Fifty Year Ago Today, Warren Harding and His Buddies Conquered “Unclimbable” El Capitan
November 12, 1958, was an auspicious day for the climbing world and Yosemite National Park. Using siege tactics considered primitive by modern standards, a team led by Warren J. “Batso” Harding finally conquered “unclimbable” El Capitan.
El Capitan is a truly impressive hunk of granite. It soars 3,600 feet almost vertically from the Yosemite Valley floor, and to the untrained eye it appears to be utterly sheer, offering no purchase for anything more substantial than flies and geckos. Small wonder that it was widely considered unclimbable until a half-century ago when Warren Harding and his buddies actually climbed the damn thing.
Back in the 1950s, Harding was obsessed with the daunting rock that many climbers now call “El Cap.” He studied and studied it, finally deciding that if it were ever to be climbed, it would be via a route along a roughly prow-shaped part of the rock face called the Nose. (As the accompanying photo shows, the Nose is apparent only when viewed from the side, a perspective that reveals its southeastward and southwestward facing angles.)
Harding came to believe that the job could be done by a team of climbers willing to work very hard for as long as it may take. To Harding, it was the doing of the thing that mattered, not the style. Instead of completing the route in a continuous push, which was clearly infeasible, he elected to put the route up in increments using siege tactics rarely if ever used before in Yosemite. He would use whatever hardware was necessary, too.
Beginning in the 1957 climbing season and continuing in the 1958 season, Harding and his helpers spent each day climbing to a new high point. Then they would set fixed lines before rappelling down to rest and get more supplies and equipment. Later -- meaning the next day, if possible -- they would use the fixed lines to regain their high point and start up the rock face to yet another high point. They did this over and over and over again. Finally, after 45 days of hard labor spread over two climbing seasons, Harding and two climbing partners (Wayne Merry and George Whitmore) gained the top on November 12, 1958. The media trumpeted the amazing feat around the world.
To get the job done, Harding and his helpers (eight climbers were involved at various times) had used an impressive amount of hardware. This included 700 pitons and 125 bolts that they left fastened to the rock face. You can’t deface El Cap that way today, of course, nor do climbers consider it ethical to stand on pitons, use ropes for ascent, retreat to the ground to rest and resupply, and employ many of the other tactics Harding used for the initial ascent. Today, in other words, it is not just the doing of the thing that matters.
None of this is to say that what Harding and his buddies did wasn’t an amazing accomplishment. And it is certainly not to say that it wasn’t dangerous. At one time or another during the initial ascent, bolts snapped, carabiners failed, and ropes broke or were sliced on rocks. It’s a wonder no one on Harding’s team was killed, and small wonder that El Cap has claimed the lives of 24 climbers since 1905. Thirteen have died in nine separate accidents since 1973 alone.
Warren Harding died in 2002, having lived long enough to see the Nose recognized as the single finest rock climb in the world. Each year, hundreds of climbers from all over America and the world travel to Yosemite to try their hand at the Nose and see if they can get past Stoveleg Crack, King Swing, the Great Roof, and other classic obstacles.
Gaining the top is normally a three-day task for talented climbers, meaning that they spend several nights sleeping on portaledges suspended from the rock face. However, a small and very select group of speed climbers have perfected techniques that allow them to make their way up the rock face with astonishing speed. The current record for the Nose route, established last month by Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama, is 2 hours, 37 minutes and 5 seconds.