From Chris Jones Climbing In North America

from Chris Jones Climbing In North America

Yosemite Valley. It is the Fourth of July weekend in 1957. The heat is oppressive, and the campgrounds are overflowing. The roads are crowded with cars that make their way from viewpoint to store and back to viewpoint. Tourists idly drink Coke and tap time to the radio as they cruise up and down. They are in Yosemite for a good time. The scenery may be a bonus, but many of them would just as soon be at Las Vegas. They look upon Yosemite as an outdoor amusement park. There is a sense of bored pleasure seeking in the air.

This sense of ennui contrasts with the urgency of three grimy young men. They, too, seem oblivious to the scenery, but they are not bored. Harding, Feuerer, and Powell have just been aced out of Half Dome and are earnestly discussing their next move. A climbing revolution is about to take place in Yosemite, a revolution that in less than ten years will put American climbers at the forefront of the sport and influence mountaineering all over the world.

After grumbling around the valley in a "fit of egotistical pique," Harding decided to cap the Half Dome climb by a harder one. He looked across at the 3,000-foot south buttress of El Capitan and emphatically stated, "I'm gonna climb that god-damn line."

His concept was audacious. Yosemite climbers had never seriously considered El Capitan, for it was outside their frame of reference. With its uniform smoothness, its lack of resting places, and above all its overpowering size, it represented a new dimension in American climbing. It would obviously require a new approach. In anticipation of progress on the order of 100 feet a day, the trio agreed to work upward by a series of well-stocked camps linked together and to the ground by fixed ropes, somewhat analogous to Himalayan climbing. Once in place, the ropes could be climbed by slings and prusik knots, and the camps restocked with food and gear from below.

Harding and his friends scrounged what gear they could and set to work. The initial leads were hard. The blind or "bottoming" cracks buckled their pitons. They were forced to place several bolts in order to reach the first real ledge on the climb, Camp 1, 300 feet up the wall. Hard steel pitons would have been a godsend. Powell tried to trade for some Salathe pitons, but they were already collector's items, and he managed only to obtain a couple.

From Camp 1 they worked right and pendulumed into the awesome 400-foot Stoveleg Crack. Only four of their pitons were large enough to span its two-inch width. These were made from the sawed-off legs of a gas stove unearthed in the Berkeley city dump. When the leader had placed all of them, he lowered himself from the top piton and cleared out those below. This "leapfrogging" was a touchy business; the leader was poorly protected once he extracted the lower pitons. Stoveleg Crack was a scary place.

After seven days they descended. Although their gear was badly mauled, they were on their way. The ropes stretched 1,000 feet up the wall. On the ground they ran into an unexpected problem. Rubber-necking tourists had brought traffic to a standstill. The crusty chief ranger banned any further activity on El Cap during the peak tourist season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Little was achieved apart from the replacement of borrowed ropes. In the fall, disaster struck. Powell smashed his ankle on a simple climb.

Through the winter Feuerer worked hard developing specialized gear. Although an ingenious craftsman, he had an unfortunate capacity for error. He was nicknamed the Dolt. He made several types of piton including an adjustable model consisting of two parts locked together by bolts. To ease the horrendous task of supplying the lead climbers with food and water, he built a cart out of aircraft parts and bicycle wheels. It would be loaded with gear and winched up the face by a capstan arrangement.

When they got back on the climb in the spring, they put the "Dolt Cart" through its paces. It had a tendency to go belly-up and was less than a sensation. The ground party in charge of loading the cart continually tried to please the climbers with new goodies. One blistering day the sent an ice-cold six-pack of beer up to Camp 2 (Dolt Tower). Harding and Powell took one look and knew better. Feuerer downed a couple of cans. After a moment's pause he sprang to his feet and announced that he was going to learn to fly. In spite of flying and the Dolt Cart they advanced the route to midheight before the summer recess insisted on by the chief ranger.

During the summer, rifts appeared in the team. With Powell partially disabled, Harding felt they were too weak to carry off the climb and invited others. Feuerer became disenchanted with climbing, quoted the Bible in letters to Harding, and left the team. In order to set Powell's broken ankle, the doctor fused the bone. Hampered by his disability, Powell was unable to play a major role in the climbing; on the first attempts he had done the bulk of the leading. Disturbed by the influx of newcomers and feeling less and less a part of the climb, he withdrew.

With his original partners out of the picture Harding drafted whomever he could. Most climbers did not want to be involved in such a long, drawn-out affair, and several of those who went up on the wall were overwhelmed by the scale and the exposure. El Capitan was a psychological frontier. About this time Royal Robbins almost became involved. Or did he? Robbins recollects that he got a postcard from Harding inviting him on board, an invitation he declined. Harding recalls a telephone conversation with Robbins. During the conversation Robbins reportedly said that, as Harding was not making much progress, he was thinking of getting up a team. He would use Harding's equipment as far as it went and then go for the top. And what was Harding's reaction to that, he wanted to know. "Fine by me," replied Harding and the after a distinct pause, "but exactly what would you say you had done?"

In any event Robbins never appeared on the rock, and in September 1958, Harding was back with a large party. In appalling heat they pushed the route upward only a couple of hundred feet in nine days: from the vicinity of El Cap Tower (Camp 3) to Camp 4 1,900 feet above the ground. Among other trials there was a logistical problem; the lead men consumed food and water faster than the haulers could bring it up. After this protracted struggle and two short skirmishes, the chief ranger gave Harding an ultimatum: either get up by Thanksgiving or abandon the climb. This unenforceable deadline did not bother Harding and Wayne Merry, who now emerged as his strongest partner. It was exactly their attitude as well; they were pretty sick of the whole affair.

Early in November with Rich Calderwood and George Whitmore in support, Harding and Merry set out on a determined bid. From Camp 4 they worked out under the Great Roof, a feared pitch that turned out to be reasonable, and up into the dihedrals that lead to the summit. Days passed. They established Camp 5 and then 6. On the evening of the ninth day a storm provided a welcome relief from the ceaseless hammering, the exposure, and the constant nervous tension. Holed up in Camp 6, Harding and Merry took stock of the situation. Below them they reckoned Whitmore was near Camp 4 ready to ferry up loads, and they knew Calderwood had already had his fill of El Capitan and had gone down. Ahead, they reckoned one long day might see them over the top.

On the morning of their eleventh day they heard a yodel from the top. Harding shouted a strangled reply through a mouthful of food. When they heard his squawk, his waiting friends became anxious. They decided the climbers were in a desperate fix and lowered them a rope. It was the last thing that Harding and Merry wanted. They had not come this far to be hauled off. The intended to finish under their own steam. In vain, they yelled up to their friends to get the "goddamn rope" the hell out of the way. The weather looked to be worsening, and Harding determined to go all out for the top and work through the night if necessary. By the light of his headlamp he drilled bolt holes in the overhanging headwall. Ironically, as he did, the rope hung within easy reach. He stuck to the lead without relief and placed twenty-six bolts. Just after sunrise he pulled himself over the top. El Capitan had been won, an enduring testament to man's spirit and a landmark in American climbing.