L to R- WarrenHarding, Jeff Lowe, Royal and Liz Robbins. Images WH/RR-Glenn Denny- JL-Lowe Alpine
‘Ah, but I was so much older then’
I cannot remember now how it came about, but in the latter part of the summer of 1965, Liz and Royal Robbins arrived in Leeds and stayed at my parent’s house in Cookridge. By that date we knew about Yosemite and its big wall climbs; the Nose route of El Capitan and the Salethe Wall, but in 1965 none of my friends had met any of the climbers involved in pioneering these epic routes: that is until Royal put in an appearance. But when he did it did not disappoint, for earlier that summer partnered by John Harlin he had climbed the American Direttissima on the Aiguille du Dru, and the rumour mill had painted Royal as having a professorial demeanour, tall, spry, quiet and contemplative. This held good at the start of the Robbin’s visit as Royal took on my chess playing friend and Almscliff guru Tom Morrell, sitting in my parent’s living room working out how to checkmate his opponent shortly after settling in.
The next day it had to be Almscliff, and as we toured around the outcrop and I recounted the long history of the Crag and its previous generations of pioneer climbers, Slingsby, Botterill, Frankland, Dolphin etc I realised what grabbed him most were the boulders. I had contacted Tony Barley about our guests visit and with him in the lead we ascended the Green Crack, Demon Wall and the Overhanging Groove. I then led my party piece Great Western and Royal enthused that our climbs ‘were intrinsic miniature masterpieces’ but then he was not to be denied in getting to grips with the boulders.
Ascending such classic problems as The Crucifix, the Niche, Fisher’s Stride, Pothole Direct, Royal was enjoying these, but then near the Black Wall he asked ‘Where are the no hands problems?’ Tony and I were stumped for we had none of these in our playlist. And so our visitor began to work one of the classic slab problems nearby to show us how it was done, confessing that this was something he practised whenever possible. We quickly realised he was an expert at this, for after a few tries he could balance up and then descend the problem he had selected to illustrate this technique. Neither, Tony or I could match him and gave up trying after many failures. In fact it took us some more visits and lots of attempts before we could emulate the American master.
Both Royal and Liz were easy to be with, for she was also a climber, and to hear from Robbins first-hand about Yosemite and its climbs fired my imagination. I also learnt about his early climbing career, starting out on the outcrops near Los Angeles and at Tahquitz. In 1952 he had pioneered his first major new route as a 17 year old at that cliff, a 5.9 graded climb the first of that difficulty in the USA, ‘The Open Book’ but he had already two years before visited Yosemite as a participant on a rock climbing trip organised by the Scouts. He told me that he had gazed up at El Capitan and was informed that such would never be climbed by their course instructor.
But 1957 was to be Royal’s breakthrough year for with Jerry Galwas, and Mike Sherrick they pioneered the first ascent of the North West Face of Half Dome. This with Warren Harding’s ascent of El Capitan by the Nose Climb the following year ushered in The Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing. For the next two decades Robbins was one of the climbers at the forefront of this, and the list of his first ascents is awe inspiring. To put this into some context however, there was a group of other climbers, some who joined up with Royal who are equally deserving of recognition, and such in 1961 as the first ascent of the Salethe Wall accompanied by Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt was made by a team of equals.
Another key figure in the Yosemite revolution was Yvon Chouinard, who along with Frost and Robbins pioneered in 1964 The North America Wall Route of El Capitan. Chouinard was a key developer of the hardware that made some of the Yosemite climbs possible.Unfortunately just as I cannot now recall how Liz and Royal fetched up in Leeds I cannot remember where we travelled to next except that we stopped off in the Peak District at Curbar Edge. I wanted to see how Robbins would deal with the Right Eliminate on that outcrop. A type of off width crack that are meat and two veg to Yosemite climbers and he did not disappoint for he ascended it with some ease.
In 1966 when I was hitch hiking from Mexico City to Yosemite solo, I carried with me an invitation to stop off at Royal’s mothers home in Barstow, California. Which I did, and she fed me, washed my clothes and as mother’s do told of her son’s early life battles, with a not too impressive school record, but how he had found his true self in the outdoors. For besides climbing he had been a junior ski champion attested to by the trophies on his mother’s sideboard.
Over the next decade Royal established himself as one of the most outstanding pioneers in the history of our sport. Making the first solo ascent of El Capitan (the 2nd ascent of the Muir Wall in 1968), soloing the North Face of Mount Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies, the second ascent of the Dawn Wall in 1971 with Don Lauria and so much more. Early in his climbing career he had been converted to boltless, piton less clean climbing, and using nuts only for protection along with Liz he had pioneered a demonstration route to illustrate his ethics in Yosemite, the ‘Nutcracker’. ‘Robbins exerted a moral leadership in both deeds as well as words’ observed Ken Wilson in his role as editor of Mountain Magazine.
In 1971 he published the first of his instructional books; ‘Basic Rockcraft’ followed in 1973 by a second such, ‘Advanced Rockcraft’. These were best sellers and in that era they were perhaps the finest expositions of where the sport was technically. Liz and Royal also founded a clothing company in Modesto, originally named ‘Mountain Paraphernalia’ which morphed into the ‘Royal Robbins Clothing Company’ and eventually this was bought out by City investors, but which despite the demise of one of its founders is still trading strongly with Liz as an advisor.
Unfortunately as the 1970’s decade progressed Royal was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis which as it developed prevented him from serious climbing, so he took up adventure kayaking instead. Within a short period of doing this he had gained a reputation as an outstanding performer in that sport, making descents of some of the most challenging rivers in the Americas. In 1992 Pat Ament wrote a biography of Robbins according him, in spiritual terms ‘The Spirit of the Age’.
In his last years Royal also wrote a three volume biography of his life, published in 2009 (To be brave. My life), in 2010 (Fail falling) and 2012 (The Golden Years). For some reviewers these were seen to be too matter of fact, too straight laced but they are an important historical record I believe by someone who wrote honestly about his life and how it was to be at the sharp end, a leader in the development of climbing in one of its most creative periods. Royal died in March 2017 and in an obituary published in the New York Times written by John Branch, he was accorded as ‘Royal Robbins, the conscience of rock climbers’. And I feel that more or less sums him up as the person I was lucky to have shared a rope with.
In the winter of 1974/5 I learnt Jeff Lowe was paying a visit to climb in Scotland, and via friends I managed to get a message to him with an invitation to travel to Manchester to give a public lecture before returning back to the USA. I also suggested if he had the time available we could arrange a visit for him to do some outcrop climbing on gritstone. I think it was the latter which appealed and by return I received a message to agree to take this on. At that date Jeff was already one of the most accomplished climbers in the USA, pioneering rock routes at the highest standards of the day but also by 1974 specialising in ice climbing, and the pictures then circulating of his first ascent with Mike Weiss of the Bridal Veil Falls at Telluride were truly inspiring.
Jeff eventually arrived in Manchester and his lecture enjoyed a full house and a rousing reception, post which I started out to drive him to my home in Yorkshire. All went well until we were nearly at our destination, but just as we started up the Hollins Hill out of Shipley my terrible Russian car started to splutter, choked out and stopped. ‘Oh my God’ I had run out of petrol. And as to be expected in a grim up north story it was a terrible night of weather, cold with driving rain. What to do, what to do? There were no garages nearby or open in those days at midnight. I explained to my passenger the problems we faced, but as a commentator was to write in tribute to Jeff at his demise, he was a ‘pathological optimist’. ‘How far is it to your house, could we push the car there?’ he enquired ‘It will take about 30 minutes on foot’ I gasped out. ‘Ok let’s go’ and after kitting ourselves out we set forth and walked to my home, by which time we were like wet rags. But Jeff never complained and once arrived and sitting in our kitchen grasping a mug of tea he laughed at my stories of the trials and tribulations of driving a Russian made car.
Early next morning Jeff and I retrieved my car and despite it being a very windy and cold day he still wanted to go climbing. At least it was not raining, but on arriving at Almscliff it was so wild I thought we could not snatch a route. But once again, his optimism was infectious and after battling against the wind whilst tramping around the different faces of the outcrop, we found that down in the rift by Square Chimney and below the Whisky Crack the wind was not so strong, and so we roped up. I decided to ascend via the Pigott’s Stride (4c) to reach the Crack and when I explained this had been pioneered by C D Frankland in the 1920’s Jeff was also keen to climb this. Looking at my partner he was every Yorkshireman’s idea of a USA climber, tall, blond and athletic. I wondered if he would like to lead the Whisky Crack if I managed the Stride. To do this you first climb the sheer side of the Matterhorn Boulder then from near the top of that bridge spectacularly across onto the main rock face. Having climbed this many times I managed this despite the conditions and then belayed below the Crack.
Almsciffe: Image The Climbers Club
Jeff enjoying the gymnastics came swarming up to me; ‘Would you like to lead the Crack’ ‘Sure sure!’ and up he went. Pulling over the top the wind was so strong it nearly blew him back down the face. Once I joined Jeff we ran down and around into the rift from where we had started to get out of the gale, and then after packing raced back to my car. A retreat to a cafe in Otley was followed by a trip to the Cow and Calf above Ilkley, but the wind was even worse there than at Almscliff and after some attempts to boulder on the Calf we headed back to my home in Guiseley. To spend a pleasant evening, dining and over a few brews talking about climbing and mutual friends. Jeff had heard of ‘The Legend of Joe Brown’ and I had to play and sing it for him. The next day he was heading south to London and I bid him good bye at a drop off at the Leeds City Station. I never saw Jeff again but followed his subsequent incredible climbing career with keen interest.
I use the word incredible to describe Jeff’s record of ascents over the next decades correctly, Will Gadd no slouch himself wrote about these as follows; ‘There is not one sector of climbing that Jeff has not excelled in or helped to create!’ I will highlight here just a few, for he made more than 1000 first ascents. To do that you had to start young and he did with his father Ralph and brothers Mike and Greg. With them he climbed the Exum Ridge of the Grand Teton at 7 years of age. By his teens he was pioneering 5.10 and 5.11 routes such as ‘Air Time’ and ‘Pass or Fail’ in Ogden Canyon, Wasatch Mountains Utah and later he visited Yosemite to make early ascents of the Salethe Wall (7th), North America Wall (5th) and ‘The Triple Direct’. Born in 1950 he revelled as a young climber in his home state environment, tackling the high sandstone cliffs of Zion and southern Utah, his most famous route being the ‘Moonlight Buttress’.
It was however in the high mountains that he made his most impressive ascents, in the Canadian Rockies, the European Alps and the Himalaya. In the latter a solo of the South East Spur of Pumori, a solo in winter of the South East Pillar of Nupste, a solo attempt by a new route on the west face of Makalu, climbing with Caterine Destiville a repeat of the Slovene Route on the Nameless Tower of Trango, with Alison Hargreaves the North West Face of Kantega, and a solo new route on the South Face of Ama Dablam. His 1991 direct route on the North Face of the Eiger, ‘Metanoia’ climbed solo in winter over 9 days was more than a stand out climb. It was finally repeated after many failed attempts in December 2016 by Thomas Huber, Roger Shaeli, and Stephan Siegrist. A film was made in 2014 about this route and its history, ‘From mountain top to wheel chair’ for by that date tragedy had struck its pioneer.
There is so much more to the Jeff Lowe story, his equipment innovations such as Hummingbird Ice tools, Foot Fangs, Snarg ice pitons, his development of winter clothing, originally working with his brothers Greg and Mike at Lowe Alpine, then on his own at a company he founded Latok. In the 1990’s he was responsible for developing ‘Mixed Grade’ climbing, with routes like Octopussy M8, he introduced these M grades for climbs that require both ice climbing and dry tooling. In the same decade he organised one of the earliest Sport Climbing Competitions at Snowbird, Utah and in 1996 he founded the Ouray Colorado Ice Climbing Festival. He also produced three books about ice climbing, its history and techniques, of which ‘The Ice Experience’ is classic. He also produced three instructional videos on this subject.
So far the Jeff Lowe story is one of marvellous success, one of the most influential climbers ever, recognised as a leading proponent of Alpine style climbing, and because of that he was made an honorary member of the Alpine Club and the American Alpine Club. But then personal disaster struck in the early 2000’s, for he developed co-ordination and balance problems, and fell victim to a neuro degenerative process similar to motor neurone disease. This he faced bravely and somehow managed to keep in touch with a wide group of friends around the world at climb fests like Kendal and Ouray, despite being wheel chair bound and by using social media. His death in August 2018 made many of us who had been lucky to have known him to accept the example he exhibited throughout the long fight against his illness to carpe diem, and fill every day with hours well spent!
In 1980 at a Buxton Conference the celebrity lecture on Saturday; ‘The Reflections of a broken down climber’ was by Warren Harding. I had tried to persuade him to do this for some years, for I had met him in 1966 in Yosemite and felt that he would in theatrical speak, ‘knock ‘em dead’. His approach to climbing was in keeping with the British one at that time, and he was known in the USA for his doggedness, drinking and farcing as reflected in his motto ‘semper farcisimus’, which indicated truly his exuberant and iconoclastic character. His lecture was thankfully well received post which as with Jeff Lowe I persuaded him to travel with me to my home in Guiseley, and to try some gritstone climbing.
The day after our arrival there I took him out to Caley Crags, and post some easy soloing I led him up the Central Route a Very Severe on the Sugar Loaf Boulder, a local 5a classic. This made him think, and he stopped almost half way at a delicate move to observe, ‘You know Dennis I am going to need to do a lot more of this or a lot less’. I realised his problem was a lack of reach, for he was short, squat and powerful, but this was a balance problem. If you are not used to gritstone climbing it takes some time to realise how good in dry conditions the friction is. Warren put a foot high, rocked over and he was up...... and in joining me, was laughing loudly at a new found ability.
For me to be climbing with the pioneer responsible for the most famous rock climb in the USA, the Nose route of El Capitan was truly memorable, and in talking with him I realised although he was a central figure in the development of multi-day big wall climbing in Yosemite, public recognition of this meant little to him. Harding was born in 1924 and grew up in California near to Lake Tahoe and after meeting a climber in the late 1940’s who persuaded Warren to accompany him to make ascents of Mount Witney, the Palisades, and the Minarets in the Sierra Nevada he started to climb seriously himself. It was he observed the first thing he had found that his brute stupidity made him successful at!
He went on to pioneer 28 first ascents in Yosemite, but the Nose of El Capitan in 1958 and the Dawn Wall in 1970 remain the most recognised; although Harding unlike Robbins was prepared to push his routes by any means he felt necessary, to do which he freely used pitons and bolts despite the strictures of those he dubbed the ‘Valley Christians’. The Nose climb was an impressive feat of endurance, partners came and went, sections were climbed, retreats followed, and in all Harding spent 45 days on the route, but finally accompanied by Wayne Merry, George Whitmore and Rich Calderwood he was successful. The Dawn Wall was different, Warren and Dean Caldwell spent 27 nights on the wall, there was no yo-yoing, and Harding was given the appellation of ‘Batso’ in deference to his remarkable ability of being able to live life on such vertical cliffs. To do this he had developed specialised equipment such as the ‘B.A.T’ tent and the ‘B.A.T’ hook.
Typical of Warren when he was queried about his use of such naming, he explained that this acronym meant ‘Basically Absurd Technology’. Noting how these climbs were achieved, a modern tyro might think spending so many days and nights on these routes is not impressive, but with the knowledge and equipment then available they were outstanding achievements.
In 1975 Warren was persuaded to write a book ‘Downward Bound’ which spelled out his rebellious and charismatic character. It contains anecdotes and stories from his ascents of the Nose and the Dawn Wall, but also farcial instruction in basic climbing techniques, and humorous accounts of the climbing controversies and life styles in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I thought the title was a tilt at Outward Bound, but no he chose that because it reflected the failure of his career as a responsible wage earner, due to his urge to go rock climbing. Success for Harding in an establishment world was always just out of his reach, beginning with him being rejected by the draft board due to an identified heart murmur, and after working through the World War ll as a propeller mechanic, he formally trained as a land surveyor. He held a Union card all his life, and worked on construction jobs in Vietnam and Alaska, in one such contract he was hit by a truck which resulted in an injured leg and a limp for the rest of his life.
Warren loved to tell stories against himself, and one he told me as I drove him the next day after climbing at Caley to catch a flight back to the USA, was that once in Yosemite he had teamed up with a visiting British climber who was short in temper. They managed to get their ropes in a tangle and this became worse as Harding tried to untangle them, at which the Brit exploded ‘My God Harding you cannot do anything right!’ Warren’s response was classic, ‘Yes I know, but I can do it forever’. After the 1980’s he did little climbing, retiring to the northern hills of the Sierra Nevada, drinking cheap red wine and hot-air ballooning with friends. He died in 2002, but on the 50th Anniversary of the Nose climb, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution honouring the achievement by Harding and his party. So despite all, he finally was recognised by the establishment!
Dennis Gray: 2019