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Royal Robbins, climbing legend, dies at 82

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The outdoor industry loses a legend.

Royal and Liz Robbins. // Photo by Glen Denny.
Royal and Liz Robbins. // Photo by Glen Denny.Glen Denny

To say that Royal Robbins was a legend is understating it: He literally wrote the book on climbing (several of them, actually), and forever changed the way the world viewed the sport, which previously had little reach beyond the original set of dirtbags.

Robbins died Tuesday morning after a long illness, at his home in Modesto, Calif. He was 82.

“He made a big mark on the industry and people who worked with him,” said Michael Millenacker, CEO of Robbins’s namesake company. Millenacker worked for Robbins in the early years of the company, when he and his wife Liz owned it, and returned as CEO a couple of years ago.

He recalled the first time he went climbing with Robbins, at Lover’s Leap in Lake Tahoe. He watched as Robbins tied in and started climbing, leaving him on the ground with a harness and the end of a rope.

“His idea was just to totally lead by example,” Millenacker said. And that’s how he did business, too.

“When I touched the rock, it had in turn touched my spirit, awakening an ineffable longing, as if I had stirred a hidden memory of a previous existence, a happier one. While I was climbing, it was glorious to be alive.”

Royal Robbins in “My Life: Royal Robbins.”

Royal Robbins the company was founded in 1968, partly out of necessity: at the time, climbers didn’t have much more than Army surplus clothes and cut off jeans. Liz Robbins sewed a pair of shorts called the “Billy Goat,” and they were in business. He and Liz Robbins exuded integrity, Millenacker said, and preached it to their employees. Some of the retailers who brought them on board nearly 50 years ago are still selling Royal Robbins apparel.

Royal Robbins
Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt, and Yvon Chouinard at the top of the North America Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. // Photo by Tom Frost.

Royal Robbins the person is undoubtedly one of the fathers of the outdoor industry, who brought his passion for the environment and for protecting our precious landscapes to a whole new level. He championed the practice of boltless, pitonless “clean climbing,” using removable safety devices instead to avoid damaging the rock. He was close friends with other legendary forefathers of this industry, like Yvon Chouinard, Tom Frost, and Doug Tompkins. Their combined passion for and commitment to conservation has shaped not only the outdoor industry, but business as a whole.

“That’s something to be the most proud of,” Millenacker said. “Our industry has led other industries in the world in this clean thinking, and he [Robbins] was one of the early proponents of that.”

Conrad Anker posted on Instagram that Robbins was a man with conviction who was critical to the “golden age” of Yosemite climbing.

“Every time I saw him walk into a room, you could feel a shift, as if everyone knew they were in the presence of greatness,” Millenacker said. “Many like me, will always be inspired and guided by his leadership.”