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Legends on Stone

CHRIS NOBLE
Alex Honnold climbs the Headwall, the most feared part of the Salathe Wall on El Capitan, before embarking on his historic solo free climb without ropes or equipment. Photo by Chris Noble.
A half-century apart, pioneering climbers Royal Robbins and Alex Honnold redefined the best way to go up the 2,900-foot face of Yosemite’s El Capitan

He began climbing at the break of dawn, wedging his foot into a vertical crack and then moving fluidly up the sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitan, unsupported by rope, hardware or a partner.

By mid-morning, less than four hours later, Alex Honnold pulled onto the summit, 2,900 feet up, having completed a solo climb that takes days for a strong team. His feat in June 2017 made headlines and sent a shock wave through the climbing world. Many rushed to call it the greatest climb ever accomplished, maybe even the greatest athletic achievement of all time, and it’s hard to argue with either.

Yosemite icon Royal Robbins died a couple of months before Honnold’s climb, but their lives intertwine hold-by-hold a half-century apart on the same route up the Big Stone. When Honnold reached the top of El Capitan after his daring ropeless solo, he was following a route called Freerider, a variation of a line up the Salathe Wall formation that was first climbed by Robbins during Yosemite’s Golden Age in the early 1960s.

A lot of history is wrapped up in the Salathe routes. As only the second path ever forged up the massif, Robbins’ ascent in 1961 was similarly big news. Those early climbs were almost exclusively “aid” climbing, standing in nylon stirrups hung from pitons, iron blades hammered into the long vertical cracks. In 1988, the Salathe became the first route up El Capitan to be entirely free-climbed — with a rope for safety, but not hanging from it or the hardware.

Doing the climb free was so radical an evolution of this “don’t-call-it-a-sport” that many did not believe it and called the free climbers liars. Now a dozen other lines up El Capitan have gone free; it’s the cutting edge. (Just to be clear, “free climbing” means making upward progress with hands and feet gripping the stone, a rope trailing behind to catch a fall. “Free soloing,” Honnold’s specialty, is the same sort of climbing directly on the rock — only without the rope. A fall is almost certainly fatal.)

To Honnold, the crux of his climb was not the patient focus, move by move, spidering from handhold to handhold, crack to crack. There were two particularly difficult sections he was proudest of. One section, everyone suspected: The “boulder move,” just over halfway up, involved pinching a series of tiny nubbins and a long reach left. Honnold had practiced those moves plenty of times, on a rope and taking falls, during the months — years, really — of careful preparation that led to his trailblazing solo.

But it was the other section that Honnold mentioned as most daunting that surprised climbers familiar with the great sweep of off-white, shockingly smooth stone that is El Capitan. Low on the route, just a few hundred feet up the apron of the great wall, is another passage that tiptoes across almost blank rock. It’s at a lower angle, but like the boulder-move crux up high, it traverses nearly featureless stone to link up the long vertical crack systems that form the throughways up Yosemite’s walls. On the Yosemite Decimal System, a measure of difficulty, it originally was rated 5.9, a fairly low grade of climbing. (Honnold’s climb overall was rated 5.13 — supremely difficult.)

So why was a lower-angled, modestly rated section so daunting to the world’s greatest soloist? Without ropes, it’s friction climbing, insecure for long stretches because there are no positive holds. A climber relies on smearing the soles of sticky shoes to the blank stone, a move that can feel like you’re simply willing feet not to slip, at times with palms flat on the rock as well. The technique relies on finesse, moving your body smoothly upward like oil flowing against gravity, delicately maintaining a weight-over-feet posture in which leaning in toward the stone an extra two degrees could pop the adhesion of your foot off the rock.

Without a rope, the result of a minor error could be disastrous. Unlike wedging hands and feet into cracks in the rock, there is no way to simply apply more power to the stone to fight gravity. Honnold had power to spare; so it was finessing that passage — “It’s like walking up glass” he told National Geographic — that gave him the most pause.

Yosemite climbing pioneer Royal Robbins takes a well-earned nap during a 1964 ascent of El Capitan. TOM FROST/AURORA PHOTOS

Yosemite climbing pioneer Royal Robbins takes a well-earned nap during a 1964 ascent of El Capitan.

FOLLOWING MUIR’S FOOTSTEPS

Honnold’s solo culminated 150 years of Yosemite climbing history, tracing back to another bold solo. In 1869, a young sheep herder named John Muir first stood up on the summit block of Cathedral Peak, a spiry eminence on the skyline above Tuolumne Meadows. Most kitchen tables are bigger than Cathedral’s summit, which drops off sharply on all sides. Scaling it was the start of technical rock climbing in the Sierra. That August day, Muir accomplished the hardest climb yet done in North America.

Muir was 31 years old that spring and fresh off the Panama boat in San Francisco, where he had inquired about the quickest way out of town and was pointed to the Oakland ferry. In the Central Valley he picked up work as a shepherd, which landed him in Tuolumne for the summer. Writing about Cathedral Peak decades later, Muir said nothing about the typically delicate Yosemite friction scrambling that led him onto a dwindling perch hundreds of feet up the south face. Rising steeply toward the summit was a final jam crack. Inspired, he wedged his slippery leather boot soles inside, clambered upward and bagged the first ascent. He did not mention it being daunting, but said, “This is the first time I have been at church in California.”

A Steller’s jay on El Capitan photographed in 1960 by pioneering climber Tom Frost. TOM FROST/AURORA PHOTOS

A Steller’s jay on El Capitan photographed in 1960 by pioneering climber Tom Frost.

CLIMBING’S EVOLUTION

In the beginning, all climbing was soloing. Rope was an afterthought, grabbed from the stables. Even bailing twine, braided thicker, was pressed into service to get up what became the cable route on Half Dome a few years after Muir. But trust it? The accident on the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1864 had become a famous engraving — the moment that the rope broke, sending four climbers to their doom.

Nylon rope came to the rescue, Army surplus after World War II. Falls now could actually be held, which ushered in the classic era of big wall climbing in the 1960s, and helped it pass — most of it, anyway — without accident or rescue.

Robbins was the first to step beyond the nylon rope’s promise of safety. By the early 1970s, sure in his mastery of Yosemite Valley granite, he would solo difficult paths along the base of El Capitan, going up, for instance, Moby Dick and down-climbing Ahab — in tennis shoes. “Nibbling at the toes of the giant,” he called it.

The Salathe Wall was one of a progression of groundbreaking climbs between 1957 and 1970 that highlighted Yosemite’s Golden Age of big wall climbing, accomplished by groups of three or four climbers working together. The era opened with the Robbins team’s first ascent of the face of Half Dome in 1957, demonstrating a boldness that still inspires. “It was the biggest, sheerest wall climbed in the world to date,” Honnold says. “It was considered impossible. And yet he and his partners ventured up and tested themselves against it anyway. … They redefined what was considered possible.”

That was followed in 1958 by the first ascent of El Capitan, a siege of the Nose route that took Warren Harding and a revolving cast of climbers 47 days over an 18-month period. Robbins, who was consumed by a sense that the style of an ascent is all-important, made the second ascent of the Nose in 1960, pointedly in one continuous push of seven days. He was able to take advantage of breezing over passages so blank that Harding had labored for days to drill holes for 125 bolts, mostly for direct aid, the most tedious way to progress up a wall.

Thus began a rivalry between Robbins and Harding that was one of the defining myths of the Golden Age. Their conflict was played out on a public stage, even though the two had roped up together during a failed earlier attempt on Half Dome. It was not a clash over bravery, or pioneering spirit, but about the way a climb should be done. Both Robbins and Harding did their share of playing into it during their lifetimes, yet a huge personal respect lay behind it.

Yosemite climbing pioneers Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Robbins sorting gear for a 1960 climb of the Nose of El Capitan. TOM FROST/AURORA PHOTOS

Yosemite climbing pioneers Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Robbins sorting gear for a 1960 climb of the Nose of El Capitan.

YOSEMITE’S ‘FAB FOUR’

Another great myth of Yosemite’s Golden Age was that Robbins was its leader. He was certainly the most prominent figure, but that’s not quite the same thing. In truth, there was a confluence of brilliance. When Robbins’ team climbed El Capitan’s North America Wall three years after the Salathe, it was another step in the march toward ever more difficult and committed big-wall climbs.

Robbins and his fellow pioneering climbers were a collective “Fab Four,” but as with the Beatles it’s difficult — and ultimately silly — to try to say that any one of them was definitively the leader. In the volume of his autobiography titled “The Golden Age,” Robbins paints a scene in which “Tom Frost and I, lying on our backs in the Meadow below El Capitan, had pieced together what looked like a great route. … Chuck Pratt was there too, and I asked him if he would like to join Tom and me in an assault on the wall. He replied, ‘Definitely. I’ve been studying that face for months.’” And their friend Yvon Chouinard, while not part of the landmark 1961 climb, had already dubbed that sweeping facet of El Capitan the Salathe Wall.

They were peers. And even as Robbins became lionized for leading the way up those friction pitches on the Salathe that Honnold later found so daunting, aficionados recognize Pratt as the crack-climbing genius of the era. As a leader in the quieter free-climbing revolution carried out in those same years on smaller cliffs, Pratt’s climb of Yosemite’s Twilight Zone route in 1965 stands head and shoulders above anything else accomplished during the 1960s.

With a monk-like passion for personal obscurity, Pratt quietly slipped out of Yosemite to become a guide in the Tetons and essentially vanished from public view. Pratt never soloed, but when he died in 2000, Robbins called him “the best climber of our generation.”

Their third partner on the Salathe Wall climb was Tom Frost. Nearly as self-effacing as Pratt, Frost’s happy-go-lucky persona belied a career that included winning national sailboat-racing titles and getting an engineering degree from Stanford. He quit the burgeoning aerospace industry in Southern California to apply his passion for climbing as a designer of the cutting-edge gear that enabled dramatic ascents on the big walls.

The fourth Beatle was hardly the quiet one. Yvon Chouinard had written a pivotal article, “Modern Yosemite Climbing,” in the American Alpine Journal in 1963. It’s a telling comment on the times that the rather staid Journal had to publicly reverse its snooty attitude that Yosemite wasn’t “alpine” enough for its pages. Chouinard’s piece did that brilliantly.

Chouinard has since become well-known as the founder of clothing company Patagonia and has emerged as an environmental force leading the protest against efforts to downsize the Bears Ears National Monument. In the years leading up to the founding of Patagonia in the early 1970s, Chouinard was the public face of a fertile partnership with Frost, designing gear that grew out of hand-forging pitons in a tin-shed blacksmith shop on the Ventura waterfront.

It’s absolutely no disrespect to Robbins to downplay his reputation as the leader of those big-wall climbs that characterized Yosemite’s Golden Age. The four climbing partners shared similar philosophies, including a deeply held value that the way you conduct a climb — its style — is far more important than reaching the summit. The roots of that attitude can be traced back to John Salathe, the 1940s climber who first led multiday Yosemite climbs, and in whose honor Robbins & Co. named their route the Salathe Wall. It traces further back to Muir, who would set out on jaunty ascents with a pocket full of bread and a tin cup to brew tea. Robbins symbolized a shining boldness to a generation of climbers. His direction was a line up the stone, and a life of near-monastic devotion. Climbing became a “practice,” instead of a sport.

Robbins “aid” climbing, by hanging from pitons driven into cracks, during the ascent of Salathe Wall of El Capitan in 1961. TOM FROST/AURORA PHOTOS

Robbins “aid” climbing, by hanging from pitons driven into cracks, during the ascent of Salathe Wall of El Capitan in 1961.

FINDING THEIR CALLING

Robbins began life nursing the scars from a fatherless childhood. As a boy, he was a street punk and petty thief, which landed him in juvenile hall for several days. Then the Boy Scouts intervened. Whisked off to the Sierra, he had Muir-like visions, entranced by the “world of granite and light, of lakes and streams, meadows and forests, deer and marmots.” One of the Scout leaders had brought a rope. “When I touched the rock, it had in turn touched my spirit,” Robbins wrote in his autobiography “To Be Brave,” “awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a hidden memory of some previous existence, a happier one.”

For Honnold, who was 31 when he did his spectacular solo last year, the love of climbing began at age 10, at a climbing gym his father took him to on a lark. When Honnold got hooked, his father would, without climbing himself, belay Honnold all afternoon and drive him around the state to go to competitions. Honnold lost his father suddenly, at 19, but like Robbins, a nurturing mother became crucial in filling the void. Honnold took a walk in Yosemite with his mom the afternoon before his great solo, carefully sparing her worry by not mentioning the climb he had in mind for the next morning.

Which brings us to danger. And to fear. It always lurks in the background in conversations about climbing, and especially soloing, where there’s no safety rope to halt a fall. More than a century ago, John Muir addressed the subject head-on, writing about an ascent of Mt. Ritter:

After gaining a point about halfway to the top I was suddenly brought to a dead stop, with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down. My doom appeared fixed. I must fall. There would be a moment of bewilderment and then a lifeless rumble down the one general precipice to the glacier below. When this final danger flashed upon me, I became nerve shaken for the first time since setting foot on the mountains, and my mind seemed to fill with a stifling smoke. But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct or Guardian Angel — call it what you will — came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete.

Honnold has a unique relationship with fear, one we might only guess at except for modern neuroscience. In 2016, Honnold slid into the clanking core of an fMRI machine at the Medical University of South Carolina. The machine was operated by Jane Joseph, who has studied high-sensation seekers. She had devised a method of showing fear-inducing images to subjects in the machine’s dark tunnel while she scanned for activity in the amygdala, a region deep in the brain where fear resides.

As Joseph showed Honnold the frightening images, his brain scans confounded the researcher. “At first I thought he didn’t have an amygdala,” she said. She dialed up the sensitivity. There it was, a listless few pings, a faint dribble of fear.

Whether Honnold’s fearlessness is nature or nurture is, so far, beyond where science can see. There’s no way to probe Honnold’s brain while he’s high on the wall. Maybe Honnold was just born without fear, or maybe has trained himself over half a lifetime of facing down fear to, as he says, simply ignore it.

“I think what [the fMRI] showed was that I was probably slightly less sensitive than average to begin with,” he told The New York Times, “and then after spending 10 years soloing at a high level, I’ve further desensitized myself to stimulus.”

Spectators watching a 1960 climb from the El Capitan meadow. TOM FROST/AURORA PHOTOS

Spectators watching a 1960 climb from the El Capitan meadow.

‘REAL CLIMBERS!’

When the Boy Scouts began to turn away from climbing, Robbins bumbled onward without them. A piton popped during one naive attempt, but he escaped with only a broken wrist. Then the gangly 16-year-old in Converse high tops bumped into the rock-climbing section of the Sierra Club at Stoney Point in the San Fernando Valley. “I was astonished to see … real climbers!” he wrote. “Friendly and encouraging, they seemed the best people I had ever met.”

Robbins had lucked into meeting the leading climbers of the day, who soon took him along to Tahquitz Rock in Riverside County, Southern California’s premier crag. On Robbins’ second trip, his new mentor, John Mendenhall, handed him the lead on the crux pitch of Sahara Terror, as hard as anything there. Robbins saw the offer as “taking a kind of fatherly interest.”

The next year came the Open Book route at Tahquitz Rock. As you scramble up the brushy hillside at the base of the rock’s south face, the dihedral comes suddenly into view. Soaring over 300 feet, it is shockingly steep. Mendenhall had first climbed it five years before, and it was unrepeated. Climbers had carefully attempted it using the newfangled nylon ropes, but Robbins was more daring. He climbed up to the base of a jutting flake, a large piece of rock separated from the wall that Mendenhall had aid-climbed, hanging from a series of steel-spike pitons driven into a crack behind the flake.

“I was willing to accept one or more falls as the price of getting up this climb free,” he recalled — very cutting-edge notions for 1951. He hammered in a piton, and then, steeling himself for “an all-out effort,” backed it up with another. Poised there, he planned carefully before launching upward with a sequence of precise moves. Moments later, Robbins stood on top of the flake, “grinning like a fool.”

Robbins had begun to own his newfound place in the climbing hierarchy. And he was also starting to sense what got him there. As he studied the subtle divots of the rock, he had a growing sense that a chess-like sequence of precise foot placements, executed with finesse, were the key to success. A few years later, he relied on this blend of close observation, imagination and raw ambition to complete the 2,200-foot northwest face of Half Dome with Mike Sherrick and Jerry Gallwas. Halfway up, Robbins solved a nearly blank section with an imaginative combination of free climbing, a bolt ladder and swinging a pendulum move. Ever since, it has been known as the Robbins Traverse. Hindsight marks their first ascent clearly as the dawn of Yosemite’s Golden Age, though at the time hardly anyone noticed.

Alex Honnold making a ropeless ascent of the famous Separate Reality, a difficult overhanging formation 500 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley. JIMMY CHIN

Alex Honnold making a ropeless ascent of the famous Separate Reality, a difficult overhanging formation 500 feet above the floor of the Yosemite Valley.

YOSEMITE APPRENTICESHIP

In Yosemite in the early 1960s, I came under Robbins’ influence, though by then the same was true of every climber in Yosemite. His example championed an adventurous style of climbing that was widely influential. I was still a teenager, quivering on modest leads and overdriving pitons to protect myself. It was through a piece of Robbins’ writing that he began, indirectly, to mentor me.

That story, Robbins’ introduction of “clean” climbing into California, blossomed over the next decade into a very successful way of sidestepping the destructive quarrying away of hard granite by ever-harder pitons. Chouinard, Frost and I got to play roles in what became one of the first environmental movements anywhere. Alex Honnold summed it up this way: “Robbins’ legacy is the clean climbing ethic, where the challenge is more internal.”

In the 1970s, Robbins invited me to guide for his climbing school. Ever the explorer, he took us to an unclimbed region south of Yosemite that he called the Hinterlands. Picture Tuolumne-style domes, scores of them, scattered across a wooded plateau, accessed only by dirt roads. For each session, Robbins’ itinerary included a schoolroom-style topic, such as clean climbing. Turning the teaching over to his guides, Robbins would slip away onto the domes. There, he soloed around, finding line after line to send us on later.

Sometimes, while I taught, I could see Robbins in the distance, alone in the unexplored wild. Ever curious, he would wander from a sure-thing crack out onto a friction slab just because it appealed to him. A line of subtle scoops on the rock beckoned; the feel of fine granite under soft tennis shoes encouraged sure feet and finesse. Nonchalant in the confidence he’d earned over the decades, he might climb down the next line over just because it meant more climbing, and why not? Fully at home with his chosen medium, he was always happy to find a paradise of stone, and ready to share the bounty with other climbers. “The more the merrier,” he would say.

In the 1990s, I brought my own climbing class from Foothill College to the Hinterlands, after telling them the story of how Robbins turned me on to the place. We were packing ropes and lunches by the dirt road when a shiny black Land Rover rolled up. It looked out of place in a landscape more suited to beat-up pickup trucks. A smoked-glass window whirred down. There was Robbins, his shining eyes grinning hello. It was an unlikely backcountry reunion (arthritis had cut down on his climbing), but the real surprise was his cargo, a raucous load of Boy Scouts. Robbins was giving back once more — all those decades after the Scouts had rescued him from the streets of L.A. — by introducing yet another generation to wild country.

Royal Robbins COREY RICH/AURORA PHOTOS

Royal Robbins

CLIMBING WITH STYLE

Since his death, Robbins keeps getting credited with inventing a pure climbing style. Sure, he applied that style to the biggest — and certainly the smoothest — walls yet climbed on earth. But he didn’t invent it. His immediate predecessor, John Salathe, in the years right after World War II, was the first to push Yosemite onward to multiday efforts.

It’s no accident that Robbins and his Golden Age cohorts unanimously bowed to Salathe by naming their first El Capitan climb for him. Salathe had, after all, orchestrated the biggest single leap forward in Yosemite climbing. He had come to California from Switzerland, and his pure style of ascent harkened back to the alpine roots of mountaineering: two guys and the rope between them, on climbs so big they were punctuated by sitting up on a ledge to shiver the night away. (Salathe, a blacksmith by trade, had forged the first-ever steel pitons — from old car axles, according to legend — that could withstand, without mashing into useless blobs, the dozens of hammered placements and removals over thousands of feet of climbing.)

Robbins and his cohort in turn inspired his generation of climbers. Their lead exemplified a line up the stone and a life of devotion to climbing. Shortly after Robbins died, at age 82 in March 2017, his old climbing partner Yvon Chouinard wrote on Patagonia’s blog, “The climbing world will long remember him for promoting a clean climbing ethic that has influenced generations of climbers. But his greatest achievement was his creative intelligence. … Everyone who knew him will recall his stubborn, lifelong integrity” — reflecting an era when there was little chance of retreat, and none of rescue.

Robbins carried Salathe’s heritage of boldness and innovation onward, to top out the biggest walls around. He carried it until the future shifted and climbing began to get noticed. Later stylistic innovations, like free climbing, would be harder to grasp — until Alex Honnold’s spectacular climb up El Capitan made them brutally obvious.

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