Royal Robbins' AAJ 1969: Alone on the John Muir Wall...


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Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Nov 27, 2008 - 01:49am PT
Alone on the John Muir Wall, El Capitan

ROYAL S. ROBBINS [url=""]AAJ 1969 p319[/url]

I KNEW that I had done the right thing when I learned that Jim McCarthy had soloed High Exposure. McCarthy, of course, is the rock of the East Coast. Heís an ace climber, lawyer, and karate expert. He doesnít have to climb solo.

But what is this solo nonsense, anyway? Oh, just solo nonsense. Just another way to prove something. A sort of spiritual onanism. The thing about a solo climb is that it is all yours. You are not forced to share it. Itís naked. Raw. The fullest expression of the climbing egoist. It is also a way of exploring oneself. A solo climb is like a big mirror. One is looking at oneself all the way up. If it is a way of showing off, of proving something, it is also a test, a way of finding out what one is made of. Or is it? I really donít know. I donít know why I solo. But I sense it has much to do with the ego, and with proving something. Proving something to myself, mainly, I think. But who knows?

Maybe climbing El Capitan solo is using it as an exercise bar. But will the spirit be stronger afterwards? How does one tell? If one faces life better. Do I? I donít know; I can not remember exactly how it was before. I think I am just as afraid of as many things as I used to be. Only I am a little less afraid of El Capitan.

There are no reasonable reasons why one solos. At least not why I do. I have done solo climbs because I had to do them. I was driven by an unrelenting demon inside, and that demon is difficult to assuage. 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. The Leaning Tower was not enough. Soloing Sentinel was not enough. Edith Cavell was not enough. Perhaps now, after El Capitan, he is satisfied. I hope so.

Writing about this climb is not easy. It is agonizingly personal. It is well to record that I started climbing solo at the age of 16. I used to hitch-hike into the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California, scramble down a remote canyon, and pass the day clinging to a 600-foot cliff of poor rock. Good training if one survives. I was lucky. I have long dreamed of emulating Bonatti's fantastic solo of the southwest pillar of the Dru. I did not succeed, of course, but that was one of the great examples that spurred me on.

El Capitan had not been soloed. I had not climbed the John Muir Route. It was the obvious choice. And this would be the second ascent, which would give me something to gloat over, if I were inclined to gloat, which I am, secretly. The story of the epic first ascent by TM Herbert and Yvon Chouinard has been well told in the A.A.J., 1966. But Chouinardís enthralling account was a bit sparse in details, and I was to regret this in the days ahead.

May is a good month to sell paint in the Central Valley. That being my trade, I was forced to start in April, a bit too early for my taste. April showers, you know. And worse: Liz walked to the base with me. It was a bitter, evil day, with a bitter, evil wind whipping down over the north rim and tearing at the trees and buffeting the rock. And windy thoughts were tearing at my mind too. Chances were that I would be safe enough, but something could happen. I said earlier that I had to do it. I lied. I had a choice. And that choice was made in complete freedom on a windy April morning, at the base of El Capitan. I chose to go up because I told myself I had to do it. The interesting thing is that the contrary decision, the choice to remain on the ground, not to bother, would probably have more favorably affected my character, and almost certainly have a more profound and far-reaching effect upon my life, than soloing the Big Daddy. Or would it?

Belaying myself with Jumar handles, I started up, using pitons for aid, climbing free when I could. From the top of each pitch, I rappelled back down to the start, unhooked the hauling bag and let it out on the rappel line, and Jumared up the fixed climbing rope, removing the pins as I went. After hauling the bag, I was ready to repeat the whole process. By nightfall I was hammocked only 300 feet above the ground. Hmmm... it would take me ten days at this rate. Well, I was prepared for eight fat, or ten spare ones.

Liz departed to take my place selling latex or oleosinous coatings in Modesto. My friend Chuck Pratt, while taking a dim view of this sort of stunt, would nevertheless call her each night to appraise her of how the battle was going.

That nasty wind had at least presaged good weather. The second morning dawned fine, as did the rest. That day I traversed several hundred feet to the left. There is no rappelling sideways, so I had to climb each pitch three times. It would be good to reach the more straightforward upper section of the wall.

I broke my piton hammer. Only one left. If I broke or lost that one, I would need to be rescued. Dismal thought. If I broke it, well, OK. But losing it would have made me look so foolish I would be a long time recovering. I tied an extra cord to the remaining hammer.

On the third day I reached Heart Ledge, a spacious terrace which the Salathe Route now shares with the Muir. There was a trickle of water, too feeble to collect. I was able to sip it, along with a few wigglies, and so save my precious water supply.

When dawn came, I climbed a 150-foot pitch to Mammoth Terraces, also a familiar landmark on the Salathe. Then up into new territory. I was maintaining my initial average of 300 feet a day, and beginning to feel it. Such a pace would have driven some climbers into a frenzy. Me, it merely irritated. Iím heavy on patience. Some erstwhile friends have described me as ďplodding.Ē Fair enough, but soloing the Muir doesnít require mercurial qualities. It takes technical skill and a turn of mind which can steadfastly accommodate the tedious. The second ascent of the John Muir Route was certainly an exercise in tedium. That was its primary characteristic: a certain mechanical methodicalness composed of hundreds of similar movements and actions: piton after piton, rappelling after each pitch, removing the hardware, hauling the gear, untangling the ropes, preparing the next pitch, and then the whole rigmarole all over again; and all the time the constant awareness of every danger that might threaten me: the swami belt knot, had it loosened? were the slings on the Jumars abrading? were the ropes securely anchored? would the rope run freely? was the complex carabiner brake for the rappel properly arranged? These questions and many more tormented me with their continual demand for attention. I had to give each a fair hearing. And under this burden of minutiae, I moved inexorably, but without esprit, toward the summit.

Eventually I began to crack. The tedium and the loneliness. The loneliness and the tedium. I had started to talk aloud to myself on the second or third day. It is hard to recall how much of my monologue was really audible. It does not seem to matter much when no one is around to overhear. But I do know that on the seventh day the decibels grew. I ran into an unspeakable 200-foot crack 1 1/4-inches-wide all the way. I had only two pitons that size. The memories of Chouinard and Herbert had somehow not retained whatever impressions were made by this fissure. I will never forget it. I climbed up, using the tips of larger pitons and smaller ones doubled. It was extremely disagreeable, for I was forced to descend repeatedly to remove the lower pins for use above. The artificial chockstones I took were useless here, as the crack refused to bottleneck. And the rock was fresh and crumbly. I couldnít tell how good the pins were. I wished I were elsewhere, such as on a friendly free climb with a light-hearted companion. I loudly cursed the recalcitrant rock, and the amnesia of my friends, but there was nothing to do except to fit and hammer. Going down was worse than up. Courage comes more easily when it is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. Resigned as a man who must have a tooth pulled, I plodded upward, fighting for inches.

On the eighth day I reached a single crack which split the final summit dihedral. I was getting close. But Chouinard had said there was hard nailing up there, A4, he thought. I was to find it harder, but at first the crack was good. I climbed 100 feet and then came down to bivouac on a ledge.

The ninth day started easily, but I was suspicious. I knew there was a meany there, waiting for me. It was lonely in that great open-book. The architecture of the rock was starkly simple: great sweeping planes of granite extended hundreds of feet to either side, magnificently unflawed except for the single thin crack dividing them. This crack ended in a bulging overhang 100 feet above me. The nailing got worse as the crack changed slowly to a shallow indentation. I wondered how my friends had felt up there, so close to success. They had started in enervating heat, and after becoming desiccated by the sun, they became super-hydrated by several days of rain. They arrived at the final dihedral fatigued, hungry, apprehensive. This was no fun-in-the-sun rock climb, They had only a few bolts left. What must they have thought when the crack became shallower and shallower? These chaps never place a bolt unless convinced they need one. But. here the ethical stance was reinforced by necessity. They simply could not afford to place bolts where even terrible pitons would do. So they had pushed the limits. It was too hard for me. After an hour of fussing, and a four-foot fall onto a rurp, I gave up and placed a detested Rawl Drive.

I passed the night in a hammock beneath the overhang and reached the top about two oíclock the next day, the tenth. Liz and some friends were there to greet me. The traditional champagne was produced. It went quickly to my mouth and even faster to my head. Good drink, champagne. After ten days of tedious, trying solitude, it was really good to see Liz. It was good to see friends. It was good to have friends. I was immensely pleased. I felt like a prizefighter who has just won a big match. Bathed in the aura of my success, I cared not a whit, for the moment, for anything I wasnít.

Summary of Statistics.
AREA: Yosemite Valley, California.
ASCENT: The second ascent and first solo of the John Muir Wall of El Capitan, April, 1968 (Royal Robbins).

El Portal On the Merced Riviera
Nov 27, 2008 - 02:04am PT
Royal places a bolt, tells the truth, and is still the greatest climber of his era despite telling the truth. Go figure.

Thanks Ed for the post.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Nov 27, 2008 - 02:18am PT
Using parts of the Muir on a solo attempt on the Dorn in '76 I kept pinching myself and thinking; wow! walking in the footsteps of Yvon, TM, and Royal!
I think today most climbers have no idea who they are.

More's the pity. What a rich heritage we have. Thanks Ed (and Royal, and Yvon, and TM)

Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Nov 27, 2008 - 05:46am PT
You Rock Ed.

Trad climber
CA Central Coast
Dec 2, 2008 - 11:04am PT
bump to another great morning read

Dec 2, 2008 - 11:14am PT
Yessir, a great read.

I don't think RR had a camera on that one...anyone? Pics would be amazing. Ament's Spirit of the Age has some (the outer jacket of the version I had {plus others?}) which tell a great visual story, taken as I recall from above as he was finishing the route.

Soloing is such a complete mind f*#k, and RR's note here really captures that. Everyone should do it once, if for no other reason to appreciate "normal" climbing. Huge respect to Royal for cracking the possibilities of big wall soloing. Thank you, Royal...
paul roehl

Boulder climber
Dec 2, 2008 - 01:51pm PT
I remember reading this along time ago. Forgot how well written it was. Is it just me or were articles on climbing more compelling from the early 70s and 60s? more self-reflective and less consumed with self-aggrandizing?

Trad climber
Placerville, California
Dec 2, 2008 - 03:17pm PT
"...belaying myself with jumar handles" ??

"... 4' fall onto a rurp.."

hmm. did these early versions have teeth?
i assumed that he had used a clove hitch.

reassuring though.

Mendocino, Ca
Dec 2, 2008 - 03:23pm PT
Thank you Ed.

I got to hear Royal tell a shorter version of that story one time at his slide show. What an inspiration.
Clint Cummins

Trad climber
SF Bay area, CA
Dec 2, 2008 - 04:46pm PT
Jumars did have teeth then (and now); they can sever the rope's sheath or the rope itself in a long fall.

Glen Denny's book has some photos of RR's ascent from the top

and on top

These also appeared in The Vertical World of Yosemite.
Dingus Milktoast

Dec 2, 2008 - 04:57pm PT
A friend of mine holds the distinction of having been fired by Royal Robbins, TWICE!!! Then he spent nearly a year in the ditch drawing unemployment against RR, dirt bagging it.

Haha. Ironic, wouldn't you say?

Hey Marty you reading this? You know of whom I speak lol!

tom woods

Gym climber
Bishop, CA
Dec 2, 2008 - 07:36pm PT
Oh Boy! that sounds like fun!

Dr. Rock

Ice climber
Dec 2, 2008 - 10:13pm PT
Heard that Royal hired a Cessna to drop him and his Kayak up in the woods.

The Kayak needed another foot of room to fit in the plane, not to be turned away, Royal starts taking the guys plane apart, removes the bulkhead, slides the yak into all the control cables and says Let's Go!


Trad climber
Mar 19, 2009 - 08:54pm PT

Trad climber
Mar 19, 2009 - 09:06pm PT

Social climber
wuz real!
Mar 19, 2009 - 09:27pm PT
always wanted to climb the Muir.

Trad climber
Boulder, CO
Apr 25, 2012 - 04:33pm PT
This article is awesome! I want to eventually climb Muir
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