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|November 20-26, 2008
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Climbers remember the taming of a landmark
by Marek Warszawski
Much like it dominates the entrance to Yosemite Valley, El Capitan dominates Yosemite rock climbing.
Climbers prefer the shortened version, El Cap, or its most common nickname, “The Captain.” Three thousand feet of sheer, vertical granite that’s as accessible as it is beautiful to look at.
While El Capitan has witnessed many astonishing climbs over the decades, none are more celebrated than the first ascent, a gargantuan effort finally completed in November 1958 by Warren Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore.
The route that Harding, the party leader and one of Yosemite’s legendary figures, had chosen and literally nailed his way up would become known as the Nose.
Fifty years later, the Nose remains the most popular route out of dozens on El Capitan. Each year hundreds of climbers, many of them from far-away countries, travel to Yosemite to tackle iconic features such as Stoveleg Crack, King Swing and the Great Roof.
“Every rock climber in the world knows the Nose of El Capitan,” said Steve Roper, author of several books on the subject. “It’s what they aspire to.”
A large group of them, including some of the early pioneers, commemorated the 50th anniversary of El Capitan’s first ascent with two days of storytelling and slide-shows.
Among the honorees were Fresno natives and lifelong residents Whitmore and Rich Calderwood, a team member who didn’t reach
“We realized what we were doing was out of the ordinary and special, but it’s safe to say we didn’t realize how special it would be,” said the 77-year-old Whitmore, standing in the leafy front yard of his Fresno home. “To this day, my life is influenced by that climb.”
Harding, who died in 2002, surely will be the gathering’s biggest absence. Without this visionary, remembered both as “a brave and tenacious man” and “a sports car-driving, hard-living hedonist” by two who climbed with him, history wouldn’t be the same.
When rock climbers first started poking around Yosemite Valley in the 1930s, El Capitan couldn’t have been further from their minds. It was simply unfathomable. But standards (and boldness) improved rapidly, and by the mid-’50s every major formation had been scaled except El Capitan and Half Dome.
Half Dome, about two-thirds the height of El Capitan and less sheer, fell to a party led by Royal Robbins in June 1957. One prize remained, and Harding wanted it more than anything.
According to Roper’s 1994 book, Camp 4, Harding spent an entire day peering at El Capitan through binoculars trying to find a way up. El Cap has two major faces, southwest and southeast, and the route he chose followed the subtle prow on the buttress that connects them. This prow, or nose, is obvious only from the side.
“Warren always liked the boldest looking lines,” said Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association. “But I think the main reason he chose it was it had an obvious ledge system that was nicely spaced out for storing provisions.”
Harding and his rotating band of partners (eight men would pitch in at various intervals) needed plenty of provisions. While mountaineers in the Alps and Himalayas had climbed higher peaks under worse conditions, never before had anyone attempted a wall of this height and steepness.
A climb this huge required “siege tactics” that were unheard of in Yosemite. Instead of trying to complete the route in one continuous push, a notion that was deemed impossible, the climb was done incrementally. The party would spend all day reaching a certain high point, set fixed lines, rappel down and later use the fixed lines to regain their high point.
When Harding, Mark Powell and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer left the ground July 4, 1957, no one could have predicted it would take more than 16 months to reach the summit. Only 47 days were actually spent on the wall.
There are several reasons why the climb seemingly dragged on forever. For one, almost all the work got done on weekends because Harding and his crew either held regular jobs or were full-time students.
The climbing methods were radically different as well.
Unlike today’s “free” climbers, who use rope and hardware only to protect themselves from falls, those in Harding’s day practiced “aide” techniques. That is, they drove steel pitons into cracks in the wall and used them to gain elevation. To overcome blank walls where no cracks existed, they hammered expansion bolts.
“It’s more like rock engineering than actual climbing,” Roper said.
El Capitan also presented a unique set of challenges. To overcome a 300-foot series of 3-inch wide, nearly vertical slits in the rock, Harding utilized several custom wide-angle pitons that two friends, Frank Tarver and Calderwood, forged for him from the enameled legs of old-fashioned stoves.
The so-called stoveleg pitons have since entered into Yosemite legend.
Besides the 3,000-foot cliff itself, the other major obstacle was the Park Service. Tourists flocked to the base of El Capitan to watch the climbers progress, causing traffic jams on Yosemite’s major artery. After a meeting with the chief ranger, Harding agreed to postpone the effort until after Labor Day.
By the end of November 1957, Harding and crew had climbed 1,200 feet to a sizable ledge named Dolt Tower. Winter arrived, and the fixed ropes were left dangling from the face till the following spring.
The climb resumed in March 1958, but progress was slow and deliberate. And for good reason: If anything went wrong up there, there was no hope of a rescue. After the Park Service imposed another summertime ban during the height of tourist season, rangers gave Harding a Thanksgiving deadline.
“I never understood how this was to be enforced,” he later wrote.
By Nov. 1, 1958, fixed ropes reached to a ledge named Camp IV nearly 1,900 feet above terra firma. It was then that the group, which by this time consisted of Harding, Merry, Whitmore and Calderwood, decided to make a final push for the top.
“I remember Warren saying he was getting sick and tired of going up those goddamned ropes,” said Whitmore, who joined up after spending two months climbing in Peru. “He said, ‘Let’s finish this climb, or let it finish us.’”
Harding decided to divide the duties. While he and Merry would be in the lead pushing the route, Whitmore and Calderwood were assigned the sherpa-like tasks of hauling loads and managing ropes.
To ascend fixed ropes in those days, climbers used a technique called prusiking that involved the use of three hitch knots, one affixed to a chest loop and the others to foot slings. Each knot could be slid up the fixed rope and tightened when body weight was applied, allowing for slow, incremental progress.
Making things more difficult, Whitmore and Calderwood had to prusik while toting 40-pound duffle bags that dangled below their feet from loops tied around their waists.
“It would take us half a day to reach the previous day’s high point, by which time we’d be exhausted,” Whitmore said.
Eight days in, Calderwood decided that he’d had enough and rappelled all the way to the ground without telling anyone he was quitting. Harding, Merry and Whitmore were left to wonder if he had fallen. (Earlier in the climb, an unroped Calderwood nearly plunged to his death from Dolt Tower.)
While Harding later wrote that Calderwood quit the climb because of “a bad case of nerves,” the 71-year-old Calderwood offers a differing version, noting he was a Fresno State student with a pregnant wife who also worked full time at his dad’s print shop.
“My father had instilled in me a puritan work ethic,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got to get back to work, I’ve got to get back to school and I don’t have to do this.’”
The three-man team pushed on and by late afternoon Nov. 11, Harding and Merry stood on a tiny ledge only 120 feet below the top. At dusk, Whitmore joined them with a fresh supply of bolts, setting the stage for the most famous night in Yosemite climbing history.
Faced with a blank, overhanging wall above him, an exhausted Harding worked through the night, pounding 28 bolts into the rock before finally pulling himself onto the summit slabs shortly after dawn on Nov. 12, 1958.
“I didn’t sleep much either,” said Whitmore, who spent the night in slings impaled on a sharp point. “I remember hearing the ‘tap, tap, tap’ of Warren’s hammer all night long.”
News of the successful climb spread like wildfire thanks largely to Harding, who wasn’t exactly averse to publicity (a trait that didn’t endear him to other climbers of his era). Stories and photos of the first ascent team appeared in newspapers throughout the country.
Though he will always be remembered as the man who “conquered” El Capitan, Harding had a different take in his memoir, Downward Bound.
“It was not at all clear to me who had conquered and who was conquered,” he wrote in 1975. “I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.”
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