Royal Robbins, climbing pioneer and friend of Scouting, dies at 82

Royal Robbins, the climbing legend, clothing company founder, former Scout and lifelong friend of Scouting, died March 14 after a long illness. He was 82.

Robbins, in a 2009 speech to a group of Scout volunteers and professionals, said Scouting saved his life and introduced him to rock climbing.

In 1947, at age 12, Robbins was a fatherless train-hopper on his way to a life of crime. After being released from juvenile detention, Robbins realized he was hanging with the wrong crowd. So he found a new outlet for his time: the Boy Scouts.

At age 14, he joined the program and found a different sort of adventure there.

“The Scouts got me off the streets of Los Angeles,” he said. “Into the out of doors. Into the mountains. Out into the good stuff.”

A year into his Scouting tenure, Robbins was invited to join Scouts from 35 other troops on a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park.

“That trip was the first time I ever tried rock climbing,” he said, as reported in the September 2005 issue of Boys’ Life magazine. “I liked the thrill of being up high and doing challenging stuff. In hiking, I was average. But in climbing, I had a little something else.”

Though many today recognize the Royal Robbins name from the travel and outdoor apparel company, Robbins first achieved fame as a rock climber.

In 1969, he became the first to solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

He changed the culture of climbing to better protect the natural features of the rock — so the mountain would remain intact for the next climber.

And in the 1970s, Robbins literally wrote the book on rock climbing — Basic Rockcraft.

California Scouts climb with Robbins

“Is this anyone’s first time climbing?” Royal Robbins asked the group of California Scouts.

An 11-year-old raised his hand.

“Well, don’t worry,” Robbins replied. “We’ll fix that.”

In the early 2000s, Robbins joined Scouts from Modesto, Calif., Troops 2 and 19 in the Sierra National Forest.

In was an unbelievable chance to learn from a rock-climbing legend.

“In climbing,” the master told the Scouts, “confidence is a huge thing. And confidence comes from trust. When we used to climb in Yosemite, we’d be way up on El Capitan, a couple thousand feet up. And a guy would climb up ahead and fix the rope for you. And you just had to trust him because you knew that he always fixed the rope as if it was himself climbing down below. The more you climb, the more your trust grows and the more your confidence on the rock grows.”

(Read the full story, from the September 2005 issue of Boys’ Life, in our app. Just search for “Boys’ Life” in your device’s app store.)

Royal Robbins apparel

I have to point out this sentence in the description of one of the T-shirts for sale on the Royal Robbins website:

“Royal credits the Boy Scouts for channeling his restless, adventurous spirit towards the great outdoors, and towards the zenith of the climbing world.”

It’s clear that Scouting left a permanent mark on this man’s life.

Royal Robbins visits Philmont

In 2009, Robbins addressed the National Outdoor Adventure Summit at Philmont Scout Ranch.

I was lucky enough to be in the audience. Here’s my original report, filed Oct. 15, 2009, back when the blog was known as Cracker Barrel.

Climbing pioneer Royal Robbins was the first to solo climb El Capitan in , but he conquered another mountainous hurdle long before he ever donned a climbing harness: the mean streets of Los Angeles.

After a crime-riddled start to his childhood, Robbins found a new passion: the Boy Scouts. At age 14, he joined the program and found a different sort of adventure there.

“The Scouts got me off the streets of Los Angeles,” he said. “Into the out of doors. Into the mountains. Out into the good stuff.”

Robbins addressed a gathering at this week’s National Outdoor Adventure Summit at Philmont Scout Ranch. Cracker Barrel is here all week learning about tips and techniques for outdoor activities.

But before the sessions began, Robbins’ keynote address helped inspire the crowd.

He owes much of his success in the outdoors to a three-word motto: “Attitude, Perseverance, and Love.”


Robbins’ “attitude” came into play when he was trying to climb a large boulder without the assistance of ropes. After falling off five times, he was ready to quit, but then he had a vision of the route to the top.

He knew he could make it. And what happened on his next try? He made it, of course.

“I told myself: Climb as if you were gonna make it,” he said. “And then, I had done it! I had made the first ascent of what I thought I couldn’t do. Was that ever a lesson for me in attitude!”


His second tenet came into play when preparing to solo climb El Capitan. Even before he ascended one foot up the massive rock face, he remembered being ready to reconsider.

“It was 500 times higher than me. And a lot fatter,” he said. “I wanted to back out, but what was I going to do?”

ut on sheer skill and adrenaline, he made it 2,000 feet up — with just one-third left to go. But Robbins, with his arms weak and his head filling with thoughts of defeat, began to question himself.

As he was putting up anchors to rappel down, a feeling of sickness overcame him.

“I couldn’t let my dream go,” he said. “I asked myself, ‘Why don’t you climb the next five feet? You can get down just as easily five feet up as from where you are — and you’ll have a new high point.”

This mind game continued until he could see the summit above him. By then, he didn’t need to trick himself anymore.

Conquering El Capitan taught Robbins an important lesson.

“Sometimes our dreams are so far out there that  we can’t see how we’re going to do them,” he said. “You may not see the end result, but if you keep trying, you might get there. If you give up, you won’t, for sure.”


His final point, “love,” wasn’t a climbing story, surprisingly. This time he recounted the tale of one of his many kayaking adventures. You may know Robbins as the first to ascend several mountains, but he was also the first to descend several river runs.

One in particular didn’t go smoothly, though. While kayaking a river in Chile, he capsized and was caught in a “maytag.” Like the washing machine that shares its name, a maytag throws your body around in a cycle from which it is difficult to escape.

Robbins fought for air each time the cycle brought him near the surface. But each gasp yielded less and less air. Eventually, he was certain he wasn’t going to make it.

“But just as I was about to give up, I saw a vision of my family,” he remembers. “That was just enough to release some emotion. Some adrenaline. I just swam. I decided right then and there that if was going to kick the bucket, I was going to do so swimming and trying. I was not going to give up.”

Once he made it to dry land, he knew what had kept him alive.

“Fear didn’t do it,” he said. “It took the love of my family. That made the difference.”

Photos by Mark Stinnett and Corey Rich

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.