50th anniversary of first ascent of El Capitan
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, November 9, 2008
It was a spring day in 1957 when a dashing fellow with dark, wavy hair looked up from Yosemite Valley at the soaring cliffs and vowed to do what no human had ever done.
Scaling the colossal, 3,000-foot-tall granite cliff known as El Capitan was something most people regarded as beyond the capability of humans, but when Warren Harding had a mind to do something, he did it.
It took Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore 47 days of climbing over 16 months to turn what had seemed like a fantasy into a reality.
The first ascent of El Capitan 50 years ago was one of the greatest climbing achievements in history. That is why Merry, Whitmore and many of the legends of Yosemite climbing have gotten together this weekend to celebrate the anniversary of that day a half-century ago.
"I am extremely honored, and I feel almost a little embarrassed because I don't think we deserve this much," Merry said Saturday after a gathering of some 150 people, including Harding's celebrated onetime rival, Royal Robbins. "It is really rewarding to get this kind of reunion under your belt after 50 years."
Six of the nine climbers involved in the first ascent told tales, narrated slide shows of their exploits and drank red wine in honor of the hard-driving, devilish Harding, who died in 2002.
"For years climbers were treated like outcasts or oddballs, and now climbing is getting some recognition," said Ken Yager, president and founder of the Yosemite Climbing Association and organizer of the anniversary event. "I want these world-class athletes to be recognized for what they did."
Harding, Merry and Whitmore topped out on El Capitan on Nov. 12, 1958, establishing the Nose route. The 2,900-foot rock face is now world famous, and the climbers who first scaled it are rock-climbing royalty.
"It really opened up the era of climbing El Capitan," said Steve Schneider, 48, of Oakland, who has climbed the Nose 27 times and set a speed record on it in 1991 that has been broken many times by his then-partner, Lafayette's Hans Florine.
Florine, who also attended the anniversary, climbed the Nose with Yuji Hirayama last month in an astonishing 2 hours, 37 minutes and 5 seconds.
"It's just the best route up the best rock in the world," Schneider said Friday. "These guys broke the barrier, and everything that has happened since then is because of them."
It all started that day in 1957 when Harding learned that his former climbing partner Royal Robbins and two other men had aced him out of being the first to climb the towering Northwest Face of Half Dome.
"What we gonna do?" was Harding's reaction, according to an interview with him in 1999. "Well, nothing but El Cap would do!"
Harding spent hours scanning the immense slab of granite through binoculars before selecting a route that followed the prow of the giant wall.
On July 4, 1957, Harding, Bill Feurer and Mark Powell started out on the epic quest.
Nobody had ever climbed such a towering cliff before, according to Yager, so they used a technique more consistent with climbing in the Himalayas. They fixed a rope in a high place and stockpiled food, water and supplies there before fixing a line up higher and repeating the process.
The "siege style" tactics required the men to make numerous trips up and down the ropes and to hammer many bolts and pitons.
"It was a great technical achievement to figure out how to live and survive on these walls," said Dick Duane, 69, a rock climber and lawyer who represented climbers in a lawsuit that resulted in the traditional climbing camp, known as Camp 4, being designated a historical landmark.
The climb dragged on through two summers because the Park Service banned climbing during peak tourist season in an attempt to cut down on the traffic jams caused by looky-loos. Most climbing occurred only on weekends because the climbers had to go to work or school.
Among the equipment used on the first climb were custom-built pitons forged by Harding's friends and fellow climbers Frank Tarver and Rich Calderwood out of the legs of old-fashioned stoves. This is how the feature known as Stoveleg Crack got its name.
Dolt Tower, a rocky ledge traditionally used for the first night of camping, was named after Feurer, who was given the nickname "Dolt" after a series of minor mishaps, including getting his beard caught in a knot.
Harding's climbing partners changed frequently as the months went on. Merry, a seasonal ranger and naturalist, joined Harding after the first winter when members of the initial assault team quit for various reasons.
Letters in soup cans
"We were scared to death half the time," said Merry, who stuffed love letters to his fiancee in soup cans and hurled them off the wall. "There were days I didn't know what I was doing up there."
Merry's primitive form of air mail worked. He and his wife, Cindy, will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the spring.
The climbers had ample reason to worry. At one point a hemp rope snapped just after Harding had climbed it, prompting the climbers to switch to nylon for the rest of the trip.
A ledge near the top is now known as the Glowering Spot because it is where Harding's partners found him glowering after being hit in the head by a piton.
During the final push, Harding drilled 28 bolts into the 100-foot-tall overhanging summit headwall. The 14-hour burst of energy allowed the three men to reach the top and make history.
"It stunned the whole world and sent a shock wave through mountaineering," Duane said Friday. "The Europeans came into the valley after that achievement and the emphasis on mountaineering shifted. For that brief shining moment, Americans were the best climbers in the world."
By the time they had completed the climb, Harding's team had pounded 675 pitons and 125 bolts into the granite.
"It was not at all clear to me who had conquered and who was conquered," Harding later wrote of the climb. "I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was."
Differences with Robbins
But Harding and his cohorts were widely criticized by many in the climbing world, most notably followers of Royal Robbins. Robbins was famous for scrutinizing the big walls for natural climbing routes in an attempt to limit the use of bolts. He believed climbers should haul out what they brought in.
Harding, on the other hand, was a rebel.
"Warren had a more high-profile approach to climbing than most of his peers," said Yager, who met Harding at the age of 16. "He'd drive up in his Corvette with two women attached to him. He was a drinker and partyer."
Although Harding said he liked and respected Robbins, he scoffed at those who would impose climbing rules and limit equipment, labeling them "Valley Christians."
"Why institutionalize rock climbing?" he was later quoted as saying. "If there is a blank wall, and there's no way to place gear, you bolt."
The rivalry between the two raged for years, but Robbins' philosophy seems to have won out. Most climbers today try to free climb as much as they can - meaning they use their hands and feet to climb - and ropes are attached only as protection against a fall.
"The Harding-Robbins rivalry is mythical stuff that really has substance today," said Tom Frost, a 72-year-old Yosemite legend who, with Robbins and two other partners, pulled off the second ascent of the Nose in 1960, in seven days. "They were contemporaries in climbing and in climbing excellence, and the thing that matters a lot to climbers - which is style - they approached from different directions."
At the reunion, Robbins, Merry and Whitmore - all in their 70s - traded tales and discussed old-style climbing with the many younger climbers in attendance, the former enmity all but forgotten.
"That's all past history," said Merry, who started the Yosemite mountaineering school and rescue team and lives in British Columbia. "We're all great friends now."
The anniversary coincided with the last weekend of a museum exhibit at Yosemite Village celebrating 100 years of climbing in the park.
The climbing museum, for which Yager is trying to find a permanent home, has a display of the first ascent of El Capitan, including several stove leg pitons and the "Big Brute Piton," which hit Harding on the head and caused that celebrated glower.
But for the celebrants at the anniversary, El Capitan was the biggest attraction.
"When I drove into the park a week ago, I looked up at the walls and I thought, 'What was I thinking?' " Merry said. "It's still pretty impressive after all these years."
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.