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Tom Frost, Yosemite and International Icon for the Ages, Dies at 82

Two greats, Tom Frost and Jeff Lowe, pass in the same day

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Tom Frost was a great who shone even while surrounded by other greats. Tom, who died August 24 at 82, was in his last year as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford University in 1957 when he was introduced to climbing and mentored by the bold John Harlin and the Nobel-prizewinning physicist Henry Kendall. Once he graduated and began working for North American Aviation, Tom sought out other climbers through the Rock Climbing Section of the Los Angeles Sierra Club. Climbing at Tahquitz, Tom soon fell in with what he called the Bachelor Rock Climbers (BRC): a great California crew that included TM Herbert, Bill Feuerer, Dave Rearick and Yvon Chouinard. On a Sierra Club outing to Mount Pacifico, Tom caught the attention of Royal Robbins when he easily repeated the difficult Robbins Eliminate boulder problem.

Royal soon asked Tom to join him, Joe Fitschen and Chuck Pratt for the second ascent of the south buttress, or Nose, of El Capitan. Without utilizing fixed ropes, a radical concept, the team climbed this grand route in a little over seven days in 1960. The following season Tom, Royal and Chuck teamed up again to climb the Salathé Wall, establishing the route with an astonishingly few 13 bolts. After an attempt with TM Herbert, Tom and Royal did the second ascent of the Salathé, without fixed lines, as the first party of two to climb El Cap.

Tom learned alpine climbing skills from Yvon Chouinard and others while climbing in the Sierra Nevada. In the fall of 1962, upon hearing that Ed Hillary was looking for climbers for a service and mountaineering expedition to Nepal,  Tom drove 830 miles to meet with Ed for a 20-minute interview at a campsite in the Uinta mountains in Utah and secured a spot on the team. The Schoolhouse Expedition, as it became known, built two schools in Thyangboche and Thami, laid a mile-long water line to the village of Khumjung and succeeded in the first ascent of Kangtega after failing just 200 feet short of the summit of Taweche due to avalanche hazard.

Bivy on the Dihedral Wall. Photo: Royal Robbins.

In the summer of 1963, Tom accepted an invitation to join John Harlin as American representatives to the Rassemblement International in Chamonix. Before the gathering Tom and John teamed up with another American, Gary Hemming, and a Scottish climber, Stewart Fulton, to climb the south face of the Aiguille du Fou, a longstanding testpiece, after several attempts. During the meet, John and Tom established the remote Hidden Pillar of Frêney, the most technically demanding route on Mont Blanc at the time.

In early 1964, Henry Kendall and Leigh Ortenberger began to assemble a team for an expedition to the Andes. Tom, Dorene del Fium, Irene Ortenberger, John Kendall, Dan Doody, Henry Abrons, Herbert Hultgren and Graham  Mathews assembled in Huaraz in June. All but Dorene, who returned home, did the second ascent of Palcaraju. Tom, Henry and Dan Doody then attempted the south face of the south peak of Huandoy. By the end of July the party was reduced to Tom, Leigh, Dan and Henry Abrons. Their objective became the imposing west peak of Chacraraju via its north ridge. This remarkable ascent involved technical rock climbing above 18,000 feet, which was unprecedented in the Andes, and exceptionally poor weather during the summit push.

Once Tom returned to California, Royal let him know that he had devised a system for cleaning and hauling utilizing Jumar ascenders that would allow a party of two to climb big walls efficiently and that they should try it out on the second ascent of the Dihedral Wall, established two years earlier. Royal and Tom easily repeated the route and confirmed its quality.

Attention then turned to the southeast face of El Capitan and what would become the North America Wall. After a series of reconnaissance probes which included Glen Denny, Tom and Royal teamed up with Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard to establish what would become the most technically difficult big wall route in the world, with several pitches graded A5.

During this time Tom left his work in the aviation industry to become a partner in Chouinard Equipment, run by Yvon since 1957. Yvon had been cutting, shaping and forging pitons from alloy steel sheet and bar stock almost entirely by hand and needed Tom’s design and drawing skills to produce dies that would allow the outlines and piton bodies to be mass produced efficiently. Frost had been moonlighting with Chouinard ever since he and Bill Feuerer fabricated several sets of large angle pitons for the second ascent of the Nose, in 1960. Bill had loaned him his Leica camera for the Nose climb, starting a remarkable adventure-photography career.

Tom moved to Ventura and married Dorene del Fium, whom he had met at North American Aviation. They adopted a daughter, Marna, and had a son Ryan. In a few years time, Yvon and Tom produced a comprehensive set of angles, blades and horizontal pitons from a knifeblade to the 4” Bong along with an array of other equipment for alpinists including the piolet and the first rigid crampon.

Tom Frost in Eldorado Canyon. Photo: Pat Ament.

In 1968 Dorene and Tom, Jim McCarthy, Sandy Bill, Dick Williams and Paula Lehr packed into Dorene’s VW bus and headed north to the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Jim had visited the area while climbing a major route on Mount Proboscis with Royal Robbins, Layton Kor and Dick McCracken. They quickly discovered and named the Lotus Flower Tower, and over several days Jim, Tom and Sandy made short work of this instant classic.

In 1970 Tom was invited to join Chris Bonington’s Annapurna South Face Expedition. Tom performed well in this arena despite being the odd man out in terms of his temperate lifestyle and status as an amateur climber. When Bonington chose to leapfrog Don Whillans and Dougal Haston ahead of the rest of the team to secure the summit as the seasonal weather window was closing, Tom objected strenuously in the spirit of orderly teamwork that had governed the grueling effort on this dangerous route. Don and Dougal succeeded in climbing Annapurna in a huge effort without oxygen or establishing an additional camp. Tom attempted the summit from Camp VI but his partner Mick Burke was unable to accompany him and help with breaking trail on the summit snowfields. Tom later said he had no doubt that he would have climbed Annapurna that day given an able partner, but he was forced to turn around in the drifting snow and extreme cold. Had Tom summited, it would have been the most impressive performance by an American climber in the Himalaya for well over a decade.

On the way home from Annapurna, Tom met up with Dorene and went climbing in the Lake District of England. Bonington insisted that Tom follow local custom and climb using only a selection of slung artificial chockstones for protection. As Tom used his rack of nuts and looked at the pristine condition of routes, some traveled thousands of times, he caught the vision promoted by Royal Robbins and John Stannard, among others, that climbing protection must become hammerless.

Once Tom returned to Ventura he began working the design and engineering problems resulting in the Hexentric in 1971 and the Stopper in 1972, accompanied by what became known as the “clean climbing” catalog. It not only explained the use of this new passive hardware but also provided a manifesto written by Doug Robinson extolling the compelling need to move rapidly away from hammered protection. The result was a radical transformation in the style of every conservation-minded mountaineer, which largely halted the degradation and piton scarring in North America and worldwide.

Yvon and Tom again produced a comprehensive range of passive protection that went from the thinnest Crack N’ Up to the 6” Tube Chock at an affordable price. By 1975, Tom and Yvon had enjoyed a successful collaboration for more than a decade but as the company moved more toward clothing and software, disagreement over management style and practices led them to dissolve the partnership, with Tom selling his equal share to Yvon and relocating to Boulder in 1977. He took on work as a film cameraman and began doing engineering and design for Lowe Alpine Systems.

Tom joined an expedition led by Jeff Lowe to climb a new route on the newly opened Ama Dablam and film the adventure for “ABC Wide World of Sports.” The climb was a success, as was the film, and after fulfilling his expedition duties, Jeff Lowe soloed another new route as icing on the cake.

Returning home, Tom took on some work with the designer and professional photographer Gary Regester making portable lightboxes and immediately saw the potential for an entire product line and another fruitful business partnership. Gary and Tom launched Chimera in 1980 to immediate success. By 1985, Gary moved away from the enterprise and sold his share to Tom and Dorene.

In 1986 Tom accepted an offer to join Jeff Lowe, Alison Hargreaves and Mark Twight to attempt a new route on the north side of Kangtega, taking a support role as expedition photographer. After some very difficult climbing the team reached the summit plateau. Mark and Alison continued to the highest summit while Tom and Jeff climbed a lower one and quickly descended, as Jeff was suffering the effects of altitude on his asthma.

In the mid-1990s Tom began climbing again with his son, Ryan, and revisited Yosemite to repeat all of the El Cap routes he had pioneered more than three decades earlier. A change in the business structure at Chimera and difficulty in his marriage contributed to his wish to escape and spend time in his old familiar Valley haunts. Tom and Dorene divorced in 1998.

The destructive floods of 1999 led the Park Service to propose a dramatic redevelopment plan that included building dormitory structures abutting Camp 4, the traditional climbers’ campground in Yosemite. Tom studied the plan and deemed that key environmental reviews had not been fulfilled. Working with John Middendorf and after careful consideration and discussion with many other individuals, Tom hired Dick Duane to file suit to stop the proposed implementation. They were joined in their lawsuit by the American Alpine Club, Access Fund and other organizations, and with organizational support from the AAC successfully applied to place Camp 4 on the National Register of Historic Places, a key factor in preventing the intended development and preserving areas around Camp 4. Tom took on the great effort and personal expense, and he and his new bride, Joyce, with others established a respectful relationship between the climbing community and the NPS that continues to this day.

Tom had an extraordinary career as a climber, with most of his major climbs of true historical consequence. He was an adventure photographer with an unrivalled body of work that he freely shared with the climbing community as the ultimate tribal team player. For all of his service to our community and traditions we owe Tom Frost a huge measure of love and respect. Few are so capable and yet humble and positive in their relationships with other people and the planet.

Climbers will gather in Oakdale, California, on Friday, October 12 to remember Tom and Royal Robbins as part of the Oakdale Climbers Festival. More on this gathering is available here.

Stephen Grossman began interviewing Tom Frost in 2007. Their joint project, the biography Tom Frost- A Climbing Life, is slated to come out by the end of the year through the North American Climbing History Archives.

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