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Rock-climbing pioneer: Recounting the risks

Royal Robbins and wife on ascent up Half Dome 1967.
Royal Robbins and wife on ascent up Half Dome 1967. Royal Robbins

MODESTO — Royal Robbins’ risk-taking streak turned up early — way before the Modestan gained fame as a rock-climbing pioneer.

According to his new autobiography, “To Be Brave,” he was jumping trains, hitching rides and traveling hundreds of miles from home while still an elementary school student. Also at that age, he once ran away from home for four days, camping out happily in a Salvation Army warehouse.

While his mother, Beulah, adored him, she wasn’t able to keep young Royal in line.

“I think she lost a lot of sleep at night,” the 75-year-old said during a recent interview at his son Damon’s Modesto wine cafe, Camp 4. “Frankly, I didn’t care because I was so selfish that I would just do what I wanted.”

Robbins is making it up to her now with the book’s dedication, which reads, “To my beloved mother, who has taught me so much and who has stood by me all these years.” She is 94 and lives in Garden Grove.

“To Be Brave” (Pink Moment Press, 222 pages) is the first of a projected seven-volume series titled “My Life.” Though Robbins nowbelieves that plan may be too ambitious, he decided on that number because he wanted to make each book relatively short.

His goal is to inspire people and show them what is possible.

“I think we are what we dream about,” Robbins said, choosing his words carefully. “If you dream about things going well and things turning out well, they tend to. There’s no guarantee, but it tends to work that way. If you take a negative view of life, negative things will come your way.

If you take a positive view of life, positive things will come your way.”

Robbins was known for his daring climbs in the 1950s through the ’70s on Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome and El Capitan. He and his wife, Liz, founded the Royal Robbins Co., an outdoor clothing store, in 1968 and sold it 31 years later.

He wrote two major books — “Basic Rockcraft” and “Advanced Rockcraft,” which together sold more than 400,000 copies. He is the subject of Pat Ament’s biography “The Spirit of the Age.” He and Liz have two adult children.

Less about mountain climbing than about Robbins’ tumultuous upbringing in West Virginia and Los Angeles, “To Be Brave” is a story that makes readers wonder how Robbins ever made it to adulthood.

With a womanizing father and an abusive, drunken step-father who once attacked his mother with a knife, Robbins had no positive male role models in his household. He found inspiration from reading Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson and in leaders of the Boy Scouts, the organization that introduced him to the joys of the outdoors.

A latter-day Huckleberry Finn, young Robbins enjoyed his freedom doing pretty much whatever he wanted when he wanted. He has no regrets about his childhood rambles and thinks today’s parents often set too many rules.

Robbins thrived on the risks that came with his passion of rock climbing.

He hopes his story is inspiring to those who have had a rough start in life. He didn’t do well in his studies and dropped out of high school. He attended a couple of semesters at Los Angeles City College, but was mostly self-educated.

In future books, he intends to write more about rock climbing, his “wonderful” marriage to Liz, his adventurous half sister, his experiences with kayaking and his clothing business. He has worked hard to make his writing as crisp and engaging as possible.

“To Be Brave” is available for $19.95 at www.camp4winecafe.com.

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