The Royal Robbins Story
Husband and wife duo, Royal and Liz Robbins, are known for not only being avid Sierra Nevada rock climbers in the 1960s, but Royal was coined as one of the pioneers of American rock climbing and later a well-known kayaker. Where (and when) did their shared passion for climbing and exploring the great outdoors start?
Royal Robbins met “real climbers” from the Rock Climbing Section (RCS) of the Sierra Club in 1950 when he was 15 years old at Stoney Point in San Fernando Valley. As a young teenager, he was mesmerized by the generosity and friendly attitude of these climbers, and it changed his life. In 1952, Royal made his first climbing trip out to Yosemite, where he began to develop a strong connection and love for big granite wall climbing. Royal took his passion, and began establishing a plethora of routes across California, especially the iconic formations in Yosemite.
Over the summer of 1961, Royal was introduced to Liz while hanging around a campfire at Camp 4, a popular climber campground. At the time, Liz was enjoying her summer break in Yosemite Valley, working at a concessionaire. Royal invited her to go climbing in Tuolumne meadows up Cathedral Peak, and was taken by her grace and sense of adventure.
In 1967, Royal Robbins climbed the now-popular route, Nutcracker completely clean, which means he only used passive gear, instead of pitons which were known for damaging the rock. From there, he began advocating for “clean climbing” in order to protect the beautiful formations at popular climbing areas like Yosemite. That same year, Royal and Liz climbed the Northwest face of Half Dome, which was the first female ascent of any grade 6 climb in the world!
Royal and Liz bonded over their lifelong dedication to adventuring from climbing in Yosemite, skiing and mountaineering in the Alps, and world class kayaking.
Where was a favorite climb that Royal and Liz shared that is remembered to this day?
There were two climbs that come to mind that are historically recorded.
The first is called The Nutcracker. In the spring of 1967, Royal and Liz Robbins approached an unclimbed route in the Yosemite Valley without climber’s traditional protection gear of that time – pitons and bolts – but instead, with removable chockstones, or nuts. Their successful first ascent of this route on Ranger Rock, christened Nutcracker Suite, which marked a turning point in climbing – the beginning of the clean climbing revolution. Never before had a major American first ascent been completed using only removable nuts for protection – by climbing clean.
Before 1967, American climbers hammered pitons (metal spikes) directly into the rock to anchor their protective roping. Generally, climbers would hammer pitons into cracks in the rock, but at times, when those cracks ran out, climbers would drill bolts right into clean rock faces, permanently scarring the natural beauty. Over time, the repeated hammering and removal of pitons into cracks mars and weakens the rock, potentially causing large flakes to fall off.
The second is Half Dome. The iconic rock, with its sheer face and rounded back, overlooks the majesty of Yosemite Valley. Though today its face is climbed several times a day, it was at one point the zenith of big wall climbing. In June of 1957, Royal Robbins, alongside Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick, made the first grade VI climb in the United States: the sheer, Northwest Face of Half Dome. The five day climb set a new standard in American big wall climbing. On Royal and Liz’s 10th anniversary in 1967, Royal took Liz to climb the NW Face of Half Dome, making her the first woman to ascend the face of Half Dome, and the first woman to ascend a grade 6 climb anywhere in the world.
1967 was a big year for Liz. She became the first woman to climb Half Dome in Yosemite – and that climb also inspired the creation of the Billy Goat, and ultimately the Royal Robbins apparel company. Tell us the full story.
Liz Robbins, Royal Robbins’ co-founder and former head of design, fell into designing clothing simply because the gear that she and Royal needed didn’t exist. “Nothing was as flexible as Royal wanted,” Liz explains. “He always had to lift his leg as high as possible in case there was a rock around, even while we were hiking. And that’s where the Billy Goat® waistband came from: it allowed flexibility in the waist and the body without wearing stretchy, Polyester things.”
Not having designed a pair of shorts before, Liz went to her friend Susie Tompkins, founder of Esprit, for help. “The Billy Goat® Short was the first thing I ever made that required a pattern maker. I had no idea how to design the fit on a short. I used to go over and work with Susie and her pattern maker to get the fit correct.”
In 1975, Liz designed the Billy Goat® Short, the company’s first original piece of clothing. “I was told by everybody in the industry that no one would ever wear a pant or short with elastic in the waist,” Liz says. “Elastic waists only existed in swim trunks and that’s not what I had in mind at all. It was a real effort to get the waistband to look the way I wanted it to: I had to do it with a single needle, over and over, to make the stitching look more masculine, to make the legs comfortably wide. It was just a good idea and it worked out really, really well. It turned out to be extremely popular, and that was the beginning of our business with clothing.”
What sets Royal Robbins apart from other outdoor apparel companies?
We are focused on serving the Adventure Travel customer. Our functionality, versatility, comfort and fit enable people to explore the world. We do this because we truly believe that exploring various cultures and geographies help people grow.
Additionally, our core values demonstrate what we stand for:
LEAD. DON’T FOLLOW. This is what we call a “Royalism”. From his earliest days, he always wanted to be first. Our reminder to strive for innovation in everything we do.
GROW OUR PEOPLE. Royal & Liz have always believed it is important to develop the people around them. We believe the only way to achieve greatness is for us all to learn and grow each day. We provide training for our employees based on their individual professional development goals that are tied to performance reviews.
BE OUTDOORS. We believe getting outdoors with friends and family is a key ingredient to a fulfilling life.
KEEP ON CLIMBING. A common phrase that Royal repeated often. When we reach one goal, we keep climbing for the next!
NUTCRACKER. Royal was one of the first and most vocal proponents of clean climbing: using removable climbing nuts for protection rather than pounding pitons into the granite cracks. This practice, minimized damage to the rock. In 1967, he and Liz made a first ascent using this new technique which was revolutionary in the U.S. at the time. Royal named the new route Nutcracker, a classic to this day. It marked an important evolution in climbing and our symbol for sustainable business practices at Royal Robbins.
Royal Robbins not only creates functional, durable and comfortable outdoor attire for men and women but always does so with the environment in mind. Tell us about some of the more unique pieces of clothing created. What sets these apart?
At Royal Robbins, one of our core values is called the “Nutcracker,” which refers to Royal Robbins clean climbing ethics. To us on the company side, it means sustainable business practices. The major buckets in regards to sustainability include: 1) our commitment to environmentally friendly clothing technologies & factory practices, 2) supporting environmentally driven non-profits, and 3) Royal’s Rewear Program.
We are committed to eliminating hazardous chemicals in the production our garments by being a bluesign® system partner. We encourage our suppliers to use bluesign® approved chemical products and raw materials that have undergone a risk assessment and comes with advice on how to use chemicals in a way that minimizes the risk to people and the environment. Also, we are one of the leading brands to make all our waterproof technology eco-DWR. This is the most eco-friendly option for waterproof clothes because it contains no perfluorocarbons/PFCs (read more here). We have also integrated other eco-conscious materials such as Sorona®, Modal®, and hemp into certain styles in our line (see Mens & Womens).
One of our longest standing styles we most proud of, which happens to include many eco-conscious technologies, is our high quality Sweater Craft. Despite being famous for first ascents in Yosemite Valley, CA, Royal and Liz spent a lot of time in Europe, especially England. On climbing trips in the Lake District of north-west England, Liz found a fun diversion when the rain started coming down. She began working with local women to help them redesign their sweaters to fit climbers better. The Herdwick and Swaledale sheep’s wool made for rugged, durable sweaters that, with slight improvements were ideal for cool weather climbing. The only problem was that climbers didn’t want to buy apparel, they wanted to buy “tools.” By marketing these heavy wool sweaters as tools, the Robbins’s found success in a new totally category for outdoor – Sweaters as Gear. This success led to Robbins’s to pivot and make the Royal Robbins company into a pure outdoor clothing company by the mid-70’s. To see what our famous sweater craft looks like today, visit Men’s and Women’s styles.
At Royal Robbins, we are pleased to support the The Yosemite Conservancy, The Conservation Alliance, Leave No Trace for Outdoor Ethics, CAMBER Outdoors, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association. By giving to these organizations, we are proud to be involved in conservation of our beautiful outdoor parks and encourage diversity in the outdoor industry (learn more here).
Finally, we have the Royal’s Rewear Program. A few years ago, we launched this clothing recycling initiative with I:CO in the US that makes it easy for our customers and our employees to do their part and reduce the volume of waste being sent to landfills every year. All participants will be given an incentive coupon towards a future purchase and all program proceeds benefit The Yosemite Conservancy, funding projects and programs that are essential to Yosemite’s future.
Some of our eco-friendly clothes:
Oakham Waterproof Jacket – for both genders
- Has a matte finish and urban styling so you can blend in while traveling
- Perfect rain shell for travel – keep it in your pack in case there’s sudden rain
- Packs into its own pocket
Performance Flannel – for both genders
- Dries very quickly
- Odor resistant, allows for multi-day use, less washing means less environmental impact
- Water resistant finish
- Active (slimmer) fit
- Great stretch for comfort and active days
- Quick dry, Moisture wicking
- Wrinkle resistant
- Oversized hood is great for taking a nap while traveling on a plane or train
- Hood converts to cowl neck
What lessons would Royal and Liz think that travel – and appreciating the great outdoors – could teach us more about the world?
Adventure travel the way Royal and Liz did, is sure to be challenging and take you out of your comfort zone. Their type of travel, through curious eyes, opened the senses and stimulated growth. Through taking on big walls in Yosemite, skiing in the alps, mountaineering, and kayaking, the outdoors were a way of life to push to their limits.
In addition to climbing, Royal developed an interest in kayaking. Where were some of his best adventures in kayaking?
Back in the early 1980’s, Royal bagged “The Triple Crown of first descents”. Along with Doug Tompkins and Reg Lake, Robbins paddled three of the few remaining whitewater kayaking first descents in the Sierra Nevada. Their six-day descent of the Middle Fork of the San Joaquin River in 1980 was a grueling expedition of climbing, portaging, and paddling. Then the self-named “Billy Goat Crew” tackled the Kern River—a remote descent that required the team to haul boats and gear over treacherous, high-altitude terrain on the shoulder of Mt. Whitney. Robbins, Lake, and Tompkins completed the Crown in 1982 with their descent of the Middle Fork of the Kings River, notorious for its steep gradient and perilous rapids.
Are there any new, exciting things happening for Royal Robbins in the coming year?
The brand turns 50 years old in 2018. After half a century in business, we are more focused than ever on the founders focus on innovation. One of the projects we are most proud of in 2018 is the fact that all of our Outerwear is Fluorocarbon (PFC) free! We are the first brand in the US to produce our entire Outerwear line Fluorocarbon free.
- Jammer Knit for women, activewear line for town or trail with unique features:
- Pants have no show back, crack protection and coverage from the higher, wider comfort-fit waistband.
Knit Jacket with
- Beat the Heat organic cotton, hemp styles, bluesign styles with TempraTech™ thermoregulation technology
- Bug Barrier hiking, trekking styles featuring Insect Shield
- Desert Pucker Styles, San Juan Short Sleeve getting updated with TempraTech™ thermoregulation technology
Convertible Jackets with zip-off sleeves for men and women
- Men’s Traveler Stretch Convertible Jacket
- Women’s Discovery Convertible Jacket
- Performance Flannel – for both genders
- Reversible Vest (furry or shell) for women
- All Season Merino – washable
- Radius Pant for both genders – upgrade to the popular Range Pant. Great pant for colder weather hiking, mountaineering.
- Renewed Line – athleisure, Tencel terry
What advice would Royal and Liz share with budding entrepreneurs looking to make a difference in the outdoor or travel world?
Find a problem and provide a good solution.
Want your own Royal Robbins outdoor clothing? In partnership with Royal Robbins, we’re giving away a $100 gift card to one lucky winner!
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