Matt Niswonger

 How Royal Robbins changed America

Royal Robbins high on El Capitan in Yosemite during the 1964 first ascent of the North American Wall. Photo: Tom Frost / Aurora Photos.

When Royal Robbins died on March 14th it was a painful moment for the adventure community, and a chance to reflect on his great life. Robbins was an American maverick whose significance in history will grow over time, not just for people who care about outdoor sports, but also for any thinking person who cares about the future of America.

Looking back on his life, it’s clear that the early forces that shaped Robbins – an abusive stepfather, the Boy Scouts, and the discovery of Yosemite Valley as a crucible for his own potential – set him on a path to forge a unique way of appreciating the natural world as a place to become a better person and ultimately a happier person.

This new way of living in the world can roughly be described as using adventure to achieve human potential.

As a climber influenced by Robbins and his generation, it’s hard for me to convey the power of Yosemite to a non-climbing visitor to the park. It’s like two completely different realities existing side by side at the same location. The tourist stands in the middle of Yosemite and sees a beautiful albeit crowded natural landscape. The climber stands in the exact same place and sees a thrilling and terrifying savage arena with an established progression of climbing challenges – each with its own history and each leading to self-mastery and spiritual improvement. This was how Robbins changed Yosemite forever. More than anyone else he transformed Yosemite into a temple for the pursuit of self-potential that continues to this day.

Anyone can come to Yosemite and stare at El Capitan and say, “I want to climb that someday.” But to actually achieve that goal one must undergo a terrifying personal journey that is fraught with fear, risk management, and a whole lot of personal growth.

Similarly anyone can look at Mavericks during a big swell and say, “I want to surf that someday,” but to actually paddle into a Mavericks wave and stand up is an entirely different proposition. Actually gaining the ability to surf Mavericks is a journey that involves a lot of time, fear, and personal struggle. And yes, there is a chance you could die. For some surfers the journey will be well worth the blood, sweat and tears. Others will decide the risks are not worth the reward.

The legacy of Royal Robbins is that choosing to devote yourself to the serious adventure path is not just a legitimate way to live your life, it is a heroic undertaking and will possibly help you achieve greater happiness and material success in the long run.

What if the ultimate expression of the American dream is not a bank account full of money but a life rich with adventure? What if this adventure-filled life changed how we see the world and caused us to take better care of the environment?

Mountain bikers, climbers, surfers, hikers, kayakers, trail runners and others who use nature as a vehicle for self development are at the very center of what it means to be an environmentalist.  When something has high value it will be protected, and that’s how outdoor athletes feel about the outdoors.

With his highly successful clothing line, Robbins also proved that one could pursue non-material goals for many years and still succeed in the business arena. Like Yvon Chouinard and his company Patagonia, Robbins was all about the journey and not the destination when it came to business and life in general.

So the legacy of Royal Robbins is not just that he defined the path of the outdoor athlete, it’s that he continues to inspire millions to put true adventure at the center of their lives. For those who follow in his footsteps, the reward is the kind of wealth that has nothing to do with how much money you have in the bank. Here at ASJ we think that’s the future of the American dream and a more sustainable way to pursue happiness than letting the shallow pursuit of money rule every aspect of our lives. What do you think? Send me an email:

—Matt Niswonger