First Ascent

Posted on: March 1, 2008


Manure Pile Buttress

Yosemite National Park

Sierra Nevada Range


[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

SOMETIMES THINGS THAT MAKE NO SENSE on the surface make perfect sense inside. In 1960 I arrived in Yosemite on break from UC Berkeley, where I'd been doing what was expected of a conventional, middle-class girl: join a sorority, go to classes, find direction and maybe even fall in love with an up-'n'-comer. But the beer bashes at frat houses after football games had left me uninspired, and the boys who looked pretty cool in class looked pretty stupid at night.

At first Camp 4 was just a dusty landscape: cluttered tables, dirty tents, people coming and going. Yet something there seemed to hum with a raw, unselfconscious honesty. As the climbers gathered at dusk, this sensation became almost tangible. Whatever the energy was, I wanted some of it. Here, individuals were what they were, like it or not. When someone asked me if I wanted to go on a little climb, I said yes....

Initially Royal Robbins reminded me of a Berkeley professor. After climbing with him on Cathedral Peak, I realized this aloof, quiet, contemplative demeanor concealed intensity and passion. Royal required unproven feats of his imagination, spiritual and physical tests not yet dreamed of—a need that would drive him to make ascents other people couldn't comprehend. Climbing was new to me, but the integrity underlying Royal's pursuits was something I knew I could rely upon in any circumstance. To the bewilderment of my family and friends back home, I adopted his eccentric-seeming way of life.

IN THE SPRING OF 1967, after seven years of climbing and five years of marriage, Royal and I were sitting at the top of Yvon Chouinard's After Six, on Manure Pile Buttress, speaking with gratitude about the fun route and the perfect weather. Then Royal, in a way that had become familiar, left me and the moment. His eyes went from soft to serious as he turned to gaze at an undiscovered line about 200 feet east.

On a recent trip to England Royal had learned about using nuts for protection. If he could prove that they worked on American rock as well as on British, then maybe American climbers would adopt this method, preventing the piton scars that had been damaging the walls. Here was a chance to try out this new style.

We started up one early April morning, scrambling the first twenty feet. Then a squeeze chimney... not hard, but enough to squeeze out an "ugh" or two. Here Royal placed a couple of his new gadgets. Following, I tugged hard on them. They would have held a fall.

Along the top of a flake, he traversed right, threading what runners he could on the odd spike. He wedged a small nut in a tiny crack (psychological, I thought), then crossed a thin, touchy traverse to a dihedral with a fluid grace. Maybe it's easier than it looks, I thought.... Or maybe he just makes it look easy. Well, now it was my turn!

The rope came down at a diagonal. Ahead the rock seemed completely smooth. If I fell I'd pendulum. When my eyes adjusted a little, microflakes began to appear. It reminded me of bird-watching: at first a warbler looks like a drab little gray bird, but after a shift in focus, it turns white, yellow and green—the bird is full of color! More and more tiny features materialized for my fingertips and toes. The thrill of this exposure, the hammering of my heartbeat and the knowledge that I was sharing this experience with the man I trusted and loved brought a quiet mind and a soul-felt gratitude. This is why I climb, I thought. With a breath of satisfaction, I stepped across into the trough.

On the next pitch, after Royal laced a pair of vertical cracks with chocks, it became clear that placing nuts was only half the trick. The fingers of my left hand stuck insecurely in one of the cracks, while my right hand toyed with an uncooperative little chunk of metal. The nut would wiggle around and I'd think, "I've got it!"—only to have it stick and wiggle and stick again. My fingers and feet would need a change, so with my right hand jammed, my feet tapped for baby flakes again, and my sweaty, fatigued left hand took its turn.

"Is everything OK?" Royal asked, without impatience, simply wanting me to know he was there with me. Sometimes I questioned that forbearance; his silence would become eerie when I was taking forever to make some move. "Let me give you some tension."

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

"I'm fine," I yelled back. I was beginning to like this method. Unlike pitons, which took the force of a hammer, these chocks demanded a delicate and analytic approach. At last I found the right combination to crack the nut. Royal shared my pride.

"Be ready," he called out on the third pitch, sounding composed as usual. After traversing another seemingly blank face, he'd disappeared around a corner. "I've found a crack, but the next moves look tough."

"Go for it," I said, double-checking my stance and tightening my grip on the rope. Royal's inflection never let me know just how perilous a move might be. I still didn't completely trust those chocks. The rope snaked on; after a while, the tranquil voice called down, "Come on up." I felt a warm rush of relief, like the first sip of Teton Tea on a cold night.

Once again the rope angled toward me. Breath and pulse quickened—it could be a bouncing, scraping, swinging fall—but there was no choice, so I kept going. It felt good to know that under pressure I could think clearly and do whatever was necessary. Soon I was directly below Royal. He looked down at me from the ledge and said, "The hard move is just above you. After that it gets easier." He rarely gave me more specific tips; he knew my strengths and his were different and that I had to climb in my own manner.

I took out the two protecting nuts and studied the short, steep step split by a crack. Finally some pushing-pulling combinations and a bit of jamming got me to the ledge. Royal greeted me as if I'd just arrived from the moon. To avoid the headwall, we now moved left and easily reached the top over broken rock. We'd done it: 600 feet long and no pitons!

Royal would make the second ascent with Yvon Chouinard, adding the direct finish over the headwall. This final pitch, now standard, contains the most difficult part of the climb: a mantelshelf onto a big, flat ledge. Soon after, Royal and I made the third ascent so I could try the move. After several scrambling failures, I had to admit that I didn't have the arm strength for the crux, so I focused on finding my own way. Once more, the rock was like the drab little warbler. On the wall to the left, I picked out some tiny flakes. I tiptoed up, thrilled and proud.

At times, over the years, at the base of some climb, I'd feel a clutching anxiety, and I wasn't sure why; maybe it was a fear that the route might demand more than I could dig out of myself. And yet, the greatest nonsense was: once committed to an uncertain move or an adventurous life, I always found that hidden, inner world contained everything I needed.

I'd only just begun the excavation.

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