Fail Falling. Royal Robbins. California: Pink Mountain Press, 2010. 190 pages. Paperback. $19.95.
Royal Robbins is writing his life story, and what a story it is. The whole project will stretch over eight chronologically ordered volumes. This one goes from 1950 to 1957; in that time Robbins becomes a legit climber. He starts with top-roping and small boulders, but by 1957 he’s putting up the Northwest Face route on Half Dome. Along the way there’s stirring climbing, life as a high school dropout in a fatherless household, car crashes, and Los Angeles in the blazing fifties.
The title of Volume Two is Fail Falling, which is not just a bold approach to climbing, but Robbins’ credo. It means trusting yourself to succeed. He explains that “attitude makes all the difference between success and failure.” His life story certainly demonstrates the benefit of grit and enthusiasm (along with really good balance). The book’s many photos give you a lot of ropes tied around waists, trailing straight and clean through space, the only protection the gleam in the climber’s eye. And these are first ascents done in sneakers—you’ll see them wearing Chuck Taylors, not my first choice for the Steck-Salathé, but that’s how Robbins did it. And with his introductions of fellow climbers from the era, a community comes alive.
Fail Falling is best in its extended descriptions of memorable climbs like the Northwest Face. Robbins can craft a narrative with depth of character and uncertainty of outcome. We can then sit back while his memory returns to the rock he consumed with ferocious skill. Robbins has the spotlight throughout but is generous in praise for the many people who helped him succeed. He makes it clear that his early climbing was enabled by a social structure that’s no longer influential in American climbing: the climbing club. Robbins got his start with the Rock Climbing Section of the Sierra Club, which offered tutelage to beginners, guidance to youths, and organized outings for all. His subsequent prominence as an environmentalist-climber—he advanced the clean-climbing movement in word with Basic Rockcraft and in deed with the Nutcracker—likely owes much to this provenance. Robbins’ evolution embodies John Muir’s dream that the Sierra Club outings would take urban citizens into the wild and inspire them to take the wild under their protection back in the city In Fail Falling the virtuous cycle from wild experience to environmental ethics spans the era of Yosemite’s Golden Age.
Fail Falling brings to mind the old paradox, “Great men make history. History makes great men.” Should we praise the individual for achieving in the circumstances, or recognize the circumstances that elevated the individual? The fifties and sixties combined the technological revolution of nylon ropes and lighter gear with an unprecedented expansion of disposable income and inexpensive transportation. Fail Falling shows that Robbins’ generation and the Baby Boomers right behind it were in the right place at the right time to scoop what the circumstances gifted them and get credit for doing it. Fail Falling also shows a few heroic men and women grasping their moment and blowing through the limits that restrain the rest of us. Robbins is such a hero.
Fail Falling shares a remarkable story. Robbins’ early days run on the jet fuel of enthusiasm, and these pages reveal a unique spirit to his life that can possess and inspire the willing reader.