Royal Robbins' First Ascent of The Narrows

In the little free time I have, I've been reading Royal Robbins' biography Fail Falling. In this second of three books, he recounts his second ascent of Yosmeite's Steck-Salathe route, with Don Wilson and Jerry Gallwas.

The infamous Narrows pitch on Steck-Salathe is one of my prouder climbing ascents. Thus, when I read Robbins' accounting of the first time he (or anyone) climbed this infamous pitch, I couldn't help but think I ought to share that excerpt of his bold climb.

One of my favorite parts of this is that Robbins and company were proud that they completed the whole climb in 2 days - it had taken the first ascent party 5 days. In today's world of fast, one day ascents, of long climbs, that would be considered an epic.

So great.

It was my turn to lead, so I went first up a difficult jam crack and then a flared chimney, which ended on a ledge in the dark reccesses of the Great Chimney. I brought Jerry up to the ledge, and we surveyed our prospects. Above our stance, a ceiling choked off the chimney. This was where Salathe had pitoned horizontally out from the security of the enclosure to follow terrifyingly exposed cracks on the outside wall. Since we had managed to climb the Headwall, Jerry and I thought, "If Salathe could do it, we can do it." But my gaze returned to the ceiling. Looking more closely, I noticed a small hole in it, only a foot wide. If I could squeeze through it, the chimney might open up above. I wanted to try it. Jerry said OK, but I could see dome doubt in his eyes.

Staring up, I placed a good piton right away. When I reached the ceiling, I stuck my head and an arm up into the hole to see if it was wide enough. This might work, I thought.

"I'm going for it," I shouted down to Jerry.
"OK. I've got you."

I locked my arm in the hole and wriggled up. The biggest problem was my chest - the thickest part of my body. By exhaling, I managed to push my chest up into the hole. By inhaling, I wedged tight, which was good because then I couldn't fall. To move up, I would lock my arms in the crack, exhale, and move up an inch or two each time.

But now I had a new problem. My upper body was wedged into the tight hole, but my feet were still braced, four feet apart, against the walls of the chimney, below the ceiling. The tops of my legs were pressing against the entrance of the hole, and I could go no farther. The only solution was to let them dangle straight down, free in the air, as I squirmed up, exhaling and inhaling. Now I was gaining less than an inch with each move because I couldn't push up with my legs.

I was beginning to feel the first signs of exhaustion, and panic began to sweep over me. Wedged in the hole, legs dangling, arms braced in the crack, I tried to rest. My arms were tired from my jamming and wedding contortions. I locked one arm in the crack, and let the other dangle down, shaking out the fatigue and flexing my fingers. After a couple of minutes it felt better. I raised it, locked into the crack, and let my other arm dangle. As I did this, my breathing came back under control, and my emotions relaxed their grip. I was ready to return to the problem with a calmer mind.

I resumed my struggles with more discipline, resigned to gaining half and inch with each move. If I tried for more, I would become exhausted. I kept grinding away and finally was rewarded: I got my knees up into the hole, and the crisis was over. Now I could wriggle upward with my whole body. Eventually, I reached a chockstone and rested on it.

I shouted down to Jerry. A faint "OK" came echoing up the chimney. I looked up and saw hints of daylight above. This gave me new strength, and my feelings of claustrophobia began to ebb.

The chimney got a little wider, I moved faster, and at last reached a belay ledge. I needed another rest before I was able to pull up the haul line and throw it down to the outside of the chimney. My partners attached the pack and I hauled it up. Then I belayed each of them up the way I had come.

The chimney still rose above us, but it now opened up. In fact, it was downright roomy, but we had to be careful of lose rock sitting on ledges. The last pitches to the summit were easier climbing and except for one steep pitch near the top, they all went free.

We reached the summit in the late afternoon with big grins on our faces. The north face of Sentinel in two days! All that training on shorter climbs had paid off. All of our skills had been called on, and they had passed the test. With his first free ascent of the Higher Spire, Chuck Wilts had shown that climbers from southern California excelled in free climbing on shorter routes. Our ascents of YPB and Sentinel had completed the picture. Now were were big-wall climbers, too, and the future looked bright.

Get his biography: Volume 1, Volume 2