Pioneering Yosemite rock climber Royal Robbins dies at 82

Royal Robbins
Liz and Royal Robbins at the summit of Half Dome in 1967
(AP/Robbins Family)

U.S. rock climbing icon Royal Robbins, an early-day Yosemite adventurer who founded the outdoor clothing company bearing his name, has died after a long illness. He was 82.

Company CEO Michael Millenacker said Robbins died Tuesday at his home in Modesto, surrounded by his family.

“Royal was a legendary pioneer who approached everything in life with a true spirit of adventure. He gave me my first break in the outdoor industry and set me on the path to meld a passion for the outdoors with a career,” Millenacker said. “He taught me to work with purpose — that the harder we worked, the more we could give back.”

Robbins was part of a golden era in the mid-’50s when a vagabond group of climbers lived in Yosemite and devoted their lives to scaling its peaks and domes. They claimed a number of first ascents that were once deemed impossible, like El Capitan and Half Dome.


“Every time I saw him walk into a room, you could feel a shift, as if everyone knew they were in the presence of greatness,” Millenacker said. “Many like me, will always be inspired and guided by his leadership.”

Royal Robbins in 2009.
Royal Robbins in 2009.
(Brian Ramsay / Modesto Bee)

He was also a major promoter of clean climbing techniques and equipment to avoid rock damage.

“I think that he set the rules for the game of climbing and he believed in the rules of the game. The lives of those of us who climbed were enriched by Royal’s insistence on getting the rules right,” said Daniel Duane, who has written three books about climbing, including one on Robbins. “If it hadn’t been for Royal, all those cliffs would be a total mess.”


American rock climber Alex Honnold posted a message about Robbins’ death on Twitter. “Sad to hear about the passing of Royal Robbins. He was a big inspiration to me personally with his emphasis on adventure and his clean, simple climbing style. What a legend. He lived with grace all the way through a long and full life. Something we can all aspire to.”

In 1967, Robbins and his wife, Liz, made the first ascent of the Nutcracker route in the Yosemite Valley, using only removable gear for protection. It was thought to be the first such climb in the United States. Afterward, Robbins published a seminal article in Summit magazine where he advocated using removable protection rather than hammering pitons into the granite cracks. His advocacy of clean climbing influenced generations of climbers since.

Also that year, he and his wife climbed Half Dome on the 10th anniversary of his first ascent, making her the first woman to climb the famous formation.

Dusted with snow, Half Dome has attracted climbers for decades.
Dusted with snow, Half Dome has attracted climbers for decades.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Born Feb. 3, 1935, in West Virginia, Robbins moved to Los Angeles as a child. As a youth he climbed the sandy outcroppings in San Fernando Valley and Tahquitz Rock in the San Jacinto mountains. But he was eventually drawn by the mysteries and craggy cliffs of Yosemite. Friends said he climbed well into his 70s.

He was known for his adventure kayaking.

Robbins was also a prolific writer. His instruction manuals “Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft” provided climbers with the only manual available to learn climbing ethics that respected the rock. His three-part autobiographical series, “My Life: Royal Robbins,” details his journey from rebellious youth in Los Angeles to Yosemite’s Camp 4, a noted hangout for those preparing to make climbs in the park.

In 1968, the couple founded Royal Robbins, an active lifestyle apparel company for climbers, adventurers and travelers.


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