Last fall, Royal Robbins, perhaps the most prominent name in American rock-climbing, released the first volume of his autobiography, My Life. To Be Brave is one of the most interesting and important forays in the genre of climbing autobiography that I have seen in a long time. It is an important book for two reasons. The first is that it marks the emergence from relative silence of one of the sport’s most innovative and eloquent practitioners. The second is that Robbins has produced perhaps the most profound exploration that I have read of the ways in which climbing can impact a young person’s life.
The book itself is a powerful narrative of recollection and retrieval from an era now long gone, not just from American climbing but from America itself. However it is not a nostalgic portrait but at times harshly drawn, hard-bitten, relentlessly direct in its description of a life on the edge of real poverty, a life bereft of any real emotional connection with his biological father and amply furnished with drunken rage and abuse from his stepfather. Robbins chronicles with unflinching and simple prose what he regards as the “betrayal and loss” of his parents’ divorce and its effects upon him. With the Great Depression as background, Royal’s early years are a story of a life on the move, from state to state, from house to house, father to father, even name to name. Drifting into petty crime, Robbins only narrowly avoided following in the footsteps of his friends who went to jail or drifted into oblivion, just as his father and stepfather had. According to Robbins, he was saved from this fate by joining the Boy Scouts and it was with them that he ultimately discovered the mountains and the art of climbing. But most importantly he also discovered that there were men out there whom he could respect and ideals he could aspire to.
Readers looking for climbing narrative will be relatively disappointed. Though the book is bracketed by beautifully written accounts of Robbins’ groundbreaking solo on the Leaning Tower, its value lies elsewhere. Throughout the volume Robbins is exploring the problem of what it means to be a man and tracing the radical alteration of that idea in the time that he was growing up. This is made abundantly clear by the characters of his biological father and his stepfather. The first he describes as a hunter, an outdoorsman, a gifted athlete, who aspired to be “a romantic adventurer, masculine but sensitive…” Yet his father could not make a commitment to his wife or family, his love of himself always rising above any feelings he might have for others. As Robbins relates it, both father and son were grappling with and frustrated by images of what they were supposed to be to each other. The resulting disappointment and alienation proved to be a major influence in his life.
His stepfather is just as tragic, representing not the gallant, handsome adventurer, but a machinist, a working man, and most unfortunately an alcoholic, at a time when jobs were desperately hard to find. Renaming Robbins with his own name, his abusive behavior and violence left Robbins with yet another indelible image of masculine failure. His mother remained the only source of stability in his life, while the men in his life became ghosts, haunting his inner sense of self, indeed haunting the pages of this book. This is perhaps because they represent now-vanished types of American masculinity, the first made extinct by the closing of the American frontier, the second by the post-industrial world of the post-World War II American economy. Both types were never anything more than images anyway but the degree to which men were, and still are, invested in them, is testimony to their attractive power and their potential for tragedy. Certainly equivalent stories could be and have been told about women and their expected roles and images, though I am unaware of any related to climbing from the era of Robbins’ adolescence in the 40s and 50s.
Climbing itself, to make a parallel of sorts, was also changing, and radically. The image that Robbins seized upon for inspiration as a youth, a fuzzy black and white photograph of a rock climber somewhere in the Dolomites, shod in heavy alpine boots, his rope dangling uselessly, this image would soon be extinct as well, ironically enough in large part due to the technical advances made by Robbins and his colleagues in Yosemite. Yet for Robbins, as an adolescent in Los Angeles poised above an abyss far more deadly and deep than any found on a cliff, the idea of climbing proved to be an escape from the dead-end examples of his father and stepfather.
I suspect many climbers have followed this road, finding in the sport of climbing a kind of escape from the flawed and distorted stereotypes prescribed for young men and women. Perhaps the crucial ingredient for both sexes has always been the elemental presence of nature and natural forms. Robbins describes it as follows: “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.” To me there is no question that Robbins has touched upon the core of the meaning of climbing in this passage, perhaps the most important in the book, and among the most cogent descriptions of this feeling that I have ever read.
Whether future volumes will match the promise and excellence of this first one, only time will tell. The initial plan is apparently for seven volumes in all, a considerable number. However given the intensity, focus, and realism of To Be Brave, and of course the spectacular achievements of Robbins both as a climber and a person, I find it hard to believe that they will not also prove to be compelling and important books. Robbins’ voice is clear, powerful and articulate, and free from ego or selfishness, a much-needed quality in a book of this kind. I certainly look forward to more.