Tis-sa-ack | Ascent
Royal Robbins hardly needs an introduction. Ever the visionary, he was the first to climb Half Dome’s Northwest Face and the second to top out on El Cap. Basic Rockcraft and Advanced Rockcraft were two of his books that, quite literally, inspired generations of climbers.
“Tis- sa-ack,” first published in Ascent in 1970 (the route was completed in 1969), takes the form of a bantering dialogue between Robbins, some friends, and his eventual partner, Don Peterson, on the first ascent of Half Dome’s “steep” side. Don’t be fooled, however—Robbins wrote the whole thing, imagining what his partners must have thought of him.
This is a must-read, filled with snarky comments about being on belay duty for six hours, complaints about not bringing the right pins, and passive-aggressive comments born of frayed nerves. In this essay, you can get a personal glimpse of how Robbins viewed others, the act of climbing, and how he thought others viewed him. For these reasons, and so much more, “Tis-sa-ack” the story is as classic as the climb.
HENNEK: It was Robbins’ idea, mainly. It was on a lot of guys’ minds. Had been for a long time. I had thought of it, and when I loaned him my glass I figured he was taking a look. Meant more to him than anyone. He already had two routes on the face, and couldn’t bear to see anyone else get this one. He wanted to own Half Dome.
ROBBINS: In the afternoon Marshall—I call him Marshall because Roper started that, Roper likes to call people by their middle names, and such. Like he calls me “Roy,” because he hates the pretentiousness of my first name. And I can’t help that. Anyway he likes to call Pratt Marshall, so I will try it for a while. Marshall led a nice pitch up into this huge slanting dihedral of white rock streaked with black lichen: the Zebra. Those black streaks, legend tells us, were made by the tears of the Indian girl for whom I named the route.
PRATT: I belayed in slings at the top of this pitch which wasn’t too bad, except at the start where you’re 30 feet out with nothing in and then you start aiding with a couple of shitty pins. Royal liked the next pitch because it was loose and gave him an excuse to play around with those damn nuts and feel like they were really doing some good, which I doubt. But I am, it’s true, rather conservative. Then we came down on fixed ropes and slept on a big ledge we called the Dormitory.
HENNEK: We would have been all right in the Zebra but we didn’t have enough big pitons, even though we were carrying two sets of hardware. We needed about 10 two- inch and a dozen inch-and-a-half pitons. The reason we had two sets of hardware is so one guy could be climbing all the time while another was cleaning. I led to the top of the Zebra and Pratt came up and started leading around the overhang at the top while Robbins cleaned the last pitch.
ROBBINS: From Hennek’s hanging belay the crack widened to five inches. So Marshall used a four-inch piton, our biggest, endwise. It was weird, driven straight up like that. Then he got in a couple of good pins and used two nuts behind a terrible flake. Pitons would have torn it off. He didn’t like it. Marshall hates nuts. He was talking about how it was shifting and then lodging again, just barely. I think he wanted it to come out so he could say, Robbins I told you so. But it held long enough for him to place a bolt, but it wasn’t very good because he wanted to get off that nut before the nut got off the flake.
HENNEK: We couldn’t see Chuck bolting above the overhang, but Glen Denny, who was taking pictures from across the way, got some good shots of us hanging there and Pratt working away. About dusk I lowered Royal out to jumar up and then I started cleaning the pitch.
ROBBINS: When I got up there I saw Marshall had managed to bash three pins into unlikely cracks. There was nothing to stand on. When I pictured the three of us hanging from those pitons I immediately got out the drill. Marshall isn’t known as an anti-bolt fanatic—it’s true about that thing on Shiprock, but that was mainly Roper— he isn’t known as a fanatic, but there is no one slower on the bolt gun draw than Marshall Pratt. I got in a good solid bolt and we settled down for the night.
HENNEK: Royal says settled down, but he didn’t get settled very fast. He was screwing around and cursing in the blackness, and then I heard this rip. He had put too much weight on one end of his hammock, and he ought to know better having designed the mothers, and then there was this explosion of screeching and shouting and terrible foul language that would have done credit even to Steve Roper. I thought it was funny. It went on and on. Fulminations in the darkness. I was amazed that he so completely lost control because he always seemed like such an iceberg.
ROBBINS: I had a unique experience the next day: placing 16 bolts in a row. It was just blank and there was no way around. But it was a route worth bolting for, and after a time I began to take an almost perverse joy in it, or at least in doing a good job. I put them in all the way, so they’re good solid reliable bolts, and I put them quite far apart, so I think that it’s perhaps the most craftsmanlike ladder of that many bolts in the world. Still, I was really happy to reach with the aid of a skyhook a crack descending from a ledge 50 feet higher. When Marshall came up he was raving. He raved a lot on that wall. He’s an outstanding ravist, often shouting at the top of his lungs like Othello in heat. “Why, why, why,” he shrieked, “Why didn’t I re-up?” “Christ, I could be a sergeant by now, with security and self-respect. Why did I start climbing in the first place? Shit, I could have been a physicist, with a big desk and a secretary. A secretary!” he repeated, brightening, a leer breaking across his face. “But, no, no, I couldn’t do that. I had to drop out of college. Because I … I,” his voice rising in a crescendo. “I, like Christian Bonington, chose to climb.” I was convulsed. We were having a good time. Nobody uptight. No ego trips. But we were low on bolts and low on water. We would have to go down the next day. It was late afternoon and…
HENNEK: I’ll take over here to save all of us from another of Royal’s glowing descriptions of how the sun goes down. After a night on the ledge—and a rather long October night at that—we rappelled, placing bolts and dropping from one hanging stance to another. We all wanted to return. It was going to be a good route, and we left a lot of hardware at the base, to save carrying it up next time.
PRATT: But when next time came, in June, the summit snowfield was still draining down the face. It had been a heavy winter. So we put it off until the fall, and I went to the Tetons, Robbins went to Alaska to stoke his alpine hang-up, and Dennis went fun-climbing in Tuolumne Meadows and re-damaged an old injury so he was out of the running for the year. In October I got a card from Robbins saying he’d be up in a few days for the Dome, and when he didn’t arrive it really pissed me off, and when days later he still didn’t arrive I said fuck it and made plans to go on El Cap with Tom Bauman. Christ, when Robbins didn’t show, people were looking for him on Half Dome, solo. And then when he finally came up several days late his mood really turned me off. He was tense and cold. He said he couldn’t wait until Tom and I had done our climb; he was taking the Dome too seriously, so I decided not to go.
ROBBINS: When Chuck said he wouldn’t go I was almost relieved. At least now he couldn’t make me feel like I was dirtying the pants of American Mountaineering. I feel guilty with a camera when Pratt is on the rope. It’s like asking a Navajo to pose, and I would never do that. Marshall hates cameras as much as he hates my puns and 5.10 psychos. He doesn’t want anything to get between him and the climbing experience. He suggested I ask Don Peterson. Peterson had been up the Dihedral Wall and was hot to go on anything as long as it was difficult. Although he had never studied the wall, it didn’t take much persuading.
PETERSON: We agreed to go up in the morning. Robbins was like a man possessed. He was totally zeroed in on Half Dome. He had a lecture date soon, and he had to squeeze it in. It rained like hell that night and looked bad in the morning but Robbins figured we might as well go up because it might not storm. I didn’t like it but I didn’t say anything, and we started walking up expecting to get bombed on any minute.
ROBBINS: Our loads were murderous. We stopped where the great slabs begin and gazed upward. “Didn’t know what you were getting into, did you?” I asked, facetiously. “Well,” replied Don, “it can’t be any harder than things I’ve already done.” I turned absolutely frigid. The tone of the next eight days was set right there.
PETERSON: What I didn’t like was his assumption of superiority. Like he figured just because he was Royal Robbins he was the leader. I didn’t buy that. Christ, I had done climbs in the Valley as hard as he’d done, and I did the Dihedral faster. Yet when we got up to the base of the wall he sent me to fetch water. I just don’t buy that crap.
ROBBINS: On the way up Don asked if there was anything on the North America Wall harder than the third pitch. I told him no—as hard but not really harder. Well, then, he said, we shouldn’t have any trouble with the rest of it. Mead Hargis and I have been up the third pitch, and it wasn’t too bad. Oh, really, I said. Well, it might be a little easier now because Hennek and Lauria had to place a bolt. Oh, no, he said, we chopped it. We went right on by.
In a few hours we were at the Dormitory. It was strange climbing with Don. Like many young climbers he was intensely impatient. He was used to great speed and just going. Speed is where it’s at. It’s not the noblest thing in climbing, but it moves many. Still, I didn’t expect to feel the pressure of Don’s impatience running up the rope like a continually goading electric current. And I didn’t expect a generation gap, but there it was. For eight days we would be locked in sullen conflict, each too arrogant to understand the other’s weaknesses.
PETERSON: On the second day we reached the top of the Zebra. Royal belayed in slings while I led the pitch over the top. Right away there was the wide crack. Robbins told me Pratt had knocked a four-incher endwise into the five- inch crack. I screwed around for a while, wondering why he hadn’t brought a bigger bong this time. I couldn’t get it to work so I took three bongs and put them one inside the other and that filled the crack O.K., but God was it spooky. Still, I thought it was a pretty clever piece of engineering.
ROBBINS: After Don made this strange bong maneuver, he reached the flake where Marshall had had his wild time with those tiny wired nuts. “It’s been a long time since I’ve used nuts,” said Don, to cut the power of any criticism I might have of his chocking ability. After he had put his weight on the second one, it pulled and he ripped out the other, falling 15 feet. He didn’t like that, and this time he nested two pins first. But he still couldn’t drive a pin higher as the flake was too loose so he put the nut back in and got on it. It was holding so he started to take in rope and as he was reaching for Pratt’s bolt the chock came out and down he came, pulling the pins and falling 20 feet this time. I feared he might be daunted but he swarmed right back up the rope and got the top nut in and got on it and pulled in a lot of rope and got the bolt this time. Fighting spirit, I thought. I reflected how Don was a football player and how he must charge the line the way he charges up those pitches.
PETERSON: Robbins was rather proud of his bolt ladder and bragged about it while he was leading it. I passed his belay in slings and led on up to the previous high point, which Robbins called Twilight Ledge. In the morning he took a long time leading around several lips of rock. I was getting pretty antsy by the time he finished. Christ, was it all going to be like this?
ROBBINS: Above us rose a deceptive five-inch crack. Don went up to look at it and said do you want to try it? It won’t hurt to try, I replied, but when I got up there I wouldn’t do it without a bolt, and we had no bolts to spare. So for about an hour I played with bongs driven lengthwise, and with four-inch bongs enlarged by one-inch angles driven across their spines. It was distasteful as hell, and if anything came out I’d be right in Don’s lap. I was trembling with more than exertion when I finally clawed my way to Sunset Ledge. When Don came up I was gratified to hear him say he didn’t think he could have done it. Maybe now the tension would be eased between us. He probably wanted me to say, “Sure you could,” but I couldn’t give up the one point I had won.
PETERSON: It was a good ledge. We were halfway or more. It was my lead but Royal had a lot more bolting experience so he led off, placing a bolt ladder diagonally across a blank section. In the morning I finished the ladder, nailed a big loose flake, and put in a bolt and belayed in slings. When Robbins came up, three or four pins just fell out.
ROBBINS: The first thing I did was put in another bolt, for above Don’s belay rose another of those vile five-inch cracks, too big for our pins and too small to get inside. I launched an all-out effort, struggling and thrashing desperately in the slightly overhanging crack. Four months later I still bear the scars. The top of the flake was like a big stone fence without mortar, but I got across that and placed a few bolts and then nailed a thin horizontal flake. I placed seven pins there, and four fell out before I had finished. With two good bolts for a belay and hanging bivouac I was safe and happy with nothing on my mind but the next 800 feet. Don wanted to try the jamcrack because I had said it was probably the hardest free climbing I had done on a big wall, but I told him we don’t have time, man, which we didn’t. I was very relieved, for I was afraid he would come up easily and go down and tell the fellows I said it was hard but he didn’t find it so. What the hell, that would happen in the next ascent anyway. Let the pitch have a reputation for a year.
PETERSON: At about this point I wasn’t feeling too happy. Robbins had taken almost a whole day to lead one pitch. I just didn’t see how we could make it at this rate. I knew he had to place a lot of bolts, but it about drove me out of my skin waiting for him to finish. I felt I could have gone faster. We were using too many bolts when we still had this big blank section above us. What if we didn’t have enough? But the only thing Robbins had to say was, “We can always turn back, or else they can pull us off.” I didn’t think we were going to make it. I had never gone so slowly on a climb in my life.
ROBBINS: I hated drilling those bolts. We had these extra-long drills that were all we could get at the last minute, and we had a long drill holder, too, so I was bending over backwards drilling, and drilling is plenty bad enough without that. Here I was working away and always this mumbling and bitching from below, and finally the shocking ejaculation, “This is a lot of shit.” From then on I felt I was battling two opponents, the wall and Peterson. I had learned to expect a grumble whenever I made the slightest error, such as not sending up the right pin (“Goddamn it, everything but what I need”), or forgetting the hauling line. I began to feel incompetent. It wasn’t really so much what Don said, it was that he said it. It was a new experience climbing with someone who gave his emotions such complete freedom of expression. I was shocked and mildly terrified by Peterson’s dark passions bubbling repeatedly to the surface. It probably would have been healthier to have responded in kind, to have shouted, “Fuck you, Peterson,” every time I felt scorn, real or imagined, coming my way. I didn’t lack such feelings. The things I was calling Don were far worse than anything he said, direct or implied. But when I said them I kept my mouth shut.
PETERSON: On the fifth morning I had to use up three more bolts because there was another five-inch overhanging crack. I finally got into it and went free for a hundred feet completely inside a huge flake for half the way. Then we had three straightforward pitches before some bolting brought us to a great ledge, where a ramp led up to a huge blank area below the summit. That night our water froze. In the morning I led up the ramp to a tight little alcove. The blank wall started about 30 feet up. It looked awfully big.
ROBBINS: As I nailed up to the blank area, I thought hard about our remaining 30 bolts. We would place some so they were barely adequate, allowing us to pull and reuse them. We had now traversed too much to descend. Those long drills were murder. I had three Rawl drills and another holder, and I used them to start the holes. They were extremely brittle, but I soon learned that a broken Rawl worked fine, and if they didn’t break well, I would re-break them with the hammer. I was saving three short Star drills for the end. I didn’t get far that day. It was slow going. I used one drill seven times before discarding it. Don spent the night scrunched in his cave while I bivouacked in a hammock. The weather, which had been threatening, was holding well. The next day was an ordeal. Sometimes it took nearly an hour for one bolt. Whenever I wasn’t drilling I had my head against the rock in despair and self-pity. And always that electricity along the rope, that distracting awareness that Peterson must be going mad. Poor Peterson, but poor me, too. Besides the hard work, there’s something mentally oppressive about being in the middle of a large, totally blank piece of rock. I was sorry I had disdained bat-hooks, believing as I had that if you’re going to drill a hole you ought to fill it with a good bolt. I was so far gone now that anything went. I just wanted to get up. But there was nothing to do but what we were doing. When Don came up to my hanging belay, the first thing he said was, “I was sitting down there for 24 hours!” That’s energetic youth. Don had suffered as much sitting as I had drilling. That afternoon Don placed a few bolts, more quickly than I had, but with no more enthusiasm. The next day I again took over the bolting, inexorably working toward the barely visible lower corner of the dihedral leading to the summit overhangs. That edge of rock was our lodestone, drawing us like a magnet.
PETERSON: Robbins had hoped to do the wall in six days, but this was the eighth. We really wanted to get off and thought maybe we could. The bolting was going a little faster now with Robbins using the short drills and not putting the bolts in very far. He would place one fairly well and then two poor ones and then another good one and then come down and take out the two bad ones and replace them above. He did this about 20 times. Robbins rarely said anything while he was working on a pitch. He was like a beaver working away on a dam, slow and methodical. At times I felt I was going to burst, just sitting in one place doing nothing. I like to climb. This wasn’t climbing, it was slogging. But I had to admire Robbins’ self-control. He had about as much unmanageable emotion as an IBM machine.
ROBBINS: We reached our lodestone just as the sun was reaching us. Don eagerly grabbed the lead, nailing up from the last bolt. Thin nailing it was, too. By stretching a long way from a RU R P, he drove a knifeblade straight up behind the rottenest flake imaginable. It seemed impossible it could have held. I had vowed that I wasn’t going to give Peterson an inch, but I weakened. I told him it was a damn good lead. It would have been too flagrant not to have done so. We were now on a ledge beneath the final overhangs. Above, gently pivoting with grotesque finality in the afternoon breeze, dangled a gangly form, mostly arms and legs, with a prophet’s head of rusty beard and flowing locks. It was the artist, Glen Denny. He and the rock around him had already taken on a golden hue as I started up in an all-out effort to reach the top before dark. It didn’t look far, but using two RURPS just to get started was a bad omen. I went as fast as possible, but not fast enough to escape Peterson’s urging to greater speed. The summit tiers overlapped one another, building higher and higher like the ninth wave. On several, reaching the crack separating the folds was barely possible. On one, a hook on the wire of a nut saved a bolt. Everything happened at once as I neared the top. The cracks became bad, the light went, pulling the rope was like a tug-of-war, and I was running out of pins. I had just gotten in a piton and clipped in when the one I was on popped. As I got onto the next one the piton below dropped out, and then I was off the aid and onto a sloping smooth slab in the blackness, realizing I was really asking for it and picturing the fall and the pulled pins and hanging in space above Don. I backed down and got into my slings and cleaned the top pin with a pull, then began nailing sideways. Glen Denny is watching silently as I start to crack but I realize I am getting melodramatic and find myself looking at it through Glen’s eyes, completely objectively and so cool down and feel with fingers the cracks in the darkness and bash away with the hammer smashing my fingers and pins coming out and me complaining in the darkness putting fear into the heart of my companion and asking him to send up his anchors so I can use them but he refusing and me saying to Glen that’s the way it’s been all the way up.
“Tis-sa-ack,” first published in 1970, appeared in Ascent 2017.
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