Tom Frost, Mountaineer Who Designed a Cleaner Climb, Dies at 82 ~ NYT

Tom Frost on the first ascent of the Salathé Wall at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 1961. He was photographed under a rock feature called the “Roof.” Credit CreditRoyal Robbins/Tom Frost Collection, via Associated Press

By Daniel E. Slotnik

Tom Frost, a renowned rock climber who made daring first ascents up the towering El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and designed climbing hardware to protect rock from being gouged and scarred, died on Aug. 24 at his home in Oakdale, Calif. He was 82.

The cause was complications of prostate cancer, said his biographer, the climbing historian Stephen Grossman. Frost died on the same day as another alpinist and former climbing partner, Jeff Lowe, who was 67.

Frost made his mark in Yosemite during what climbers call the park’s golden age, in the 1960s, when a loose confederation of them forged new routes up rock faces like El Capitan, a 3,000-foot-tall granite monolith and proving ground for rock climbers.

He was a regular at Camp 4, a beloved bare-bones site near Yosemite Lodge that climbers have long used as a base camp, and he made first ascents with noted climbers like Royal Robbins, who also advanced the cause of what is known as clean climbing. (Robbins died last year.)


“If you see Frost’s photographs if you’re a climber, you want to be in those places,” said Mr. Grossman, whose biography “Tom Frost — A Climbing Life,” is scheduled to be published by the end of the year.

In 1960, Frost, Robbins and two other leading climbers, Chuck Pratt and Joe Fitschen, completed the second successful climb of the Nose, as El Capitan’s south buttress is known, doing so in a little more than seven days and without using fixed ropes. The next year Frost, Pratt and Robbins completed the first ascent of El Capitan’s equally daunting Salathé Wall.

Tom Frost, left, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard in 1964 atop El Capitan at Yosemite after scaling the North America Wall.
CreditTom Frost

Perhaps the most notable first ascent that Frost achieved was his scaling of the North America Wall on El Capitan’s southeast face in October 1964, a climb he began with Pratt, Chouinard and Robbins. It involved warily traversing sections composed of diorite, which is more likely than the surrounding granite to falter and crumble under the weight of a climber and his gear.



Frost became Chouinard’s business partner around that time. Since the late 1950s Chouinard had been making climbing gear — like the hardened steel spikes, or pitons, that are driven into rock, and the sturdy couplings for ropes known as carabiners — and selling the hardware out of his car, a venture that grew into Chouinard Equipment.

Frost made dies that allowed Chouinard to mass-produce his gear more efficiently, and in later years the two refined ice climbing necessities like ice axes, crampons (the clawlike traction devices that attach to footwear) and other tools.

“Yvon was the idea man, I was the engineer,” Frost told Climbing magazine in 2009.

It was in the early 1970s that Frost and Chouinard, concerned that their pitons were scarring the rock they loved, began designing climbing tools that would cause less damage. One was the Hexentric, a set of six-sided nuts in different sizes that, in lieu of pitons, are wedged into cracks in the rock and attached to ropes to anchor a climber.

Frost sold Chouinard his share of the company in 1975 and then worked for a time as a designer and engineer for Lowe Alpine Systems, a climbing and hiking equipment company founded by Jeff Lowe’s brothers, Greg and Mike. In 1980 Frost helped found Chimera Lighting, which made lighting equipment for photographers.

Frost’s dedication to preservation was challenged in 1997, when the National Park Service announced plans to build dormitories near Yosemite’s Camp 4 after extensive flooding in the park. Camp 4 was little more than a handful of campsites around an aging cinder block restroom, but for climbers it was historic, hallowed ground.

Frost, joined by the American Alpine Club and other groups, successfully sued the Park Service to abandon the idea. Camp 4’s protection became official when it was listed with the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.

Tom Frost in a hanging bivouac during the second ascent of El Capitan’s Dihedral Wall in 1964. Credit Royal Robbins/Tom Frost Collection, via Associated Press

Thomas McCallay Frost was born on June 30, 1936, in Hollywood. His father, Thomas Bonnie Frost Jr., worked in commercial and agricultural real estate, and his mother, Alice (Ayars) Frost, was a teacher.

Frost grew up in Newport Beach, Calif., where he became a championship sailor. When he was in high school he raced in Monaco and San Remo, Italy.

He was introduced to climbing as a mechanical engineering student at Stanford University, where his mentors included the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Henry Kendall and the mountaineer John Harlin. Frost graduated in 1958 and began working for the aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation, where he met Dorene del Fium. They married in 1966.

Though closely identified with Yosemite, Frost climbed mountains all over the world, including in the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas.

In 1979 he joined Lowe on an expedition, to Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, that was filmed for ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” In 1986 they climbed together again, up the north side of Kangtega in Nepal. Frost was the expedition photographer.

His marriage to Ms. del Fium ended in divorce in 1998. He is survived by his second wife, Joyce; a daughter, Marna Alexander; a son, Ryan; two brothers, Pete and Jeff; and seven grandchildren.


He came to rue those teachings.

After four days climbing the Nose, Frost said, the two were deluged by rain. With “the storm totally freezing us,” he said, “my son informed me, ‘I’m no longer taking advice from pioneers.’ ”

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