Daniel Duane has written the best piece I’ve read so far about Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.
This is an incredible achievement. It’s a landmark in the history of rock climbing. Honnold is an exceptional climber and has free soloed (no rope or other equipment) many difficult routes before but this route is in another category.
I climbed the Nose Route on El Capitan in the late 1970’s in slightly slower than what was then the regular time: 4 days (an extra day) and with about half the climb using aid (using gear to advance, not just protect a fall). The route Honnold has done is much harder than the Nose route and he’s done it free solo. Freerider is a variant of the Salathe Wall route put up by the recently deceased Royal Robbins in 1961.
I’m a long retired climber but I’m interested in how the sport has advanced over the many years since I did it. This is a very large advance.
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.
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.
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.
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)
You may have followed the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson doing the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley but with all the media buzz the pioneer of that route and it’s controversial history seems to have gotten lost (not by Caldwell and Jorgeson, by the media and the public at large).
To understand what Caldwell and Jorgeson have done in context, one needs to understand how climbing works.
Free soloing is climbing without a rope or any protection. Free climbing (what they did) is using a rope and a variety of gear to climb safely up a wall. If either party falls, the rope and belayer is there to catch them. Aid climbing is standing or hanging on the gear to make progress, also tied into a rope.
Almost every route on El Capitan was first climbed with mixed free and aid climbing. As climbers have acclimated to doing harder things on big walls, at least partly because ropes can now absorb multiple falls without failing or hurting the person falling, climbers have started free climbing pitches on climbs that were once climbed only with aid. Climbers are more willing to risk a fall when they know the gear will protect them.
When the Dawn Wall was first climbed aid was used on almost every pitch. Over many years, things have changed such that Caldwell and Jorgeson have climbed the entire route without the use of aid.
The first person to climb El Capitan by any route was the late Warren Harding and the route he pioneered in 1958 was at the very prow of the huge cliff and he named it The Nose. He climbed it “expedition style” in 47 days over a period of a year and a half with a variety of partners (most climbers were freaked out to go up there and Harding himself scared them). He’d go up, explore a few pitches (rope lengths), leave some gear hanging there, then come down and rest up as well as get drunk (he was a drinker).
When he did this climb most of the technology which climbers now take for granted didn’t exist. He had to cut the metal legs off of wood stoves to make pitons wide enough for what are now called “the stoveleg cracks.”
Harding on completing the first ascent of The Nose:
I suppose this article could be titled “The Conquest of El Capitan”. However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.
In following years, another Yosemite pioneer Royal Robbins did the Nose Route with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost in a continuous push over seven days.
When I was in Yosemite, the Nose route was routinely climbed in three long days with mixed free (up to 5.10) and aid climbing.
One of the best ways to see what climbing El Capitan looked like during my time there is to watch the film: El Capitan which was shot in 1968.
The Nose route saw its first fully free ascent in 1999 by Lynn Hill. Hill’s accomplishment is probably one of the most significant steps toward what Caldwell and Jorgeson have recently done.
The Nose Route is the most popular big wall route on El Capitan and while modern climbers have honed the style by which it is done, Harding pioneered the route and got over what was a huge psychological barrier.
The Wall of Early Morning Light
By 1970 there were many routes on El Capitan pioneered by a variety of Yosemite climbers and earlier routes were being repeated with more free climbing and with faster times.
In 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (not related) decided to climb a relatively blank section of El Capitan to the east of the Nose Route where the sun first hits the cliff each morning. Harding named it: The Wall of Early Morning Light. No one was interested in this seemingly contrived route: it didn’t follow natural crack systems but instead, followed acres of blank wall. This appealed to Harding (probably at least partly because others disliked it) and he and Caldwell decided to do the route in a single push from the ground. Harding invented the “bat tent” (covered hammock) for this route as there were no ledges to rest or camp on.
In order to get over the blank sections Harding drilled holes (with a rawl/hand drill) and pounded in hundreds of expansion bolts. The over-use of these was considered bad form by most of the Yosemite elite climbers, especially Royal Robbins who was irritated by Harding’s renegade attitude.
With bolts you can climb anything by brute force and this was counter to Robbins’ idea that it wasn’t about getting to the top, it was the style in which you did it that mattered most.
I was climbing with some hotshot Brit in Yosemite once, and he said, “My God, Harding, you can’t do anything!” I said, “I know, but I can do it forever.”
The climb took 27 days and in the middle of it, during a storm and with no communication with the climbers the Park Service organized a rescue which was rejected.
When Harding and Caldwell topped out the media was on top waiting for them, something that had never happened before. This pissed off Royal Robbins who no doubt thought other, more aesthetic climbs done by more wholesome climbers deserved media attention, not this contrived bolt ladder done by Harding.
Robbins decided to take decisive action and went up on the route with the intention of erasing it by chopping out the bolts. Once he got part way up he realized that Harding had put up another masterpiece and even though it was done with what Robbins considered too many bolts, the route was a great one and Robbins thought it should remain intact.
Over many years those bolts have been replaced and the route’s name has been shortened to the Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell, who has no doubt climbed every route on El Capitan and is considered one of the best rock climbers in the world, decided to attempt to free climb the Dawn Wall and over many years he worked out the moves and on this latest effort along with Kevin Jorgeson he did it in one, continuous push.
Harding died in 2002 but I’m guessing that wherever he is, he’s delighted that his route turned into the hardest free climb in the world.
This entire history is beautifully documented in the film Valley Uprising which I highly recommend.
*In researching whether the above image was taken in Eugene or Portland, I asked my old climbing buddy Chris Jones to comment:
I never climbed with him, but, considering that it’s Harding, I had a more classic (if not classy) one-time episode with him – I got stinking drunk with him (and a few others) at the Telluride film festival in 1985. Might have been the high point of my climbing career, although he barely remembered me the next day.
I climbed there in the mid to late ’70s, know this history well and I think they got it right which is amazing for an old “trad” like me to say.
Excellent archival images and footage, great interviews with many of the historic figures (Steve Roper is hilarious), toward the present show extreme free climbing and free soloing on big walls, timely given what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have just accomplished on the Dawn Wall on El Capitan.
If you’re a Yosemite climber from any part of it’s history, you’ll enjoy this excellent documentary. Even my wife watched the entire thing and I was pretty much done with climbing by the time I met her, although we visited Yosemite Valley in 1990 as a family.
My flickr contact Stan Yoshinobu posted another wonderful shot taken in Yosemite Valley, this time of (from left to right): Yosemite Falls, The Lost Arrow Spire, and Yosemite Point with two wonderful trees in the foreground and a light snow and ground fog to make it even more atmospheric.
I spent many summers climbing in Yosemite Valley in the 1970’s and early 1980’s.
My flickr contact Stan Yoshinobu posted another shot taken in Yosemite Valley, this time of the northwest face of Half Dome with clouds surrounding it. There is no doubt that Stan waited a while to get this shot, waiting for the light to hit the top of the dome just right so it had the most contrast with the sky. This is a brilliant image and no doubt Ansel Adams would be impressed.
On the left edge of the frame is Royal Arches and to the right of it, Washington Column, both of which have numerous rock climbed on them (which I did a long time ago). More recently (20 years ago) my wife and I hiked up the back side of Half Dome (went up the cables) and hung out over the visor. Too bad I didn’t take a lot of pictures on that hike, it was epic.
My flickr contact Stan Yoshinobu took a spectacular shot of Yosemite Falls at night (scene lit by the moon).
Yosemite Point is at the right edge of the frame and Just to the left of Yosemite point but not all the way to the falls you can see The Lost Arrow Spire, a slender, detached granite spire visible from the valley floor and a difficult technical rock climb.
I climbed the Arrow Tip in the 1970s and at some point I hope to put together the scanned images of that climb with the story. It was a great climb that I did with my then girlfriend.
My flickr contact Stan Yoshinobu posted this dramatic image of a storm breaking over Clouds Rest, a rock formation near Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.
Petapixel and now others are posting about this and its definitely worth considering. I posted a comment on Petapixel this morning and I’ll repost it here.
Here’s the National Park Service notice: Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) Prohibited in Yosemite National Park.
Image of Yosemite Falls and Point by flickr member ScottD75.
Over 30 years ago I spent summers climbing in Yosemite Valley. If you look at the image used in this post, you see Yosemite Falls and at the far right on that ridge is Yosemite Point. Just to the left of the point you can just make out a small pinnacle detached from the cliff which is called The Lost Arrow Spire.
When my then girlfriend and I climbed the Lost Arrow Spire what we didn’t consider was its proximity to the most populated spot in the valley: Yosemite Village. I happened to be wearing a red shirt when I lead this climb and when I topped out every car horn in the valley went off; I had no clue so many people were following us with binoculars and the sound about knocked me off the top (yes, I was tied in but I didn’t expect it, guess it was a tradition I didn’t know about).
I’m pretty sure that had there been drones around in those days someone might have decided to get a closer look at us with one. Three things to consider:
1. Had the drone gotten too close and knocked me off the A-4 pitch (back then) in the middle of this climb, it might have caused a serious problem.
2. The falls wasn’t running when we did the climb so all we could hear (before the car horns went off) was a bit of wind. I’m not sure I’d have appreciated a drone hovering nearby, even with a quiet electrical hum. If it got in the way of our leader-belayer signals I’d have been unhappy about it and it was tough to hear each other on the very extended last pitch.
3. We did take some pictures on the climb but I’d have paid a lot of money to the drone pilot/photographer for that video had it turned out well, or even if it was mediocre. (I’m having those slides scanned right now. Stay tuned for a post with them.)
One of my favorite movies on climbing in Yosemite back in the day, El Capitan, has been digitally remastered and is available on Amazon (I posted about it here). When it was made, over a single summer, the climber/filmmaker Glen Denny did the climb with the three climbers but also got footage from a helicopter. All of that is cut together by Fred Padula. The film is dated but it remains one of the finest accounts of an early climb of the Nose Route on one of the greatest granite cliffs on earth.
Bottom line: had Padula and Denny had drones, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have used them and it would have made the film better. That said, the Park service would have (correctly) warned other climbing parties on El Cap about the drones.