For many climbers plying their skills in the big mountains, knowing the history of an area is as important as knowing the route which they intend to ascend. Because technical climbing in the Sierra Nevada is relatively new, there is good documentation of the activities of mountaineers over the last century. For the modern alpinist, these records are like beams of light illuminating dark terrain.
I have often delved into the descriptions of trial and success on first ascents before attempting to follow the same vertical path. This season I have climbed one man’s routes more than any others’. That realization has set me on a muddled quest to decipher just who this man was to his contemporaries, because to climb a man’s route isn’t to know him… Or is it?
Warren Harding’s name is all over the annals of Yosemite climbing. His wild-looking mug is for many the very image of golden age big wall climbing. My generation wasn’t the first to think so either. Harding was literally a legend in his own time. His brazen first ascents of Yosemite’s walls unintentionally (albeit at first) thrust him into the center of the debate concerning style and ethics for modern climbing. It was in this hazy limelight that Harding’s half-cocked, self-deprecating wit eclipsed the personalities of his peers.
It’s hard to write about Warren Harding without quickly falling into descriptive clichés. While his coevals carved out their place in the history books with their own words, the founding of outdoor businesses or with photography, it was Harding’s feats of endurance that led others to turn their pens and lenses on him in an attempt to capture the essence of western climbing.
Often people describe leaders as ‘way ahead of their time.’ This wasn’t the case for Harding. He was the right man at the right time. His keen eye, brute tenacity, and get it done endurance at a time when climbing was anything but mainstream saw his first ascents become modern trade routes up the most prominent walls in Yosemite Valley. Most notably, his first ascent of El Capitan via the Nose route (a nearly 3,000 foot vertical wall) still challenges climbers today.
When Harding first came to the Valley in the early 1950’s, nearly all the great rock features remained unclimbed. This was a time of weakness where the fortification of the cliffs seemed so complete that only the most prominent breaks in the sheer granite hinted at the possibility of passage. Many of these first climbs required everything a man could bodily do, while putting considerable strain on their mental well-being. It was on this steep field of improbability that the debate over style and ethics laid its roots.
Harding was a man up for adventure and exploration. By all accounts he was stoic, hard working and often selfless in the pursuit of a new route. In the heat of the summer of 1964, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard and Harding found themselves in dire straights attempting the first ascent of the South Face of Mt Watkins – a 2,500 foot wall opposite Half Dome. They had packed too little water for a climb that is literally bombarded by the sun from dawn to dusk.
By the fifth day they were down to just two quarts of water, with at least 400 feet of climbing still remaining. Critically dehydrated and concerned about their ability to reach the summit, Harding gave up his ration of water to give the team every possible chance to achieve their goal. Pratt, a giant of the golden age in his own right, recalls that Warren’s “sacrifice was a display of courage and discipline that I had rarely seen equaled.”
Obviously Harding was an industrious climber with no shortage of inner strength and resolve. But, how was he seen by his peers when he was on flat ground? For many who seek adventure and exploration, alcohol provides a quick release for the passions that drive man into the unknown. Warren was no exception and in many ways was the standard bearer for these types of activities.
Harding’s love of cheap wine, women and a level of revelry that would make Bacchus smile with delight is documented right alongside his climbs. It seems that at these get-togethers his sly wit would wind itself up with the lubrication of libations. His lectures and slide shows often morphed in to rumpus parties as the host drank his wine and digressed into stories and slides not fit for all ages.
That was Harding’s style – he was frank and did very little to hide his true character. He was a ruff and tumble go getter. And, well, that sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. During the first ascent of El Capitan, Warren’s style nearly ran aground on the ethical debates over the siege tactics and bolting that the Nose team used to execute the ascent. The team fixed lines nearly half way up the wall, working the route for a year and a half before they made their final twelve day push to the top. Not shy of placing bolts (metal anchors drilled into the rock), Warren hammered in several dozen to move across blank sections of rock.
Without going into the minutia of this philosophical back and forth, one must simply understand that quality rock is a limited resource and many felt (as they do today) that a line should not be forced by permanently altering the rock. Many argued that Warren’s tactics did just that. Warren’s response was that he climbed the only way he knew how. However, over time the criticism took its toll and his writings later in life clearly displayed a bitterness about the whole matter. Referring to the nay-sayers, Warren exclaimed: “to the self-appointed Gurus, I say: Bugger off, baby, bugger off!!”
With all that history behind us now we can see that in many ways Warren was right on with his route selections. Many of his lines have stood the test of time and are repeated as often, or more so, than his critics’ routes. However, to Harding, it wasn’t about who was right, it was about having a good time: “when I first started climbing, it really seemed like fun. I truly enjoyed… picking out a new line… But suddenly it just seems like a drag.
It’s hard to understand a man aside from what he chooses to do with his life. I have climbed many of Harding’s route over the years and this summer in particular. His routes are often the most classic lines of weakness that ascend some of the most intimidating faces in California’s mountains. Despite all the ethical drama, it seems that Harding saw climbing for what it was and nothing more: an activity “no sillier than anything else.”