A life in the backcountry with Doug Robinson [EP 216]

This episode with a very good friend of mine. We've been buddies for over 30 years. He's been a backcountry mountain guide, rock climbing guide, ski guide, been in the industry for many, many years doing all kinds of cool things. He's a great author. Welcome to the show, Doug Robinson.

How were you introduced to the backcountry and the outdoors?

I am an unbelievably lucky kid. At five years old, my parents moved me from Washington, DC where I was born to California and we went almost immediately that summer to the backcountry and Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park and camped out. Back then you drove across Tenaya Creek and pulled your car up next to the Lake and we could camp right on the Lakeshore. And we did. And so at five years old, I'm building rafts and paddling out to the islands on the Lake, I could not believe the Sierra. The road was one and a half lanes, 15 miles an hour. It was a dirt road except where it went over granted slabs. So it was like, two hours from Crane Flat to Tenaya Lake, which is 40 minutes now.

There were a few other people who camped by the Lake and you could tell they came back every year. We all felt like this was the luckiest thing that could possibly ever happen to us. And as time went on, we started hiking and then backpacking and you know, little by little getting into the Sierra backcountry.

When I was 13, I got rescued off of Pywiack dome, which was across the Lake from our campsite. I had a pair of lug sole boots and I knew that made me a mountain climber. So I went up on the side of this dome and 400 feet up I realized that maybe I wasn't as secure. I couldn't go ahead and I couldn't back down. Some tourists stopped on the road and said, are you okay? I shouted NO, but here's where you find the Rangers and tell them to come and get me. And they did. They repelled down from the top of the dome and tied me on. So that was the first time I was ever on a rope in the backcountry.

Your folks ended up buying one of those forest service lease backcountry properties by Rock Creek up here in the Sierra

Another incredibly lucky thing. I ended up in Rock Creek because of Norman Clyde, who I had the good fortune to meet in the late sixties. Everybody knows Norman as quite a climber, but, he was also a backcountry skier. So I asked him okay, where are the good spots, you know, where should I go? And he goes, Oh, Rock Creek. That's the best place on the East side of the Sierra for backcountry skiing.

So I moved in the next winter. Then the summer after that I found this one-line ad in the Inyo Register for a cabin for sale. And I mean, it sent me back $4,500. But I moved in and ended up living there many winters, cross country and backcountry skiing were just in its bloom in the seventies. There was a ski touring lodge two miles away and I could teach there and, and live up the Canyon and ski up under Bear Creek Spire every day. It was paradise.

Did you stay up there in the summers or did you go back to work or back to school?

Well in the summers I’d go into the Palisades. Cause in the mid-sixties I lucked into a job guiding there at the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Which was the first climbing school in California.

You'll get tired of me saying this, but I'm one of the luckiest people alive. Lucked into that job. And then I lucked into having a place to live in Rock Creek in the winter and, it goes on and on.

So before we get too far into this, let's let everybody know you are somewhere in Wyoming, is that right?

I am somewhere in Wyoming and we won't pin it down exactly because I am caretaking a backcountry guest ranch in Wyoming. The closest clue I'll give you is that when I ski up to the Ridge several hours away, I can see the Grand Teton off to the Northwest. It's amazing. We, I say we, my partner Eva Eilenberg is with me here and we lucked into this caretaking opportunity.

We've been here over a month and we've got another month to go. I just came in from, we were doing some work with the batteries that run off the DC hydro and, and kind of keep place electrified off the grid. We're way off the grid. I'm talking to you by satellite phone.

John Muir Trail secluded campsite, Sierra Nevada Backcountry
Photographer: Jasper van der Meij | Source: Unsplash

Let's circle back around to the Palisade School of Mountaineering How did you start there? You saw an ad in the paper or how did you get involved with those guys?

So I'm 20 years old. I'm in Yosemite. I pack up my backpack and I'm going to go up to the High Sierra because that's where I started, right? Tenaya like I told you. And I just love going in the backcountry, rambling around, backpacking, scrambling up peaks. So I was getting a little more advanced. I mean technical climbing because I'd been in Yosemite after all. That was the cutting edge place in the world for rock climbing in the sixties. And, you know, we were kind of hot shit and we knew it.

So I walk up into the Palisades, I’d never been there. My buddy John Fisher and I had been climbing together since we were 13. He ended up owning the school later on. So I walk in there and I walk all the way up to the edge of the glacier. There's a little obvious backcountry campsite up there. And I dropped my pack and look around and there's nobody there. Now I had just come from camp 4, I mean, you could pick up a climbing partner in 30 seconds down there and I just kind of assumed there would be a scene up there too.

So I soloed a couple of easy backcountry peaks and a few days later this pile of lumber appeared on the slabs below the camp and was coming up upwards me. It turned out to be a guy named Don Jensen. And he was getting ready to build a little hut up on the edge of the glacier, or the Palisade School of Mountaineering. Don turned out to be the chief guide, so we made a deal. He went climbing with me. I helped him build his hut.

The first day we went climbing, we went out and across the glacier up Starlight Peak down into the notch, up North Pal down the U Notch. And we were back at camp at 10 in the morning. And he offered me a job guiding. I go, wow, I'm 20 years old. I'd never thought about being a mountain guide, but, um, okay, if Don thinks I can do it. So I have been guiding ever since. That was just another one of those really lucky things. And you're right, I was ready for it cause I'd been climbing for years. Right. Dirt bagging before that was a thing. That was 1965.

Then after Palisade School of Mountaineering, you got involved with the clean climbing movement and wrote the manifesto, tell us about that.

Here's how it started. Royal Robbins kicked it off. He went climbing in England. He saw, clean climbing there with pebbles stuffed into cracks and then machine nuts that were already on a runner. And he got all excited and came back and put up Nutcracker in Yosemite, which was the most popular route in the Valley, and is still a classic. He did it as a demonstration, Royal and Liz, his wife. Then he wrote about it in summit magazine because we were reading summit every month. None of the backcountry focused magazines that are out now existed then. It was a basically a hiker magazine, but there was occasional climbing stuff in it. So it was the only game in town.

I got turned on by this and went straight down to the hardware store and bought brass machine nuts in a whole range of sizes and filed the threads out of them so they wouldn't cut the runners and strung them on runners. This was 1965 or 66. So I was guiding in the Palisades then. So I had my backup Pitons and a hammer, but I took the nuts long too. Well, it turns out that the backcountry Alpine granite is just perfect for holding nuts. You can almost throw them in the crack. So some of the very earliest all clean climbs were done there and all the other guides got turned onto it too. We're all in this together and realized that we could do things clean. We didn't need the hammer or the pins and it was lighter so we left them in camp.

Then we started going to Yosemite in the spring and the fall and starting to try to climb in the backcountry clean also. So I did the East buttress of Middle Cathedral rock all clean. That was the first grade four that was done in that committed style. And then the next year did the Steck, Salathe on Sentinel without carrying hammers. And you know, we're just very gradually progressing up.

Meanwhile, I had met Chouinard, we had gone ice climbing together in the Palisades, did some first backcountry ice accents of routes like the V notch. And I started going and hanging out in Ventura at the tin shed and being a laborer. I started out there, my first job was being an assistant bong bender is what they called it, but people don't even know what a bong is anymore. And we're talking about clean climbing, we're having fun doing it. Um, and um, and Chouinard and Frost got interested in it and you know just innovate equipment before breakfast.

So pretty soon they're making the aluminum nuts that are really good and I'm contributing to the design. So in the end, and this is a hats off to Chouinard too, cause he'd started making Pitons in 1958 in that chicken coop in his parents' backyard in Burbank, he's a teenager and selling out of the trunk of his car. And that business was built on pitons and hammers and all the unclean stuff to go climbing.

So these piton makers, they're making a living, they're being able to hire us. Thank you very much. But we're understanding that these pitons are so good at being removable, which we thought was clean and they're chipping away at the rock and destroying the cracks and then they're getting ugly looking. And so this clean climbing is the solution to that. And they bet the farm on clean climbing and it ended up eliminating the piton business.

Pretty scary though because they're making all their money off pitons and they're doing all right. But we think this is the right thing to do. So anyway, I ended up writing a piece for the catalog. It was the first real catalog of the company. It was called the Great Pacific Ironworks at the time. So in the 72 catalog is my manifesto called the whole natural art of protection and it really changed things.

Val Franco is doing some pretty amazing archival work that is keeping all those times alive, talk about that.

You walk into that archive and this is only a couple years old but it's phenomenal. I mean there's examples of every piton on that Chouinard Equipment ever made and she has the newer equipment that is now called Black Diamond Equipment, but it's just this like the lineage is right straight through. And all of the clean hardware and some fascinating prototypes that I remember making with a file and a bench vise down there.

And they are doing taping sessions too. I got to sit in on some sessions with Tom Frost before he died where he was talking about his part in all that. He'd been an aircraft designer, aeronautical engineer, and quit all that. He's a Stanford trained engineer, smart guy. The mechanical drawings that he made for the nuts that we were designing are phenomenal. They're just beautiful. And those are in the archive too. And so are the interviews with Tom where he talks about his role. Um, it's very cool. Val Franco is the head of that and she was a sewer at ironworks when I was there. We knew each other when we were in our twenties and she's still there and putting this thing together and she's so excited.

What was your first backcountry ski experience?

I started downhill skiing when I was seven years old at Goldridge and Sugar Bowl. And I had these Hickory skis, little segmented metal edges screwed onto them. But the bindings were interesting cause they had a cable on the heel and there were two hold-downs on the sides. And I hope you can visualize this cause, you snap the cable underneath one to hold your heel down onto the ski, right? That's the rear one. The forward one snapped from the rear. It’s a walking mode and these are my downhill skis. But this is 1952 and skiing hasn't advanced that far, so it's still like walking on skis is important. It's a backcountry sport that happens to have some ski lifts and hasn't evolved into plastic boots and all that.

Um, so in a sense having that gear was my heritage and I realized that you could walk on it and that meant that I could go uphill on my skis. Jeez, no big deal. They were built for it. So in a sense, it started right there and by the early sixties, I was going into the backcountry skiing Pyramid Peak. I got to move to Bishop in 1969 fresh out of college. I'm already a guide and lucky again, I had a client for the entire winter. We rented a cabin up Bishop Creek and I taught him how to backcountry ski and winter climbing in the Palisades. We ended up the next spring, spring of 1970, skiing the John Muir Trail, which we thought was a first. But it turns out that we were scooped in 1928-29 by Orland Bartholomew. And that's another whole story.

Well, nothing like skiing the whole length of the range to give you some ideas of places to go and things to just do. in 1975, David Beck and some friends pioneered the Sierra High Route in the backcountry, which goes from roughly Independence across to Sequoia National Park for six days. Or I like to take eight or nine days to do it cause, once you're out there, well why rush back to the city?

I was guiding that every spring or maybe even twice every spring. And by the mid-eighties, there was a time when I skied across the range, guiding it for a week and then rested a day or two. And I had another backcountry ski tour to guide starting on the Eastside. So I skied back in 22 hours. This is like a six or eight-day trip but you know, I'm really fit and by then and I have set my own track across the top of these high basins. But what a day, you know, to be out there all by myself.

backcountry view from the Alabama Hills, CA
Alabama Hills Storm, Rick Saez

I'm sure all this time in the backcountry gave you plenty of time to think about gear.

The Ultima Thule Pack evolved out of a pack that Don Jensen had designed. He was brilliant. He gave us the plans for them and for our Muir Trail backcountry ski trip we built packs that weighed 17 ounces and carried 70 pounds. I built those packs and a tent that Don Jensen designed for that trip. And then while I was working in Ventura I knew that I could improve on the Jensen pack. So Tom Frost and I ended up crawling around on pattern paper on the floor and laughing to ourselves. It was so much fun to work with him as a designer and we came up with a truly better version of that pack that carried better. And so that was wonderful and decades later I designed another carrying system for a pack for Montbell when you and I were working there.

That was the Wishbone system. I mentioned that the Ultima Thule dragged on your shoulders just like the Jensen backcountry pack did. We hadn't figured that out. And so it was figuring that out over the years with essentially some internal stays in the pack that rose above the shoulder straps, like lift straps, which everybody's got now. But there was a time when that was a big deal. It was a new way and the new hybrid materials that I came up with without going way into it.

When did you write your first book?

Writing for magazines like Outside, which I helped start, another whole story. I wrote some cover stories and was having such a good time. That was the first really professional magazine that I'd ever been around. I ended up moving to San Francisco to hang out with them and I was making enough of a pest to myself that they gave me a desk and a phone and ended up staying the winter.

Then I wrote cover stories and I was writing for backpacker and already mentioned Powder. So that was half of my career and guiding was the other half. By the nineties, I had all these magazine articles that I had written that I liked and other people liked so I pulled them together into a book. So my first book was really just an anthology of my own writing. Things I liked the best going back to the sixties. And it was a big success actually. It was recently named by climbing magazine as one of the 33 must-reads climbing literature of all time.

You were thinking about the listeners of the podcast, what do you want to say to them?

I was thinking about the people who might be listening to this podcast. And I'm imagining that some of them are shop people working on the floor, some are designers, some are marketers, you know, we're all in the same industry, this outdoor industry, which is so great. It’s given us such great friendships and good times.

I was thinking about the customer that walks into that shop and you're the guy on the floor saying “hi what can I do for you”? And that what you can do for them is not just talk about the qualities of the packs that you're selling, that they want to buy, but also the experience. You've been out in the backcountry more than they have. You have the experience they admire that and they would love to soak it up and hear some of your stories. And if you're a customer just walking into your local mountain shop, yeah you wanna walk back out with a parka and a pack and a sleeping bag, but you also want to rub shoulders with the experience itself. And so don't you guys out there sell yourself short on, on that. You got a lot to give people besides the tech specs.

Do you have any other suggestions or advice for someone wanting to get into the outdoor business or grow their career if they are already in the biz?

Follow your bliss. I mean, that's how basically all of us got in here. And I have one other sort of oddball piece of advice too. Don't think that you can get that degree from Oregon and be a product designer without the outdoor experience with it, cause you gotta be out there in the rain with the water somehow finding its way to drip in around the hood of your parka, you know, and you have to have that experience before you can know how to design around it, how to fix it.

If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to the OR show these days, what would it say?

My banner would say “take care of the planet because if you don't, nothing in this show is going to mean anything.”

You can follow up with Doug at his website Moving Over Stone

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