Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Robbins Route

Our organized media tour in Switzerland had ended and the leashes were off: In other words, it was time to climb.

John Harlin wanted to return to the Tour d’Aï above Leysin, where he had lived for several years during the 1960s, and where his father had started the International School of Mountaineering. For a brief time, because of the senior Harlin's influence and his need for instructors at the new school, this tiny town was one of the most important centers of climbing in the Alps. In particular, it was the center of American influence, when Harlin, Tom Frost, Gary Hemming, Royal Robbins, and others brought Yosemite skills to the Alps and climbed major new routes like the south face of the Fou and the American Direct on the Drus—perhaps the only time when Americans made a significant mark on Alpine history.

In 1964, John Harlin II climbed the first two pitches of a steep limestone route on the Tour d'Aï. Harlin veered off to the left below a final headwall. The following summer, Royal Robbins was running Harlin's climbing school and the two were working on the American Direct. Between forays to Chamonix, Robbins repeated the Harlin route on the Tour d'Aî and then forged straight up the overhanging headwall, using a few points of aid. A short time later, he returned with George Lowe and led the entire route all free at around 5.11b. In 1965, this may have been the hardest free pitch in the world, and Robbins must have done it with almost no pro in the first half of the lead. I'll bet only a handful of American climbers have ever even heard of this route, but it was a tour de force.

John Harlin III had made a date to meet up with Jerry Robertson, who was John Harlin II's partner during his first attempt on the Eiger in the early 1960s, and to climb the Harlin/Robbins route with Jerry’s son, Daron. I tagged along, and it was a fantastic experience.

The first two pitches, which John’s dad had climbed, followed a corner and crack system up a vague pillar. We carried some pro, but we didn’t need much: The route had been fully retro-bolted some years earlier. These two pitches could have been protected without bolts, but the second would have required numerous large cams; Harlin's dad had used wooden blocks as “pro” for the wide crack. I wasn’t really sorry to see a good bolt every 10 feet or so.

Daron, a 5.13 climber from Tucson, was our rope gun for the Robbins pitch, and he quickly completed the long, overhanging lead. When I followed, I was blown away by what Robbins had accomplished in the mid-1960s. He would have found almost no protection in the first 30 or 40 feet; above that, although the route followed a series of cracks, the face was so steep that hanging on to place pitons (the only option at the time) would have been absolutely desperate. Moreover, the climbing was hard. Sustained and fingery, the pitch climbed over two crux bulges, with a sting in the tail in the form of a deceptive pod in the final crack. I could not imagine leading this climb without the bolts. I was happy just to follow it cleanly.

Each of us enjoyed this climb in different ways. Though the climbing was technically easy for Daron, he hadn’t done a multipitch route since he started climbing 10 years earlier. For John, it was a trip down memory lane, and a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of his father. For me, it was a superb and eye-opening climb, my first in Switzerland, and I felt privileged to explore this little-known setting of climbing history. Most climbers are—or should be—familiar with Royal Robbins' ground-breaking climbs in Yosemite: He was the master of big-wall rock craft during the Valley's Golden Age. But our day on Le Tour d'Aï gave me a much greater sense of Robbins' incredible free-climbing prowess. Given modern shoes, protection, and training, what might he have accomplished today?

To go to the start of these reports from Switzerland, click here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Throughout my climbing career I've always been amazed at what some of the early pioneers did with the equipment they had. Men were truly men back in those days, how soft all our cush cragging must seem to them now!