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Royal Robbins, Pioneer Of American Rock Climbing, Dies At 82


Picture California's Yosemite Valley and the massive granite wall that forms the great rock formation, the Half Dome. Zoom in, and see a human speck on that sheer cliff leading two other climbers. It's 1957, and the buzz-cut man in glasses on the sharp end of the rope is Royal Robbins. Robbins, one of America's rock-climbing pioneers, died earlier this week. He was 82. NPR's Graham Smith has this remembrance of climbing's philosopher king.

GRAHAM SMITH, BYLINE: Royal Robbins first ascent on the northwest face of Half Dome opened an era of multi-day climbs - sleeping on small ledges partway up massive walls, pushing to the top.


ROYAL ROBBINS: It was big. It was scary. The face of Half Dome just stood there and said, try me if you dare (laughter).

SMITH: Robbins and a band of self-described dirt-bag climbers began a bolder exploration of Yosemite than anyone had ever imagined. He talked about his passion for the documentary "Valley Uprising."


ROBBINS: We loved the unknown. We loved that part of climbing which you have to overcome with what's inside of you. And that's what makes it an adventure - the combination of the unknown and risk.

SMITH: He did a stint in the army and occasionally worked in banking, but climbing was his life. Robbins put up improbable routes in Yosemite, including the Salathe Wall on El Capitan. Fiercely competitive, he also became famously involved in battles over climbing ethics. Robbins, along with climbers like Yvon Choinard, preached clean climbing.


ROBBINS: Getting to the top is nothing. The way you do it is everything.

SMITH: Some big-wall climbers thought nothing of pounding metal spikes called pitons into cracks in the rock or drilling holes and placing expansion bolts to get past hard sections. Robbins insisted that wherever possible, non-damaging gear and a more pure, artistic approach should be used.

In 1970, fellow dirt-bag and friendly rival Warren Harding established a new heavily bolted climb up El Capitan's spectacular Dawn Wall. Robbins was furious. He and a partner followed up the route soon after, chopping the first 50 bolts with a chisel, until...


ROBBINS: I was overcome by admiration for the difficulty of the climb. It's hard to admit it, but I think some of my reaction was, Harding was getting all the credit (laughter), and I felt I should get some. And that was a personal thing. I suppose it was an ego thing, yeah.

SMITH: Robbins finished the route, accepting a bit of humility along the way. Royal Robbins spread his clean-climbing ethos through influential how-to books, including 1971's "Basic Rockcraft" and the aptly named sequel "Advanced Rockcraft." He and his wife and climbing partner Liz founded a clothing and gear company that bears his name. And after arthritis made climbing impossible, Robbins turned his attention from first ascents to first descents, pioneering in the world of adventure kayaking. Graham Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUTURE ISLANDS SONG, "SPIRIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Graham Smith is a producer, reporter and photographer whose curiosity has taken listeners around the U.S. and into conflict zones from the Mid-East to Asia and Africa.