From Yosemite’s valley floor, El Capitan looks like a vertical counter top. It’s one of the largest natural monoliths in the world, and for anyone but the initiated, climbing its surface is as reasonable to contemplate as swimming from San Francisco to Honolulu. Thus the resonant obituary in the New York Times in the spring of 2002:
“Warren Harding, 77, Early Rock Climber who Became Legend”
Harding and his team were the first to climb El Cap, via the Nose Route, and their 45-day siege of the wall redefined what could be accomplished with ropes and metal on rock. Harding logged some 30 additional first ascents in Yosemite, including the Wall of Early Morning Light (aka the Dawn Wall), but his principle accomplishment may have been the nonchalance with which he approached these feats. “Looking back,” Harding said in an interview with writer Burr Snider, “I don’t think of my ascents as any great works of art; they were more scratching and clawing your way upward, like a bug in a toilet bowl.”
Known as Batso for his bat-like adherence to cliffs and rock faces, Harding climbed with the likes of Jerry Gallwas, Chuck Pratt, Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins during the so-called Golden Age of climbing. He took pains to cultivate a wastrel image throughout his climbing career, describing himself in his autobiography “Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide to Rock Climbing” as a “raffish-looking little fellow” with a resemblance to Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy.
In fact, Harding was not only photogenic, but also had a personality ready-made for the spotlight. His media appearances included various print features, and an interview on Howard Cosell's: Wide World of Sports. This did little to endear him to his contemporaries, as Harding openly derided what he perceived as elitism among Yosemite’s inner circle of climbers, focusing in particular on his chief rival for first ascents, Royal Robbins. Being a less technical climber than Robbins, Harding relied heavily on the use of aid for his ascents, which put him at odds with the clean climbing ethic of the day (which advocated the use of removable protection on the rock, rather than permanent bolts).
Of this there was no stauncher critic than Robbins, who famously chopped Harding’s bolts halfway up the Wall of Early Morning Light, during the route’s second ascent. Harding, in turn, made a point of referring to Robbins as the “Carrie Nation of climbing,” or one of the “Valley Christians,” whenever possible.
Despite their squabbles, Harding and Robbins ended up comrades, if not exactly chums. It was Robbins who rappelled to Harding's rescue in 1968 when the latter hung stranded, hypothermic, in inclement weather on the South Face of Half Dome. The two were linked, as are most adventurers, by a love of autonomy, as well as an attendant fear of restriction. Harding captured this in "Downward Bound," where he writes what might be a reconciliation toward all those aggrieved naturalist climbers of the era: "Whatever their personal ethics and abilities, all climbers are subject to approximately the same obstacles, hardships, fears, joys, and moments of triumph or failure."
By Brian Gruters
Brian writes about science, conservation, and ways that people interact with nature for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com. He is an aspiring surfer, member of the Southern California Mountaineers Association, and likes to explore mountains and canyons.