Royal Robbins is a new biography of the American climber by David Smart.

Royal Robbins and the Muir Wall

Issue one of Summit Journal will feature an unpublished essay by the inimitable Royal Robbins. To get you psyched, here's an excerpt from David Smart's recent biography of the legend himself, Royal Robbins: The American Climber.


by David Smart


El Capitan had seen only a handful of ascents, all of which had been multiday efforts by teams who shared the risks and the work. Shocked crowds clogged the road beneath El Capitan for a glimpse of these adventurers who resembled nothing so much as astronauts on spacewalks. Royal planned to go alone into this arena. A rescue, while not impossible, would have been on a scale never yet attempted in Yosemite.

Royal Robbins is a new biography of the American climber by David Smart.Royal chose the unrepeated Muir Wall, the only El Capitan route he had not climbed. “That would give me a reason to gloat,” wrote Royal in the AAJ, “if I were inclined to gloat, and secretly, I am.” He was, he said, driven to solo by an unrelenting demon inside: “He always asks for more, more, more. He never gets enough. He is insatiable, gluttonous, ever lusting for more of the peculiar meat upon which he feeds.” He’d first met this demon when soloing as a boy in the San Gabriel Mountains. “Nice training,” he wrote, “if you survive.”

Royal saw his solos—the Leaning Tower, the Steck-Salathé, Edith Cavell, and now El Capitan—as a progression. Each climb required deeper faith in himself, a greater willingness to suffer, a more fervent devotion to climbing, and greater technical excellence.

May had the most stable weather, but Royal settled for April and risked colder temperatures and spring storms “because,” he wrote, “May is a good month to sell paint in the Central Valley.” Earl only let him go on the condition that Liz take his place on the sales floor.

Royal climbed no more than 300 feet a day. The slow pace and repetitive tasks took a psychological toll. “The tedium and the loneliness,” wrote Royal. “The loneliness and the tedium.” He spoke to himself so much he wondered whether he was losing his mind. In the upper dihedral, he tore out the last in a long chain of poor pitons. A piton held and he only fell four feet. He placed a bolt, the third and last he ever added to an established route.

On Royal’s second-to-last day on the wall, Liz came to watch from El Capitan Meadow with a pair of opera glasses. Royal had misplaced her binoculars. “Nice move, Royal,” she reportedly said. Other climbers who had come to watch were baffled. From that distance, even with binoculars, no one could judge a climbing move, but Liz always saw things about Royal that remained inscrutable to others.

After ten days on the wall, Liz and a few friends met Royal on the summit. “Bathed in my success,” he wrote in his report, “I cared not a whit, for the moment, for anything I wasn’t.” The photo taken of Royal in his white slouch hat, drinking champagne from a plastic cup, smiling, goateed, wearing his Clark Kent glasses, hands scuffed from the wall, with his arm around a beaming Liz, became one of the iconic images of Yosemite climbing.

This time, the press focused on the climber, rather than the climb and its dangers.

“Royal Robbins is a very special breed of human being—an adventurer whose Nirvana is in the conquest of the mile-high granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley,” wrote Spence Conley for the Oakland Tribune in the article “Ten Days Alone on the Big Rock, Yosemite Chiller, Man versus El Capitan.” The next biggest story on the page was the trial of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver in Oakland.

Even climbers were taken aback by the solo. Royal had reset the benchmark for rock climbing success yet again. Allen Steck, who had once been irritated by a teenage Royal, said Royal’s latest effort was unparalleled in the history of climbing. 

Excerpted from Royal Robbins: The American Climber by David Smart (September 2023). Published by Mountaineers Books. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

 About the book: Acclaimed writer David Smart illuminates the fascinating life of Royal Robbins—in all its soulful ambition, rivalry, and romance. Royal Robbins chronicles his early years growing up as a latchkey kid in Southern California, the push and pull between being an aspiring banker or one of the original Camp 4 dirtbags, and his later decades as a father, husband, kayaker, and the trailblazing founder of the outdoor apparel company that bears his name. This intimate, colorful tour of climbing history covering Yosemite, the Tetons, Gunks, Alps, United Kingdom, and more from the 1960s onward, starring such greats as Liz Robbins—Royal’s wife and a pioneering adventurer in her own right—Yvon Chouinard, John Harlin, Steve Roper, Warren Harding, Tom Frost, and Doug Tompkins. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, Royal Robbins sheds new light on this elemental figure of outdoor culture. 

About the author: David Smart is founding editor of Gripped magazine, editorial director at Gripped Publishing, and author of five guidebooks. His biography of Austrian solo climber Paul Preuss was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize, and his biography of Italian climber Emilio Comici won that prize along with the Banff Award for Climbing Literature. Other honors include the H. Adams Carter Award for Mountain Literature from the American Alpine Club. His work has appeared in Climbing, Rock and Ice, The American Alpine Journal, The Canadian Alpine Journal, and Alpinist. Smart resides in Toronto.


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