Royal Robbins on the First Ascent of the North American Wall
The first ascent of the route that defined El Cap’s most terrifying aspect.
This article appeared in Ascent 2013 (Rock and Ice issue 2010). Published since 1967, Ascent has a long tradition of documenting pivotal climbs by the world’s pioneers and writers such as Robbins, David Roberts, Reinhold Messner and others.
One of my most treasured possessions is an oval, blind-gate carabiner with “RR” stamped on it. The initials, of course, stand for Royal Robbins. The carabiner was his and it speaks of a time, roughly 1957 to 1971, when he owned not just the carabiner but Yosemite itself. The Northwest Face of Half Dome was his, by any and all routes. So was the left side of El Cap where he had his Salathé Wall, and made the first solo of the big stone, via the Muir Wall in 1968. Then there were his innumerable hard free routes, done in glorified hiking boots or “RRs,” as they were called, a tip of the hat to the man.
By the time I got the carabiner, left fixed by Robbins at a lower-out point on the Wall of Early Morning Light in 1971 and snagged by me and my buddy Mark Herndon in 1982, Robbins was long gone from the Valley, having quit climbing and taken up kayaking, an activity that was kinder to his arthritis.
Robbins’ legacy is long but his actual climbing career was relatively short, a point that surprises most of today’s climbers. He began climbing in 1947, made his first excursion to Yosemite in 1952, got serious in 1955, and quit hard climbing less than 20 years later when he was only in his mid 30s. Countless climbers have stayed in the game much longer than that, and their climbs, like his, are measurable.
It is his influence that is incalculable.
Of note, Basic and Advanced Rockcraft, written by Robbins in the early 1970s, sold over 400,000 copies and passed along knowledge such as the carabiner-brake rappel and Jumaring, techniques that now seem obvious but were invented only by taking risk. The books, and the way Robbins wrote about climbing, nudged the sport into a purer form. Robbins was a stylist and was one of the first climbers to insist that there was more to climbing than first ascents. You could climb routes faster. Increase commitment by not using fixed ropes. Free aid moves. Minimize bolts.
“I realized,” he said in Mountain in 1971, “that the ultimate challenge in mountaineering is the one that makes the greatest demands on the maximum number of human qualities.”
Robbins was highly competitive, and openly so. “I was part of a group that reacted against the lie of the older generation that there was no competition,” he said. “Climbers who feel competition has no place in climbing and want to avoid it, are kidding themselves … For the most part it’s just fashion.”
Quick to criticize climbers he perceived as using bad form—he thought very little of Ed Cooper, an outsider who had never climbed in Yosemite but spent 38 days sieging the Dihedral Wall. Robbins took his ethics to the extreme when he began chopping what he considered an excessive number of bolts on Warren Harding’s Wall of Early Morning Light. He quit erasing the bolts after just four pitches when he discovered that the climbing wasn’t a simple bolt ladder and had instead the hardest nailing he had ever encountered.
When John Long arrived in Yosemite in the early 1970s, Robbins and his generation—including Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt, Glen Denny, and others—had already vacated. The Valley, says Long, was empty. Routes were there for the taking and it was up to the new generation to grab them and push the grades into the stratosphere. As Long and his gang of climbers ticked off Astroman, did the first one-day ascent of The Nose, and generally smashed all conceptions of what could be free climbed, they were driven not so much by how they would go down in history, but by what Robbins would think. Their mantra, says Long, was to “Not let Robbins down. We had to keep the unknown quotient as high as possible.”
In the story that follows, excerpted from Robbins’ 2012 autobiography, My Life, Volume Two, The Golden Age, he recalls one of his greatest achievements on rock, the first ascent of El Cap’s North America Wall. As background, at the time Robbins attempted the wall, there were just two lines on El Cap: the Nose, done by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore in 1958, taking 47 days and fixing ropes nearly the entire length of the cliff, and the Salathé Wall, climbed in 1961 by Robbins, Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt. On theSalathé, Robbins’ team fixed ropes from Heart Ledge at roughly one-third height, then cut the ropes loose for the push to the top. Dropping the fixed ropes represented a new level in commitment and risk—if they didn’t make it, or if there was an accident, it would have taken days for a rescue to get to them. The prospect of being stranded on the sea of stone was real and terrifying.
The North America Wall, however, was an even bigger step up in risk and confidence. The wall was steeper, harder, looser, and the line less obvious than what anyone had ever attempted. Robbins, who had become even more competitive by this time, was eager to be the first up the wall to “add to one’s reputation.” Indeed, he admittedly thought more in terms of “doing climbs for fame than of doing them just for the fun of it.”
To that end, he decided to not use any fixed rope. They would make the ultimate splash by going for it in one push.
First, however, Robbins made a few investigative probes. On the first excursion, with Glen Denny, he got 400 feet up before he ripped a pin and Denny burned his hands holding the fall. Next, Robbins and Denny, with Frost, climbed halfway up the wall, placing 18 bolts and rappelling from the big ledge they called “Easy Street.” After that, they were ready to make history.
Royal Robbins on the First Ascent of the North American Wall
I had been thinking about the North America Wall all year or even longer. We didn’t want to use fixed ropes, but we also didn’t know if we could climb the face. After climbing Proboscis the year before, in 1963, and before that the Direct Northwest Face of Half Dome and Salathé, I felt we’d reached the point in Yosemite where we expected to get up a wall. But we didn’t expect to get up the North America Wall in particular. There were too many unknowns. For example, we didn’t know where the route went or even if there was a route—El Capitan’s southeast face lacked the continuous crack systems of the southwest face and the Salathé. Also, an El Cap route had never been established without some fixed lines. Well, we wanted an adventure, and climbing the southeast face of El Capitan without umbilical cords would be one sure way to have one.
The “we” consisted of Tom Frost, Chuck Pratt and me. Glen Denny wasn’t available. We cast around, inviting Pat Ament from Colorado. He couldn’t go, so we asked Yvon Chouinard. Yes, Yvon would be our fourth. It was good having him on the team. For one thing Yvon wasn’t a Valley “regular,” having done most of his early climbing in the Tetons. So we couldn’t be accused of recruiting only Yosemite veterans. We knew, from Chouinard’s past experience, that he was a very able climber, as well as an inventor and maker of pitons. But he had something else: He had a certain self-confidence. It was hard to quantify, but he had it. And if someone believes in himself, others believe in him too. We were no exception, and we were right. On the North America Wall, Yvon proved himself worthy again and again. Frost was Yvon’s partner in business and the manufacture of climbing equipment, as well as his climbing partner on the first ascent of the West Face of Sentinel rock. I had climbed often with Tom, who was not only a very good climber, but also had a keen sense of humor. Our team was complete, and strong. We would need a strong team for this wall.
The Valley was still in the grip of an Indian summer. It was very hot, especially on south-facing El Capitan. Finally, on October 22, we could wait no longer—November and its storms would soon arrive. We carried loads to the base of the route in the sweltering heat. Yvon and Tom climbed the first pitch, and we four bivouacked at the foot of the wall. Yvon was nearly sleepless.
The next morning, with the relentless sun beating upon us, we continued. Tom and Yvon led, while Chuck and I followed with the bags. On the next two pitches, two pitons pulled out. The falls were stopped right away, but the pitons coming out showed the tenuous nature of the nailing.
The heat was withering. If it continued to stay hot, our 60 quarts of water would not be enough. We normally planned on a quart and a half per man per day. So under “normal” conditions (i.e. the north face of Sentinel Rock) we would have enough water for 10 days. But with the heat on a south-facing route we might run out.
We reached Mazatlan Ledge, 500 feet up, and spent the night. On the second day Chuck and I were to climb, with Frost and Chouinard “hauling,” which meant prussiking with Jumars with a duffel bag attached to their waists. Pratt led past a cavernous overhang, and I led the next pitch up a line of bolts from an earlier attempt, to “Easy Street,” a large, broken ledge at 700 feet. It’s a good thing it was “easy,” as we had entered the diorite, which, because of its dark shape on the southeast face, gives the North America Wall its name. Diorite by nature proved less reliable than the light-colored El Cap granite we were used to. “Easy” meant we didn’t have to place many pitons in the diorite, which tended to break off in blocks. We climbed up the ledge a ways and bivied.
Our mantra, says Long, was to “Not let Robbins down. We had to keep the unknown quotient as high as possible.”
Slowed by our numbers and by the hauling, we didn’t reach our previous high point of Big Sur Ledge until late on the fourth day. Tom led off Big Sur, traversing into unknown territory. He began by climbing diagonally left until he was 60 feet above us, then placed a bolt. We lowered Tom until he was about our level but 30 feet away. Then, since the wall was overhanging and he couldn’t get purchase for his feet, we pulled Tom toward us with a hauling line attached to his waist—until we got him almost to the ledge—and released him. After several tries he got the range, and was able to swing to another ledge and place a piton. We lowered Tom again, and he performed another pendulum to a blank wall where he placed a bolt and returned to Big Sur, happy and fulfilled.
We bivied on the Big Sur Ledge, and on the fifth morning I led off using Tom’s rope coming down from the bolt 60 feet above us. Chuck followed, and he and I completed the traverse across light-colored granite and climbed 200 feet up into the right-angling corner known as the “Black Dihedral,” the feature that Tom had described as, “The ugliest thing I have ever contemplated climbing.” Thus we got back into the diorite, with its treacherous rock. It was after dark by the time we returned to Big Sur.
The next day, the sixth, Tom and Yvon did the climbing up the Black Dihedral. It overhung so radically to the right that the belayer and the hauling team were safe from the rocks and debris loosed by the leader. Frost and Chouinard reached the top of the Black Dihedral after dark. When Chuck and I arrived we four set up hammocks suspended from pitons driven into cracks in the ceiling—“The Black Cave,” we named it. With flashlights we could see centipedes crawling around on the roof above, but at least we couldn’t see down. That would have to wait until morning. In the meantime Yvon, Pratt, and I had a good sleep in our nylon rip-stop hammocks, which Liz had created and sewn especially for this climb. Tom stuck to his tried-and-true hammock of elastic cords.
In the morning we could see we overhung the ground, 1,600 feet below us. It was an airy place, fierce with exposure. It was Pratt’s and my turn to climb, so Chuck led off, pitoning from our hanging bivouac out to the edge of the Black Cave. We passed the camera to him so he could get that famous shot of us in our three hammocks. Then he returned the camera and followed a crack sideways. We could see the lower part of Chuck’s body move horizontally from left to right. Then he disappeared by going straight up to a blank wall, where he placed two bolts and belayed in slings. I followed reluctantly. After all, it was my turn, and Tom and Yvon had done their part the previous day in getting us to the Black Cave.
When I reached Chuck I complimented him on his lead. We looked around: The sky was darkening, clouds were building, and a south wind was blowing. It looked like rain, but if we could reach the Cyclop’s Eye—a large depression in the upper part of the wall—with its overhang far above, we thought we would be sheltered. We climbed as quickly as we could. Showers started before we reached the Eye late in the day. It was well after dark when Tom and Yvon, using our fixed ropes, joined us at our cave shelter.
In the morning we could see we overhung the ground, 1,600 feet below us.
That night we listened through a two-way radio to our friend Mort Hempel singing folk songs. Of course I was up on the wall and Liz down in the Valley. I didn’t give her much thought at the time—on a climb, we didn’t think about girls much, focusing instead on staying alive. That’s enough, for the moment. It’s afterwards that we think of the women in our lives, and then they are serious business.
We learned from Mort that the storm we were sheltered from was supposed to last several days. That was not good news, but we were cozy for the moment and slept well.
The next morning, the eighth, it had stopped raining but the clouds persisted. I guess it didn’t rain that day. I don’t know. That was a problem for Frost and Chouinard. Chuck and I stayed where we were, protected by the overhang. Yvon went first, showing his mastery of climbing loose, rotten rock. Tom followed and led the second pitch of the day. Then, reaching the top of the Eye, Yvon placed pitons between overhanging blocks that weren’t solid. It was again after dark by the time Tom and Yvon returned to our protected bivouac spot at the base of the Cyclop’s Eye.
The ninth morning was cloudy, and through the mist we saw that the Valley rim and the high peaks had donned a new coat of white. Snow covered the bald top of Half Dome. Chuck and I were wet and cold and would have liked to stay put, but it was time to get moving, so we ascended our friends’ fixed ropes to the top of the Eye. Here, Chuck set up a belay in slings. From his stance I hand-traversed left and did some fancy nailing, slipping around on the wet, licheny rock and swimming in ice water pouring down from snowmelt. I did a lot of traversing on that pitch, getting farther and farther from Pratt, who was still belaying in slings. The exposure was terrifying. When you are climbing upward you get used to exposure, but when traversing the view below you is always new, so you don’t get accustomed to the height.
Eventually, I climbed straight up, reaching a sort of cave near the top of the wall. We called our lucky find the “Igloo.” It had a flat, sandy floor that could hold four people, and a big, flat boulder for a roof. We expected more rain, and the Igloo would be a good place to be if it stormed. Our friends hauling the loads soon joined us, and we spent the night there.
The morning of the tenth day was sunny, a fortunate turn of events for which we were thankful. Our bodies soaked up the sun’s rays, and we luxuriated on the flat rock above the Igloo. It was less than 300 feet to the top. I got to climb that day, taking Tom’s place as Yvon’s partner. Tom said he wasn’t feeling well, but I somehow doubted it. To this day, I think he was just being generous—letting me climb on “the summit team”—because the wall had been my idea. In any case I led off, starting with a big step to the right in the warm sunlight. I then traversed away from my friends on the flat rock until I reached a belay spot and brought Chouinard across. He went first to the final overhangs, which I led with difficulty to the top, thinking, “Well, this will give those who come after something to think about.”
It was tough placing pitons. I got the bright idea of holding myself into the rock by hooking my waist loop directly to the piton from which I was suspended, thus facilitating a higher placement of the next piton. I thought this pretty clever, but Dennis Hennek, on the second ascent, didn’t have any trouble here. (I was on top, watching.)
There was a bit of snow atop El Capitan and the white stuff covered the High Sierra, but the sky was blue and the sun was warm. We went down off El Cap by way of the East Ledges and reached the valley that evening, very satisfied. That’s the way it is with good climbs—they leave you feeling satisfied.