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Photo: Doug Robinson
In March of 1970 Doug Robinson skied the entire John Muir Trail from Whitney Portal to Yosemite. His partner for this adventure was Carl “Peanut” McCoy, former downhill ski racer and son of the Mammoth Mountain McCoys, builders of the well-known ski resort. Spending weeks unsupported in the winter wilderness was a radical undertaking, but for Doug the journey was a natural progression. Increasingly Doug was pursuing a lifestyle of full time, hardcore adventure in the Sierra.
Doug met Carl just a few months earlier in Cardinal Village, a winter “hang” on the east side of the Sierra near Bishop Creek. In his subsequent write up entitled “Four Feet Over Sierra” (which later appeared in an early issue of Powder magazine) Doug wrote:
“Cardinal Village sheltered a herd of mountaineering armadillos migrating from the broken dreams and dirty needles of the Haight-Ashbury to live in the shadow of our vision of verticality in the Sierra winter of 1970.”
More than just a glassy-eyed hippie, Doug was a writer/philosopher/athlete at the center of a powerful outdoor sports movement unique to California. True, a trend towards environmentalism and a ‘back-to-the-land’ consciousness was flowering all over the country back then, but what Doug and his friends like Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, Chuck Pratt, Galen Rowell and Dennis Henneck were exploring was different—it was altogether more hardcore, more extreme. Each had spent many days lashed to vertical Sierra rock, thousands of feet off the ground. Each had become adept at rugged existence in a harsh alpine environment—and all had made a lifestyle of testing themselves in the Sierra.
Photo: Doug Robinson
In the Footsteps of Muir
Like John Muir nearly a century before, baby boomers like Doug Robinson and his group were increasingly looking for something intangible and finding it in the high Sierra. Doug wrote:
What can I say about the Sierra Nevada, where I have lived the clearest hours of my life for as long as I can remember? That it laid hold of my senses and compelled me years ago to live at its feet, in sight of its
very blue-edged crest, and that in order to be commanded by a fuller expression of Sierra wildness I find myself on this late day of March 1970 pulling north on skis across the Kern Plateau. Six days out of Whitney Portal, four feet over the Sierra, bound for the spring wilderness of the high country, hoping for Yosemite later. Yosemite, the northern terminus of the John Muir Trail which we will alternately follow and abandon for another 200 miles through the longest unbroken stretch of high mountain wilderness this side of Canada.
Doug and Carl knew they weren’t the first to ski the John Muir Trail, and that snow surveyors like Dave McCoy, Carl’s father, had toured the winter Sierra a generation before. However, Doug and Carl were part of a new movement at the vanguard of the largest surge of devotees to explore the Sierra backcountry in history. In striving for “Sierra wildness,” Robinson and his cohorts were thrilled to be heirs to the legacy of Dave McCoy, Orland Bartholemew and other snow surveyors, as well as Sierra pioneers like Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, John Salathe and John Muir himself. For Robinson and fellow devotees this was a humbling prospect, and an exciting one. Rather than dismissing the Sierra pioneers as eccentric loners as many in previous generations had, the extreme bohemians like Robinson cast them in a different light: they celebrated them as some of the first people to come under the spell of a truly wild and magical place.
Tools of the Movement
By the early ‘70s, a Sierra movement was in full swing and Doug was in the center of it. For them, Sierra wildness meant letting the mountains determine the next step. Taking a purist approach, the goal of the game was to use boldness and athleticism to chart a minimalist course. Hiking the John Muir Trail in summer was one thing, but skiing great distances in the winter Sierra upped the ante quite a bit more, and was therefore more worthy. Similarly, to climb the sheer face of Half Dome in Yosemite was hard enough, but to do so without hammer and pitons (Doug and Galen Rowell made a hammerless ascent of the face of Half Dome in 1973) was taking it to a whole new level.
To succeed in this demanding game, the Sierra devotees passionately developed equipment. For skiing the John Muir Trail, Doug relied heavily on Carl’s valuable connections within the ski industry. Working at Mammoth Mountain with inventor Hub Zemke, Carl completely reconfigured the mountaineering ski. Using an aluminum honeycomb construction for structural support instead of wood, and wrapping it in fiberglass, Carl arrived at a design that was significantly lighter than previous models. This revolutionary design had already been successfully applied to racing skis, but Carl and Doug were the first to use it specifically for ski mountaineering in the Sierra.
Photo: Doug Robinson
Half Dome Goes Clean
The Half Dome climb started out as an assignment for National Geographic, and represented a big break in Galen Rowell’s budding photojournalism career. Assisting his friend in a story for a major magazine was a fun prospect, but pushing the frontiers of hammerless, or “clean” climbing, had Doug brimming with fear and excitement. At the time, climbing the face of Half Dome without hammer and pitons represented a quantum leap in boldness.
By the late ‘60s, Doug’s friend Yvon Chouinard was producing hand-made hard steel pitons for use on Sierra granite. These pitons were specifically designed for the sheer granite cliffs of Yosemite by the eccentric Swiss blacksmith John Salathe in the 1950s. Deeply obsessed by Yosemite climbing, Salathe realized that traditional soft iron pitons as used in the Swiss Alps were less than satisfactory in the bullet-hard granite of California’s soaring walls. Utilizing hardened steel, Salathe invented the reusable piton for granite that is still in use today. As an early member of the “extreme bohemians,” Yvon chose to continue the tradition. However, Chouinard saw that piton use was becoming problematic, as they were environmentally destructive, and with repeated use chipped and “scarred” the rock.
Chouinard, who later made millions as founder of Patagonia, Inc., began producing hammerless protection for use in Sierra granite after Yosemite wall guru Royal Robbins imported some crude prototypes from England. Essentially aluminum chocks that were wedged into cracks in the granite and clipped to a climber’s safety rope, “nuts” (as they were called) were perfect for the Sierra movement. Robinson in particular became a passionate advocate for their use in Yosemite granite. He coined the term “natural protection,” referring to the environmental benefits of hammerless climbing, and penned a now famous introduction to their use in the Chouinard Equipment catalog.
But Doug and Yvon were spreading more than just environmental goodwill. As Sierra climbers began to utilize natural protection, they quickly realized that true boldness was a prerequisite for their use. Unlike hammering in a steel piton, which was a secure method given a little muscle, nuts had a learning curve. They required finesse and lots of practice. Mistakes could be deadly, as some climbers discovered too late. Robinson worked his way through the grades, ascending an 800-foot wall and then a 1,200-foot wall using only hammerless protection. By the time Galen’s National Geographic assignment came around, Doug was a master of the game, and he even invented his own specialized “tube chock” for protecting wider cracks.
Robinson christened the game “clean climbing,” and it changed rock climbing forever. For the extreme bohemians, clean climbing was an exciting evolution, another step towards the ideal of Sierra wildness.
Photo: Mike Farrell
The Extreme Bohemians
The Sierra devotees of the early 1970s weren’t the first to sing the praises of the Sierra Nevada, but they sparked an unprecedented outdoor sports movement that continues to this day. In addition to better mountaineering skis and hammerless protection, they also popularized the use of curved picks on ice axes for ascending frozen waterfalls. In essence, they felt that the Sierra was challenging them to find something important within themselves. Never coming to any absolute conclusions, they were forever on to the next adventure, developing increasingly sophisticated gear and clothing along the way.
Because of their deep pilgrimages, succeeding generations of Sierra enthusiasts know that an energizing world of mystery and boldness lies beyond the RV camps and national park bus tours. Today, every REI and mountain shop — indeed, probably every wilderness sports store in the world — is filled with gear that directly evolved from their study, their “deep play” in the Sierra. Modern adventure sports are a direct descendent of their willingness to take calculated risks for a peek into a rarefied world. Referring to the power of his Sierra-driven lifestyle in the ‘70s, Doug wrote:
Waking these early morning hours
With mind abroad on the Sierra night,
I have dreams of granite glory
Consistently coming up.
Yet they drown each time
In return to present beauty.
My head is filled and scoured
Time upon time
By tumbling creek
Or trailing shooting stars to fluorescent death.
Against fresh feelings
Ego hasn’t a chance.
A perfect pentagon of stars hangs in Contact Pass.
Ego dissolves in Darkness
Soluble in starlight.
Doug has been a professional mountain guide for 35 years. He is the author of A Night on the Ground, a Day in the Open, a book covering his many adventures in the Sierra and elsewhere. Recently Doug signed to make
a “Peak Experience” series of videos. Plenty of climbing, skiing the backcountry and just plain steeping in the spirit of the wilderness, he says. Look for Half Dome, The Las Vegas Red Rocks, and The Roof of Yosemite to come out next summer. Details soon at www.movingoverstone.com