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Home >> Articles >> Recollection of Warren Harding Sunday, September 26, 2021 
Steve Roper, Tom Evans, Mike Ousley

March 2002

Warren Harding
Recollections of a Yosemite Climbing Legend

© Allen Steck
Harding rappelling off of Dolt Tower on the first ascent of the Nose, El Capitan.

“‘It’s Warren Harding,’ someone whispered. Out stepped a handsome, devilish fellow with a young woman draped on his arm. Short and classically wiry, a furtive gleam in his eye. At this time Harding was locally famous for his feats in Yosemite two years earlier, notably the second ascent of the notorious Lost Arrow Chimney. So I stared closely, trying to measure the man. I thought I would see him swarm up our practice routes, but instead he sat down and began drinking jug wine and telling stories. A sociable chap, I thought, but why doesn’t he climb? Though he wore army fatigue pants, like most of us, he had dyed his black. Looking at his black flashing eyes, his wild black hair, his jet-black pants, his sultry moll by his side, his wine, and his lack of interest in what anyone was climbing, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was fascinated, mainly because the other climbers I knew were spectacled scientists, staid folk who would never have dreamed of wheeling up to a rock with a sports car and a jug and a flashy dame.”

- Steve Roper
  Excerpted from Yosemite Big Walls: SuperTopos


Warren Harding..... just was talking about him the other day...too much drink and food.... passing of a legend for sure. I have many recollections of the man. My favorite is of course the following...

I had just arrived in Yosemite in the spring of '69 a few days after my discharge from the army. I had driven for three days from Maryland where I was living with my new wife...she stayed home, fortunately. It was early in the morning and I went looking for my partner, Bob Williams, who I was to meet in camp 7.... the one next to the stables. I wandered around and found him talking with Joe Faint and Galen Rowell. So we caught up on things and I was soon engaged in conversation with an older guy who appeared from inside a tent. He was rather short and scruffy looking. I, unfortunately, did most of the talking. I told the guy that I was here to do some big walls and that I had big plans and was going to show the locals a thing or two. I spewed on about how I was going to do the Washington Column and then Half Dome and then the Nose of El Capitan itself!! Back then the Nose had less that about 10 ascents and was still held in awe by everyone and was a career goal of many climbers. Anyway, I asked if the old guy knew anything about Half Dome and he sort of shrugged and mumbled something about not having done the route as he did mostly first ascents.... that statement went right over my head as I was just catching my breath so I could boast a bit more. After a time he said...“Well young fella you seem to have it all figured out.... I didn't catch your name.” He extended his hand and I said that I was Tom Evans from back East. As I grasp his hand you can imagine my horror as he said... “Well it is nice to meet you Tom, I'm Warren Harding.” If only I could have run..... but that was a lesson that remains with me to this day..... keep very quite until you know with whom you are talking!! I camped next to him in Camp 4 several times over years and met up with him on some of his recent visits to the valley. Of course he was well into old age and had grown a large stomach but he still had that sparkle in his eye. We had a good laugh last time I talked with him as I related the above story... he claimed to have remembered me but of course that is not possible. He was a great inspiration to me over the years and I have always considered him a personal hero. I will miss him.....another irreplaceable character in the history of Yosemite is gone.

- Tom Evans


The Nose of El Capitan
Photo © Chris McNamara

I resist calling this a sad occasion, a tragedy, et cetera. Warren was a polite, soft-spoken, unassuming guy who lived life wide open; as though there was no tomorrow. (And, on that note, he was so right.) I can imagine he packed more living into his 70-plus years than most [even “adventurous”] people could in a thousand. I can hear Warren scoffing at much adieu over his passing...his creaky, high-pitched drawl deducing “well, I suppose we all have to go at some point.

Be glad Warren showed us a great style in which to confront our fear. His big wall routes, some ridiculed for excessive hole count, were products of his irrepressible vision. Warren was a true leader. Even within a faction of climbing hardcores very few in number, he followed his aesthetic sense and not his brethren. He transcended the competition within this faction in the golden era of wall climbing. (Royal Robins stole Warren's in-progress FA of the Northwest Face of Half Dome - to which Warren offhandedly resigned "we decided to go climb El Capitan instead...we weren't sure if it could be done, and we didn't have any idea what we were doing...)

If you get the opportunity, climb one of Warren's wall routes. After a few pitches, you'll sense Warren's persona, vision and drive like a thumbprint on the line. You'll find minimal mandatory free climbing, and generally, exposed and bold aid climbing up sometimes-unlikely features and, at times, the path of most resistance. The necks of the green glass wine bottles still reside on Wino (Wine, originally) Tower on Wall of the Early Morning Light. Harding's routes The Nose on El Cap and the West Face of Leaning Tower represent two of wall climbing's most notorious jewels, with full reason.

Beyond climbing, Warren showed us how to be humble. His light, satirical attitude about the limits of man and stone diffused the righteous and self-aggrandizing attitudes surrounding much of elite wall climbing's exploits of his day. Warren respected everyone and never sank to petty shots at his detractors.

Raise a glass of Chablis in the honor of an astoundingly regular guy. And one of the greatest wall pioneers the world ever knew. Thanks for passing this way, Warren

- Mike Ousley


The West Face of Leaning Tower

Photo © Chris McNamara

Editors note: Yosemite climbing legend Warren Harding passed away Feb 27, 2002. He will be sorely missed.


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