Robbins still climbing
By Amy Fendley
Royal Robbins, the adventure pioneer behind the clothing line of the same name is coming to speak in Whistler. His slide presentation, "Climbs and Climbers I Have Known" will highlight many of his experiences from a lifetime of climbing, as well as focus on some of the famous and outrageous characters he has met.
Born in 1935 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Robbins was five years old when he moved with his mother to Southern California. He grew up in and around Los Angeles.
As a 14-year-old Boy Scout, Robbins was honoured by being chosen "Outstanding Outdoor Scout" in his troop, and joined scouts from other troops in Los Angeles for a two-week backpacking trip to the high Sierra in the Rae Lakes area. It was during this trip that his eyes were opened to the beauty of the Sierra, and marked the start of a never-to-be-renounced love affair with the out doors. It was on that trip that he was introduced to rock climbing and found it came naturally and instinctively, like nothing he had ever done before.
Robbins dropped out of high school at 16, but eventually got his diploma by attending night school at Hollywood High.
"I had trouble finding motivation when I had to go to school," says Robbins. "I quit school to work in the mountains, but it gave me the opportunity to learn to ski. I worked for the Union Bank in downtown Los Angeles for six years and that was fun, but climbing is more fun. I was made for it, and when you’re doing what you love you don’t have to look for inspiration."
After cutting his teeth on the sandstone outcrops in the San Fernando Valley, Robbins spent his early years developing his skills on the monolith of Tahquitz Rock in the San Jacinto Mountains southeast of L.A. He became one of the leading climbers there and made many first ascents, including a free ascent of the Open Book which was identified at that time, 1952, as the hardest rock climb in the country. In 1953, Robbins and two other young climbers, Don Wilson and Jerry Gallwas, made the second ascent of the North Face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley, then regarded as one of the two hardest climbs in the U.S.
In 1957, Robbins, Gallwas and Mike Sherrick made the five-day first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome, the first Grade VI climb in the country.
In 1960, after serving for two years with the army, he worked at Sugar Bowl near Donner Pass, California, as a ski instructor during the winter, spending the rest of the year camping, travelling, and living out of a Volkswagen bus as he pursued his passion for climbing. He continued making many other first ascents of walls in Yosemite, as well as new routes in other regions of North America and the Alps.
A year later, Robbins met Elizabeth Burkner who worked as a hostess in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. They married in 1965 and soon after started their business, Mountain Paraphernalia, importing and distributing climbing gear. By 1979, they offered a complete line of outdoor clothing and the name of the company was changed to Royal Robbins.
Robbins has also made many first kayak descents of wild rivers in the Sierra Nevada, including the San Joaquin, the Kern and the Kings. He has been to Chile four times in search of whitewater adventure, has run rivers in Norway and Russia and is among the first Westerners to visit a remote section of Siberia to run the Bashkaus River.
When asked about his experience with Canadian climbers, Robbins replied: "Zero." However, he has climbed the Logan Mountains in the Banff area. As well, in the late ’60s he conducted a five day climbing seminar at the Squamish Chief, doing mainly short climbs and focusing on technique.
Of all the people the 64-year-old Robbins has met, he says he was most inspired by Lou Tice of the Pacific Institute, an organization concentrating on teaching people effective thinking skills. He met Tice when he took a course at the Institute, and has since made it mandatory for all of his staff in four factory outlet stores to take the course.
"We’re happiest when we are working towards our goals, to keep on climbing," says Robbins. "We are happiest when we are climbing to the top, not once we are at the top. It is important to learn this."
Robbins says that Israel and Ireland have been two of the places he has always wanted to travel to. Last year he visited Ireland, and was fascinated by its incredible history. Israel is next.
"Israel is quite a centre," says Robbins. "Just being there would be quite something.
"My advice for anybody, is if you want to do something, do it. Find something that pays your way or act frugally and save your pennies. My wife and I lived out of a VW bus, you must be willing to give up a lot of things. Doing what you love pays off, or at least it is more likely to. Nothing’s for certain."
And lastly, what does Robbins think of climbing walls?
"I love them, I wish we had them when we were doing this," said Robbins. "It’s a great way to get exercise and you have to think. It’s also a great way for people who don’t go out to the mountains to experience the magic of getting the first climb."
Climbs and Climbers I Have Known, will take place Thursday, June 24 at 7 p.m. in the Sky Ballroom of the Whistler Resort Conference Centre. Admission is free.