To Be Brave is "poignant" and "liberating"

by noted climber and author John Long

Gore Vidal described memoir writing as a first-person record "of how one remembers one's life." Royal Robbins must remember his life like a Savannah elephant because My Life, Volume One: To Be Brave, is only the first of a planned seven volumes spanning the life of America's seminal rock climber. I blazed through the 212 pages of To Be Brave in one evening. Though I respected Robbins enormously, he always felt about as human as a cigar store Indian. How mistaken I was.

In To Be Brave, we see how poverty, drunken step-fathers and grade school failures dump the young, Los Angeles-based Robbins onto no-man's land. "I was on a downward spiral and beginning to toy with the idea of putting a bullet through my brain," he writes. "Looking to the future, all I could see was the gray fog of nothingness. I became desperate to fill that void with a picture I could be proud of." Robbins found that "picture" on the soaring rock walls of the world.

Robbins devotes much of the book to the first (1964) solo ascent of a Yosemite big wall, the Leaning Tower, interlarding this adventure with flashbacks to his thorny childhood. Throughout, he writes like a man on truth serum. For those with tough beginnings and who came into being through climbing, Robbins' drift will feel especially poignant and liberating. If there's a finer memoir, written by an American climber, I haven't seen it. Sustaining such high octane over seven volumes will be the greatest challenge of Royal Robbins' life. He would have it no other way.

Printed inĀ Rock & Ice Magazine, September 2009.

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