names).

In the history of climbing without pitons, the thought is that British climbers approaching cliffs beside railroad tracks picked up steel hex nuts, passed pieces of rope through them and used these like chockstones to protect climbs. When Yvon Chouinard (another Yosemite pioneer and founder of Patagonia) heard about this he decided to make irregular hexagonal shapes out of aluminum which in my day, we called “hexes” for climbers to stuff into cracks instead of pitons. These days there are still stoppers, wedges, and hex nuts although they’ve been all but replaced by expandable protection.

The fact that Robbins and his wife did this climb without pitons in 1967 was significant and it led to a push in Yosemite Valley to do away with pitons all together, even on longer big wall routes.

I first climbed Nutcracker in 1975 with my friend Rod Orlando (image on the left with me leading) and climbed it numerous times in later years with a variety of partners. I loved that route and even as I started climbing longer and more serious routes, I almost always came back to Nutcracker. It was like paying my respects to Royal Robbins, a pioneering climber who was one of my role models.

For more on how Robbins fits into the history of climbing in Yosemite, I highly recommend the movie: Valley Uprising. Valley Uprising on Netflix. Valley Uprising on Amazon.


Other writing about Royal Robbins

There is overlap in the obituaries but they’re all worth looking at as they each have a slightly different take on Robbins’ life. If you’ve got a great source, please post it in comments, I’ll add it here. Thanks.

Base Camp Magazine: Royal Robbins Dies at 82 (this is where I first learned of Robbins’ passing)

Outside Magazine: Catching Up with Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins

Climbing: Royal Robbins: A Timeline and a Bibliography

Royal Robbins, Conscience of Rock Climbers, Dies at 82

NPR, All Things Considered: Royal Robbins, Pioneer Of American Rock Climbing, Dies At 82

The Washington Post: Royal Robbins, celebrated rock climber who left no trace of his ascents, dies at 82

Outside Magazine: Obituary: Royal Robbins (1935–2017)

Modesto Bee: Rock climbing pioneer, Modesto’s Royal Robbins, dies at 82

Alpinist: 1935-2017: Big-wall pioneer and world explorer Royal Robbins remembered

Adventure Journal: Climbing Pioneer Royal Robbins Dies at Age 82

Hear and Now (NPR): How Rock Climbing Legend Royal Robbins Influenced The Sport

Climbing reference: Nutcracker, Manure Pile Buttress 5.8

Nutcracker Guide

Summit Post: Nutcracker topo

Flickr (photos): Climbing Nutcracker in Yosemite

John Oliver on Net Neutrality (again)

Another brilliant commentary by John Oliver on net neutrality

John Oliver first commented on net neutrality in 2014 here and it was one of the first really popular youTube posts he made.

If you’re confused about what Net neutrality is, browse this: Net neutrality on wikipedia.

The Trump administration has appointed a new chairman for the FCC, Ajit Pai, who is considering changing the rules put in place during the Obama administration to prevent unfair competition on the internet.

Here’s the link John talked about to make logging into the FCC to comment on this easier: http://gofccyourself.com.

[via Steve Splonskowski]

What is Literature for?

What is Literature for? from Marcus Armitage on Vimeo.

This is a brilliant mixed-media animation by Marcus Armitage on why we read books and what they can do for us.

The animation reminds me of a great Pixar short: Your Friend the Rat which is an extra on the DVD of the Pixar film Ratatouille and is also available to buy on iTunes ($2.99).

[via Caterina.net]

The mathematics of sidewalk illusions

Brilliant, the best explaination of this I’ve ever seen.

“Have you ever come across an oddly stretched image on the sidewalk, only to find that it looks remarkably realistic if you stand in exactly the right spot? These sidewalk illusions employ a technique called anamorphosis — a special case of perspective art where artists represent 3D views on 2D surfaces. So how is it done? Fumiko Futamura traces the history and mathematics of perspective.”

[via The Kid Should See This]

This Too Won’t Pass

This Too Won’t Pass

Dave Pell has written a terrific essay on how the US election looks to his parents who are both Holocaust survivors.

My dad survived the Holocaust, lost his entire family, fought with the Partisans, and is a full-fledged hero. My mom survived Kristallnacht, seventy-eight years ago today. She escaped to a children’s home in France and eventually made her way to America, where she’s been working to help educate people and end prejudice of all types for her entire adult life.

Can you imagine what they must have thought when they witnessed people at Trump rallies yelling “Jew-S-A”?!

Note: Even though I’m a news junkie and very political, I’ve tried over the many years I’ve been publishing this weblog to keep politics out of it. The fact that I’m posting about our recent US election and Donald Trump in particular has everything to do with the kind of campaign he ran, not his particular policies which we know little about at this point. My grandparents got out of Europe before 1900 but as a Jew I’ve been taught all my life to keep an eye on any politician who uses fear, especially of “foreigners” to drive popularity. Trump is the first politician in my lifetime (I’m 65) who has won an election using this tactic. It may not be the main reason he won, but its at least a part of the many reasons he won. I think it’s important to keep track of this and I plan to, here.

Vigilance

Vigilance

Jonathan Poritsky who writes The Candler Blog has written a great essay on what’s just happened with the U.S. election. As a fellow Jew I identified with all of it.

When I speak with friends about my concerns as a Jew, they often tell me it won’t happen here, that I am overreacting. But it’s already happening, just not to me. A man spent a year-and-a-half selling Americans on the forcible expulsion of millions of immigrants and shutting them off from us behind a wall. And then he got elected president. If the mass deportations happen, or if the wall gets built, this is a dark path for our country. And that will only be the beginning.

As someone who recently turned 65, I’ve lived long enough to have met people who got out of Europe before Hitler’s rein (my grandparents), and in this country I also experienced the aftermath of Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt: the woman who introduced my parents’ father was a judge who went before HUAC and was eventually disbarred because he was Jewish and liberal.

What many don’t realize is that when you are part of a group who is being singled out, it’s particularly frightening when a person like Donald Trump stirs up fear and scapegoating. Trump may not be personally anti-Semitic (his son in law is an orthodox Jew and his daughter Ivanka converted) but pockets of his supporters most certainly are: witness crowds yelling “Jew-S.A” at Trump rallies and Trump’s last advertisement made reference to (Jews) who run the financial world and are responsible for all that is bad.

I’m definitely worried and while I’ve lived with mild anti-Semitism my whole life, I’m guessing it will get worse now. I’m also concerned for people like my late mother’s helper, Marta who is an American who emigrated from Ethiopia. How should she think about what happens at Trump rallies and the blatant hate of President Obama (because he is black).

Its possible that Donald Trump said many of the extreme things he said simply to get elected, that he doesn’t really want to make a wall or deport Muslims. But, as Jonathan says in his essay, this is what the beginning looks like and as Jew who was brought up to “never forget” I can tell you that I haven’t forgotten and I’m scared, both for myself and for my country.