Fifty Year Ago Today, Warren Harding and His Buddies Conquered “Unclimbable” El Capitan

The Nose with southeast face in shadow. Photo by tpuyol via Flickr.

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.

Comments

Warren Harding and his partner, Dean Caldwell, completed another epic climb on El Cap's Wall of the Early Morning Light. This multi-day climb required the placement of many bolts for protection, something that other climbers felt was not "pure climbing". The second ascent of the route was completed by Royal Robbins and his partner, Don Lauria. On the first several pitches, they chopped the bolts, figuring that Harding and Caldwell had exceeded the boundaries of clean climbing. After the first several pitches, however, Laruia claimed that they stopped chopping the bolts because the quality of aid climbing was so high. This is still a classic route on El Cap.

Rick Smith

Rick, your comments suggest that you don't consider that initial ascent a cut and dried example of unethical climbing. If that's your opinion, I agree with you. Harding and Caldwell put that route up in 1970 (spending 27 straight days on the wall) at a time when clean ("leave no trace") climbing was just starting to gain traction as an ethical requirement and the necessary gear lacked the variety and dependability that climbers take for granted today. Anyway, Harding was a crusty character who frankly didn't give a damn what other people thought of his methods, his gear, or just about anything else you care to name.

One small point, 50 years ago Warren Harding was not known as "Batso". This is a nickname supposedly ascribed to Warren sometime after the film "Midnight Cowboy" was released in 1969.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

I haven't heard that version before. The way I heard it is that Harding got the nickname Batso because he could hang from a rock wall "like a bat." The Dustin Hoffman character in the movie Midnight Cowboy went by the name "Ratso," which is phonetically similar. Can anybody out there clear this one up?

Bob,

Here is what I was able to find in writing online at http://www.climbing.com/exclusive/features/batso/index6.html

"The Life of Warren "Batso" Harding" by Burr Sneider (orignially published in the SF Examiner's Image Magazine, March 9, 1986):

".....Over Irish coffee he told us how the name “Batso” came about. When the film Midnight Cowboy came out, it seems, his friends decided that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the gritty Dustin Hoffman character, Ratso Rizzo. From that, combined with his penchant for hanging out on rock walls like a bat, came the moniker. And from Batso came B.A.T. – Basically Absurd Technology – Harding’s resolutely unprofitable mountain gear company, one of the products of which was the infamous “Bat tent,” designed to provide shelter on high walls."

When I met Warren Harding in Yosemite during the time I worked in the Valley as a park ranger-naturalist (1969-71), I only knew him only as Warren, not "Batso." I'm sure that nickname grew on him over time.

Owen Hoffman
Oak Ridge, TN 37830

Fascinating stuff, Owen. Thanks for clarification. I've tweaked the title and abstract.

My friend Sybille Hechtel, a "sandwich generation climber" (daughter of a Sierra climber and mother of an 18-year-old climber), has written about the El Cap reunion on http://funclimbsaroundtheworld.com/. Scroll down to her posts of Nov 7 thru Nov 13.

Claire Walter, http://travel-babel.blogspot.com

Claire: Thanks for putting us in touch with "Fun Climbs Around the World." It's a great website, and I very much enjoyed reading the posts you recommended. Older climbers fascinate me. How on earth have they managed to live that long?

Another fascinating look at the early days of climbing is in a book edited by Valerie Mendenhall Cohen entitled Woman on the Rocks: The Mountaineering Letters of Ruth Dyar Mendenhall. Mendenhall was one of the earliest and best American climbers who also happended to be a woman. Her letters are often chronicles of climbs by Sierra Club members up some of the most famous peaks in the Sierras. The introduction is by Royal Robbins, an indication of the stature of Ruth among those who came a bit after her. This is what he says in the intro: "Ruth was a good climber--competent, experienced and canny--but not a great one in the sense of leaving her mark on posterity through her first ascccents. Nervertheless, besides her eloquence, as unquestionably as Half Dome rises about Yosemite Valley, she had the heart of a mountaineer. Only an eloquent lady with the heart of a mountaineer could leave us with memorable phrases as 'I don't know how people get along without climbing mountains'. I've never heard it put better."

The editor of the collection, Valerie Cohen, is married to a first class climber and author, Michael Cohen. She was a seasonal ranger for years in Yosemite and the Tetons and is a significant artist. She is Ruth Dyar Mendenhall's daugter.

Rick Smith