Sheer Focus

Tom Frost was an unlikely pioneer, but his exploits — and ethics — have shaped generations of high achievers.

By Sam Scott
Photography by Tom Frost/Aurora Photos

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the July/August 2014 print edition of STANFORD. Tom Frost died August 24, 2018.

By the time Tom Frost started up El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical walls in the fall of 1960, the glory of being the first to scale Yosemite’s most imposing monolith had already been claimed. A maverick named Warren Harding had taken the honors two years earlier, staggering over the granite giant’s rim before drying his tears and greeting the throng of reporters and fans gathered to celebrate what had so recently seemed impossible.

But Frost was after something different. Harding had essentially taken on El Cap like it was Mount Everest, bolting into the rock a trail of fixed ropes that allowed his team to come and go during 45 days of climbing spread over 18 months. Such tactics were common in the murderous altitude and weather of the Himalayas, but for climbers like Frost, ’58, they seemed unsporting in Yosemite. With enough bolts, fixed ropes and time, any obstacle would submit — even El Cap — but that wasn’t the point.

And so Frost and three others, led by a charismatic climber named Royal Robbins, the purist yin to Harding’s pragmatic yang, left the valley floor in September 1960. They expected a 10-day climb and hauled only enough water for a quart and a half per day. The aim wasn’t just the summit, Frost says; they wanted to strike a blow for their cause — climbing with “good style,” one that embraced uncertainty.

“For us, it was almost a sacred business how we climbed, not what we climbed,” Frost says, speaking at his home in Oakdale, Calif., halfway between the Bay Area and Yosemite. “It’s about discovering what you can do, and what you can’t do.”

Six and a half days later, they too had scaled the Nose, the prow connecting El Cap’s two faces. For Frost, it was like stepping right into heaven, not that the general public took much notice. But in the climbing community, their accomplishment cast a resounding vote for the vision of the “Valley Christians,” as Harding ribbed his rivals.

“It is difficult to imagine now what a psychological breakthrough this Nose climb was,” climbing journalist Steve Roper writes in his book Camp 4. “Without fanfare, the best rock climbers in the world had simply gone and done the world’s toughest climb without using fixed ropes. In a single stroke, this changed Valley climbing permanently: Never again did top-level climbers string fixed ropes from ground to rim. This tactic would have been like using a horse and buggy in the thirties.”

Frost’s quick emergence among the world’s best in anything — even something as esoteric in 1960 as rock climbing — may have surprised those who knew him in his early years at Stanford. By his own description, he was often socially awkward, academically overwhelmed and athletically mediocre. He relished his time on the crew team, but because he was only a few pounds heavier than a coxswain, nobody minded much when he put down his oar after his sophomore year. “I loved it, but I was lousy,” he says.

But from the moment Frost, a mechanical engineering student, discovered climbing in the Stanford Alpine Club as a senior, he flourished. He found a harmony with rock that he’d had with the wind as a competitive sailor in his teen years, an easy familiarity with nature that often eluded him in social settings.

Yosemite granite was nothing he took lightly. “When you go up something that big, the rock owns you until it spits you out at the top or at the bottom,” he likes to say. But on its walls, he discovered a place in the world where he belonged. It was spiritual.

The extent of his comfort is evident in decades of stunning black-and-white climbing photographs, another of his legacies that began on El Capitan. An amateur behind the lens, Frost brought a camera only at the urging of a veteran of Harding’s team, who offered his Leica IIC 35mm a day before the climb.

It was another instant connection. Despite the extreme environment and unfamiliar equipment, Frost combined a natural eye and an almost unnatural cool. Able to detach from moments of mortal danger, he took shots more experienced photographers may never have dared.“In those awesome situations he led, cleaned, hauled, day after day and — somehow — used his camera with the acuity of a Cartier-Bresson strolling about a piazza,” climber and photographer Glen Denny marveled in a book on the Stanford Alpine Club and its alumni. Speaking recently, Denny said it was as though Frost were smiling when others were thinking about surviving.

“I was just plain comfortable up there,” Frost says.

The Nose ascent and the photos would be far from the last time the quiet Frost would make his mark in climbing. In the coming years, he and Robbins would pioneer new routes up El Cap. He would climb in the Himalayas with Edmund Hillary, the man who along with Tenzing Norgay first stood atop Everest, an opportunity presented to Frost after he drove 830 miles from California to Utah for a 20-minute interview.

And he would emerge as business partner, designer and engineer with Yvon Chouinard in what then was arguably the world’s best manufacturer of climbing equipment. Chouinard, who joined Frost on first ascents of new El Capitan routes in the mid-’60s, later founded apparel maker Patagonia. Through it all, Frost says, he tried to keep his focus on good style — a climber’s version of “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”

He didn’t always triumph by conventional standards. In 1970, burnishing his credentials as perhaps America’s most versatile climber, he accepted an invitation to join a British expedition to Annapurna in Nepal. Others on the team reached the 26,500-foot summit, but Frost, so ravaged by the extreme elevation he wouldn’t fully recover for two years — stopped 1,500 feet short. He could have made the summit, he guesses, but probably not the return.

To get so close to such an epic peak after months of effort would torture others, but the decision never bothered him, he says. He’d done his job in a successful expedition and returned alive. (One of his teammates did not, having died in an ice fall during the descent.)

Frost continued mountaineering into the 1980s. But his days on Yosemite’s big walls ended long before — at least for a time. The level of commitment needed for such technically challenging climbs didn’t fit with the demands of family and business, he says.

His influence on the sport continued in other ways. In the early ’70s, he and Chouinard grew increasingly alarmed at the damage left by pitons, the metal spikes climbers hammered into cracks to serve as anchors for safety ropes. The pitons were crucial to their business, not to mention their own climbing success.

As climbing’s popularity grew, and Yosemite emerged as its mecca, the scarring of previously pristine cliffsides was growing undeniable. In 1972, Frost and Chouinard developed chockstones of varying sizes and shapes that could be wedged into cracks without damaging them. “Remember the rock, the other climbers — climb clean,” the two men wrote in their 1972 catalogue, a manifesto still seen as an inflection point in the sport’s ethos.

The two went their separate ways after Chouinard began to focus on clothing, but some of their gear designs are still being produced. Frost also emerged as a leader and designer in another field: photography lighting equipment.

He returned to Yosemite in 1997 to climb El Cap four times — this time with his son, Ryan. With modern gear and techniques, he climbed faster, though it was far tougher than he remembered. As a younger man, his focus had been absolute, but at age 60, with pressures of life and business crowding in, he took short falls on each climb, something that never occurred 40 years earlier.

The experience led to Frost’s most tangible legacy at Yosemite. While his son was off climbing, he grew concerned that park officials intended to build employee housing on the site of Camp 4, the base for generations of Yosemite climbers. Both a staging area and a community gathering place, its potential demise aggravated many, notably John Middendorf, ’82, another big wall climber who had taken to leafleting cars at night to raise opposition. Middendorf recruited Frost to the cause.

After spending two weeks and $400 on campground pay phones combing the country for legal help, Frost enticed a lawyer with no real experience in the area with the kind of pitch that Robbins might have used to recruit a climber in the ’60s. “Haven’t you ever done anything that you didn’t know how to do when you started?”

For the next two years, Frost says, he woke up every day with one thought in his mind: “What am I going to do to save Camp 4?” But if climbing had taught him anything, it was to never quit.

You start at the bottom, he says. And even though you see stuff up ahead you know you can’t climb, you go and you go and you go until you can touch the obstacle — and more often than not, when you get that close, there’s a way past.

“If you turn back before you can put your nose against it, then you’re giving up.”

Suing the federal government to preserve the Camp 4 site was similarly daunting. It cost Frost $250,000 of his own savings to see it through, all the while insisting that his fellow plaintiffs remain amicable with federal officials in hopes of fostering a better relationship for climbers. In the end, Camp 4 was saved. In 2003 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Good style — paired with plenty of grit — had won again.•

Sam Scott is a senior writer at STANFORD.

Highlights and extras from Stanford's alumni magazine.

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