Steve Grossman is writing the biography on our friend Tom Frost. Steve is the perfect partner to be our historian. He has been and continues to be a volunteer, spending countless hours and opening up so many doors for the flatlander team. (He also has our back on the Supertopo site, which is a wild place for a Flatlander!)
Thank you Steve!
NOTE - The biography is not part of the film but we hope the two can be packaged together at some point in the future. Until the book comes out please enjoy this Introduction by Royal Robbins and Preface by Steve Grossman.
I guess I first met Tom Frost in 1959 at a group of granite outcrops near the top of Mt. Pacifico, a 7,000-foot peak in the Angeles National Forest. It’s a fun place to climb, isolated high above the Los Angeles basin to the south and the desert to the north. I was still in the Army stationed at Ft. Bliss, near El Paso, Texas. I would get out to California as often as possible to take in whatever climbs I could by hopping military flights. Anyway, I was there in April at a Sierra Club Rock Climbing Section practice session. The previous year I had put up a hard boulder problem which became known as the “Robbins Eliminate.” Tom had already failed on it a few weeks earlier. But he went back to his home in Los Angeles and carefully thought about it.
When he came back; he was ready. I was watching and saw him climb it easily. I was impressed and went over to offer my congratulations. I was surprised that Tom was so personable and modest. He had a disarming kind of “Aw, shucks” manner. I had already been planning on repeating Warren Harding’s 3,000-foot route up El Capitan in Yosemite Valley and immediately thought that Tom would make a great companion. He was clearly a good climber, plus he was unfailingly upbeat and had a keen sense of humor. I didn’t know if he could do the aid climbing that we would find on El Cap, but I figured that with his qualities he could quickly learn to do what was needed. I wrote him later and invited him to join Chuck Pratt, Joe Fitschen, and I in an assault on the Harding Route up the South Buttress in 1960. I am happy to record that he said “Yes.”
Bill (“The Dolt”) Feuerer lent his Leica camera to Tom for that ascent and it marked the beginning of a sterling photographic career. He took many fine photographs, all in black and white, which remained his preferred medium. He went on to capture climbing in Yosemite in the 1960’s. He did the hardest climbs and recorded them faithfully in his photographs. This long awaited book represents the best of Tom’s work.
We repeated the Nose in seven days and Tom and I later did other climbs of record in Yosemite, including the Salathé Wall (the second route up El Capitan) in 1961, the Dihedral Wall in 1964, and the Southeast Face of El Capitan (the North America Wall) in 1964. We also did a new route on the North Wall of Sentinel Rock and made the first ascent of the North Face of the Higher Cathedral Spire.
During all of my climbs with him and on those he did with others, such as the first ascent of the West Face of Sentinel (with Yvon Chouinard) and the second ascent of the face of Half Dome (with Pratt and Fitschen), he always showed impeccable style. He had a sense of proportion that was unerring and elemental. That “style” shows in the pictures in this volume, but he also made it part of his life. I have never been out with Tom but that style didn’t come first. What did that mean? Well, among other things, it meant that he never took short cuts. Getting to the top was not important to him; it was the way you do it. We made a good team because I didn’t want to take short cuts either.
Tom was a natural when it came time to replace hammered pitons with artificial chockstones or “nuts” in order to arrest mounting damage to the rock. After virtually perfecting pitons, he and Yvon Chouinard then designed and manufactured Hexcentrics and Stoppers, the world’s best artificial chocks. A climber could get protection by slotting these artfully into cracks, and avoid the offending wear and tear of pitons. In this way, Frost was an integral part of an astounding clean climbing revolution.
I knew that I could always count on Tom, and I often did. For example, when we made the first continuous ascent of the Salathé Wall (the Southwest Face of El Capitan) in 1962, we were on a ledge near the top when a ferocious storm hit us. It pummeled us all night long and in the morning there was a little snow about. I knew I was with Frost so I never worried. I figured that everything would come out alright in the end. Tom had that effect on people. He soon had us on top and we rejoiced at having completed the Salathé Wall in grand style.
He made a name for himself in Yosemite and most of his photos are taken there, but Tom has climbed all over the world, including the Andes, Alps, and the Himalayas. He is also a champion sailboat racer. In short, he is an all-around fellow, and has run a company (Chimera), been partners in another (with Yvon Chouinard), and made some of the best climbing hardware around.
Enjoy the adventures and photographs.
Tom Frost Book Preface
In 2007 I went to a gathering in Yosemite Valley to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome. Jerry Gallwas, Mike Sherrick and Royal Robbins showed some slides and gave a very entertaining but modest account of their recollections of doing this magnificent and pivotal climb. The event left me curiously hungry for what wasn’t mentioned and for a deeper look into these men and their character. I had made arrangements through Ken Yager to interview Tom Frost and set to work researching his climbing and background. I was aware of Tom’s accomplishments and personality as described by his climbing partners but my own appreciation for the depth of his character and experience was about to expand dramatically. Outdoor trade shows had already allowed me to meet and chat with Tom and become seduced by his subtle and disarming manner. After some very rewarding research, I came to the realization, based on the consequence and quality of his climbs and other contributions to global alpinism, that Tom’s story is one of the most compelling of this greatest generation of American mountaineers.
Candid reflection and self-disclosure can provide an exquisite window into another person. As Ken, Katie Lambert and I captured Tom’s stories and responses to my questions, I was drawn into his phenomenal world. Several hours into the interview Tom’s demeanor changed markedly as he began to discuss events leading to the preservation of Camp 4. Tom had asked me to join in his legal effort to spare this place from development and I had selfishly declined to do so feeling that I lacked the resources to be able to contribute to the effort. The plain truth was that I didn’t fully grasp or appreciate the spirit of Tom’s intent and the largely unheralded sacrifice behind it. Like so many climbers, I applauded the result but had failed to support the actual work.
This was a different Tom and the gravitas with which he detailed his feelings and thoughts as events unfolded gave me a deeper look into his old soul, the sort of insight for which I had so hungered not long beforehand. Tom clearly knew that this was his golden opportunity to shed light on his own good deeds beyond what his usual personal humility would allow. I felt deeply honored to be able to both witness and record this genuine accounting. I also felt very strongly that, in the face of my previous inaction, I owed Tom and the situation a meaningful response. Once we had concluded the Camp 4 discussion and were winding down the interview I proposed that we work on a book project together so that the climbing world would at least be able to understand and appreciate Tom Frost as deeply as I could at that moment. He was caught off guard by my gesture but gave me tentative approval before hurrying off to dutifully share himself and his Star Wars slide show with those fortunate folks present at the Yosemite Lodge.
As I began to work on this project in earnest, Tom sent me the transcript of an excellent interview done by John Rawlins in support of The Stanford Alpine Club, a wonderful history done in collaboration with Glen Denny and Steve Roper published in 1999. Here was Tom’s story and perspective in his own words and combined with the accounts of his climbs written by himself and his partners, I felt then that I had the strongest basis for his biography. Recently, Tom Seawell and Jeff Wiant have amassed a wealth of interview footage in support of their documentary film about Tom Frost that I will also be drawing from.
As a young climber I devoured Galen Rowell’s Vertical World of Yosemite and formed my goals around these classic accounts. With such strong sentimental attachment, I had a difficult decision as a biographer and historian. I could repackage these classic tales and tell Tom’s story entirely in my own voice or convey intact the voices that had already so fruitfully inspired and informed my own life and direction as a climber. I chose to honor my own past and convey Tom’s biography in as direct a manner as possible. Tom has long intended to produce a book of his superb photographs but to do so without the backstory would be a profound loss in my estimation. I view my role as facilitator in fulfilling that dream for him by doing the writing and historical bridgework in the spirit of service and teamwork that has been his credo all along.
Getting to know Tom Frost is truly a blessing and illuminating his life, adventures and perspective is an honor for me. I hope that the reader will share in the profound admiration that I have for him as an anchorite; a keeper of the flame of deep alpinism and lover of the natural world. His influence and enthusiasm have been crucial to my own decision to create the North American Climbing History Archives (NACHA) to preserve and promote our legacy as climbers. The power of my initial interview with Tom launched the Elevated Lives Project which has since amassed hundreds of hours of interview footage of climbers of record and other important individuals to support further inquiry and outreach. Thematic oral history combined with relevant imagery has also been the basis for several rewarding NACHA historical “festivals”. These gatherings foster climbing culture directly by connecting interested climbers of all ages with consequential figures and events.
By purchasing this book you are directly supporting NACHA and its mission: To gather document and celebrate climbing history in image, word and artifact with special emphasis on personalities and events in North America and fostering climbing culture. Proper archiving and continued ready access to the photo collections of Tom Frost and other climbers of record is central to work that NACHA carries forward. It is also my hope that this publication will support the ongoing relevance and sales of his superb and impactful art photography.
Adventure photographer Corey Rich recently echoed my own sense of discovery and delight in examining Tom’s body of work. “It felt amazing to be looking at what is arguably rock climbing’s most important moments – it’s very genesis as a modern adventure sport – while the founder himself sat right beside me, recounting one incredible story after another behind each and every frame…Tom had shot no more than a frame or two per scenario – but he had always nailed one. That one was perfectly exposed and composed, capturing a wonderful decisive moment and telling an incredible visual story about the character and spirit of Yosemite’s earliest climbers. I was impressed with his level of technical proficiency and obvious understanding of photojournalism – of using his camera to tell a wonderful story with each shutter depression…We are all standing on the shoulders of those whose hard work and fresh creativity came before us. And it’s our duty to stand as tall as we can, push the limits as high as we can, and wait to see what incredible climbs and visual storytelling tomorrow’s generation will bring.”
Photograph of Tom Frost & Steve Grossman by Nathan Smith Photography.