Tool Users: Realized Ultimate Reality Piton

Posted on: November 6, 2015

[Photo] Dean Fidelman with Ken Yager

The photo here shows a RURP from Royal Robbins's 1968 second ascent and first solo of the Muir Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite. "The nailing got worse as the crack changed slowly to a shallow indentation.... After an hour of fussing, and a four-foot fall onto a RURP, I gave up and placed a detested Rawl Drive," he wrote in the 1969 American Alpine Journal.

Even in 1960, with the rudimentary gear of the era, the first fifty feet of Kat Pinnacle's unclimbed Southwest Corner seemed manageable: an overhanging crack that could be nailed in an exhausting, but relatively ordinary way. Above the first section, however, reared a thirty-five-foot, dead-vertical hairline seam. Yvon Chouinard stalled, searching for a placement. "Hey, we need a different type of piton," he called down to Tom Frost, his climbing partner. "My knifeblades are too thin, and they just won't go into that crack. We need a chisel-type thing."



The pair went home to Ventura, California, to tackle the problem. The thinnest pin available in 1960 was the knifeblade—a hardened-steel, removable, tapering piton designed in 1953 by Yosemite climber Chuck Wilts. Knifeblades came in several sizes and covered cracks from 1/16" to 1/8". But they could bend and break against crystals and ripples when hammered, and they couldn't be pounded into bottomed seams— willowing imperfections that wouldn't accept any of the available protection. As Steve Roper noted in his Yosemite memoir, Camp 4, "Wilts's pitons and their imitators, theoretically splendid, had not caused a revolution in aid climbing."


Chouinard had been hammering pitons since 1957, while Frost was an aeronautical engineer. To create their new pin, they started breaking apart mechanical hacksaw blades and grinding away the teeth. Chouinard recalls that their first prototypes were "too radical...too thin." And Frost adds: "They shattered like glass because they were too brittle." So the climbers took blades of 1/8" chromium molybdenum (an aircraft alloy), and heated and pounded them to size. Then they hammered the pins into a nearby sidewalk and yanked them back out. While this design passed the test, they wanted another, cheaper method for mass production.


In the end, they settled on grinding each 1/8" chrome-moly blade to postage-stamp size, yielding a hatchet-shaped piton with a sling hole. A climber could pound the half-inch tapering blade into a seam like the one on Kat's Pinnacle, albeit leaving much of the metal protruding. Whether because it couldn't conceivably get any smaller, or because it represented decades of piton invention, Chouinard christened their design the Realized Ultimate Reality Piton (RURP).


On April 2, 1960, less than a month after the initial attempt, Chouinard and Frost returned to Kat Pinnacle. At the seam, Chouinard placed a RURP. He fixed his sling and weighted the piece, certain it would blow. It didn't. In total, he aided gingerly off four RURPs and four knifeblades, aware that a fall might rip them all out. And thus, Roper writes, "superdifficult aid climbing was born." For a short time, the Southwest Corner remained the Valley's hardest direct-aid route. Today, it is considered A3+, as repeat ascents have widened the placements.


That same year, RURPs proved crucial for Chouinard and Frost's first ascent of Sentinel Rock's West Face, a 1,600-foot prow of smooth, eighty-degree granite. Royal Robbins and Joe Fitschen used RURPs on their ascent of the overhanging Royal Arches Direct. "Although difficult routes were nothing new," writes Joseph E. Taylor III in Pilgrims of the Vertical, "the rate at which unprecedented climbs were successfully attempted in Yosemite around 1960 redefined the valley as a globally important climbing center."


The RURP also played a key role in shaping the style of Valley climbs. In 1970 Warren Harding drilled 330 holes for bolts, bat hooks and rivets to ascend El Capitan's Dawn Wall—in contrast to the minimum-impact ethics of climbers like Chouinard and Frost. But just two years later, Charlie Porter and Gary Bocarde completed the Shield, following a vein on the Headwall pitch, where, instead of drilling, Porter used thirty-five RURPs in a row. Chouinard and Frost went on to found Chouinard Equipment for Alpinists Inc., and as their 1972 catalogue stated, the RURP helped "place the standard of American artificial climbing above the rest of the world. For use in bottoming incipient cracks it has helped to stem the malignant growth of bolt placement by opening otherwise unclimbable passages."


Despite many advances in technology over the years, RURPs are still in use today. For modern climbers trusting them for the first time, these slivers of metal often seem like symbols of improbability. But they can be surprisingly solid—still bearing the weight of history of Yosemite's Golden Age.

To see more photos by Dean Fidelman, pick up a copy of Alpinist 51, or read the feature, Going Home, on

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