El Capitan: First Ascent

One of the foremost rock climbing areas in the world is Yosemite valley, and one of its premiere climbs is the ascent of El Capitan. While a number of routes are possible up the sheer face of this 3,000-foot granite monolith, the most famous remains the first: the Nose, straight up the Big Wall.

John Salathe in 1958 giving away his equipment after his last climb to John ThuneThe first climbs in Yosemite Valley were no doubt those accomplished by John Muir, whose enthusiasm, athleticism and pantheism is the stuff of legend. A more technical era began in 1932 or 1933, pioneered by Sierra Club climbers trained by Robert Underhill of Harvard. The skill level increased with each passing year, and following the Second World War ever-more difficult and demanding routes were explored. But the most dramatic rock faces, the 2,000-foot wall up Half Dome, and the 3,000 foot prow of El Capitan, resisted all attempts for over 20 years. Among the notables who cut their climbing teeth in the Valley during this era were Willi Unsoeld, Allen Steck, Mark Powell, and Royal Robbins.

In 1957, three climbers from Southern California — Royal Robbins, Jerry Gallwas and Mike Sherrick — made off with the first ascent of Half Dome, ascending the difficult North West Face in five days. Other Valley climbers were understandably disappointed, and some of them who had planned to bag this first ascent themselves began to suddenly think seriously about the far higher, and more imposing, El Capitan. Foremost among these disgruntled yet ambitious rockers was Warren Harding.

Royal Robbins in 1967A notably durable climber, whose stamina had been demonstrated again and again, Harding proved the perfect general to lead the assault on El Capitan. He and his companions Mark Powell and Bill “Dolt” Feuerer began their ascent of the Nose on July 4, 1957, just days after the successful climb of Half Dome. The climb was the most difficult any member of the team had ever attempted, and after a week they were only a third of the way up. Other climbers, including Wally Reed and Allan Steck, joined the party, but the Park Service called a halt to their attempt with complaints of rubber-necking tourists causing traffic jams.

Returning in the autumn (once the tourists had cleared out), the climbers were hampered by a serious injury to Powell, perhaps the most skilled climber on the team. A compound fracture of his ankle crippled Powell, and although he continued to climb he was unable to contribute as he had. The highlight of the autumn 1957 assault was a Thanksgiving dinner on Sickle Ledge, complete with turkey and wine hauled up from the Valley floor.

The next spring they returned again, this time with Wayne Merry sharing leads with Harding instead of Powell. Bill Feuerer’s experimental climbing gear, later marketed under his nickname “Dolt,” was much in trial on this ascent. Again the team had to quit climbing during the popular summer months, and continue exploring their route in the autumn.

Throughout this assault, the team members would climb for a few days then retreat to the floor, there to rest up and reconsider their routing and techniques. On November 1, 1958, a final team was assembled: Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, George Whitmore and Rich Calderwood, with Wally Reed helping haul supplies on weekends. As the days wore on, Calderwood withdrew from the attempt, while Merry, Whitmore and Harding continued on. The evening of November 11 found the three men on a ledge below the final summit overhang, and with the end so close Harding decided to work through the night.

Warren Harding on a climb in 1969For hours he drilled holes into the bulging overhang, placed bolts, set line, moved a few inches and began to drill again. At almost 6 am the morning of November 12 he drilled his last bolt and scrambled atop the overhang to reach the summit — culminating an 18-month assault on 2,900 feet of rock.

Still, the controversy was just beginning. The total time on the face was 45 days; some 675 pegs and 125 bolts had been placed, and some critics labeled the entire effort a “stunt” and “trick climbing.” Today, while the ascent of the Nose can be accomplished in a long day by a handful of proficient climbers, it is worth noting that while all the mistakes may have been made on that first ascent over 18 long months, those mistakes make today’s success possible.

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