The Longest Climb: A Pioneer Profile by Wayne Merry


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Vision man...ya gotta have vision...
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 30, 2010 - 01:26pm PT
I recently "inherited" a bit of old climbing literature. One of the mags in the pile was one I'd never heard of before called "Mariah". It was their "Special Mountains Issue" and it had a few interesting articles. Here's one of them. There's been a buttload of negativity on here lately. Maybe it will help remind people what brought us all together on this forum.

Edit: Here's a link to the other story I posted from this mag:

The cover:

The late 1950’s were “golden” years for climbers in Yosemite. Especially for a ragged bunch of men who followed a nylon highway in


Pioneer Profile by a Pioneer, Wayne Merry

Twenty years ago, Camp Four in Yosemite Valley might not have been the grubbiest campground in all of California, but it didn't have much competition. Neither did the handful of ragged climbers who frequented it on weekends. There weren't many of us, and we had the Valley of Light all to ourselves.

But if Camp Four, with its dust and shabby climbers, was squalid, the cliffs towering over it were sublime. Mornings, we'd awake to the lolloping song of robins, and there would be the cliffs shining down on us through the pines. We'd lie there and wonder which new route to try today. We were rich beyond our wildest dreams, but we didn't know it. We were not a little afraid of those big, unclimbed walls. It was a time of testing, of experimenting, of discovering limits. It was a golden time.

In the summer of 1957 I fell in with a particularly disreputable trio. We did a few climbs together and got on well, although I, a crew-cut seasonal ranger, was the "straight" of the crowd. Warren Harding was the most arresting of the lot. He's a little guy, maybe five foot seven: a scrawny superstructure mounted on a set of tireless legs, a pair of shadowed, glittering eyes, a pile of black hair, an eldritch humor, and an insatiable appetite for red wine. He trained on red wine for every climb that I can remember.

Mark Powell's label was The Blond Giant, and he was the raggedest giant imaginable with excellent reason. He was one of the first to start pushing his limits free-climbing, and he didn't spare his clothing, his equipment, or himself. The result was a spate of hard new climbs and a tradition of bloodcurdling leader falls, which had somehow left him unharmed.

And then there was Dolt. Bill Feuerer was his name, but that summer he became Bill the Dolt, or simply Dolt, a name he was to make famous in the climbing world as the designer and manufacturer of jewel-like climbing hardware. He earned his nickname, however by performing a series of boggling blunders on the rock. Strong physically, he was a gentle and introspective person. His mild blue eyes and gentle mouth were framed by a Biblical beard, and an awed child was once heard to whisper as he passed, "Mommy, is that Jesus?"

These three were involved in a plan to climb the South Face of El Capitan, the awesome granite precipice that dominates Yosemite. It is so high, so unflawed, and so vertical that at that time only a few visionaries had even considered it possible. If its 3,000 feet (915 meters) could be scaled at all, it would amount to the most difficult aid climb ever done.
Many and wondrous were the gadgets conceived by Dolt to solve logistic and climbing problems and sketched on paper napkins at Degnan's in the Old Village. Some were actually built a winch to haul a lightweight cart up vertical distances, nesting aluminum channel to fit progressively wider cracks, even a modified basket stretcher for sleeping on a blank face. But eventually they could plan no more, and the assault began.

In the first seven days they pushed 1,200 feet of the most terrifying aid climbing done to that time, including several extreme pendulum swings to reach new crack patterns. It was a landmark epic of "dangle and whack," and they retreated only when supplies ran out, leaving fixed ropes for new assaults. I was fascinated and envious, but confined to normal working hours. The attempt was stopped by the onset of winter.

The following summer I took a job mapping glaciers in Alaska, and lost track of the El Cap drama. All was not going well. Some sporadic attempts pushed the route still higher, but then Mark was betrayed by a worn shoe sole on a much lesser climb, and the resulting fall left him with a permanently stiff leg. The powerful Powell was out. So too was Dolt; for various reasons, he'd had enough. Harding was a leader without a team, and in early autumn of 1958 I got a call from him. Would I come? You bet I would! So would Rich Calderwood, a strong young cliff-hanger from Fresno, and George Whitmore, a quiet, capable mountaineer who doubled as a pharmacist when he could be pried out of the mountains.

There ensued an Indian summer of weekend fiascos. We would leave classes
and work on Friday night, drive for hours to Yosemite, and spend much of Saturday just climbing the fixed ropes to the previous high point. On Sunday we would gain a few feet, fix ropes, and cut and run to get back to town in time for work or school. It was a losing effort. So were Monday classes.

The rangers, too, were getting increasingly irritated. Valley residents knew when we were on the rock, and would park by the road to watch. Soon crowds formed, complete with traffic jams; before long, Smokey didn't like us much at all. Finally we were hauled before the Chief Ranger, who delivered an ultimatum: finish the climb by Thanksgiving or get off the rock. Also, see that you fix ropes all the way so you can get off and not have to be rescued. And, finally, remove all the ropes and hardware when you leave.

So we went to work collecting ropes and food, made peace with employers, professors, and wives, and lit out for Yosemite on the last of October, for one last, all-out try. On the way, Harding pulled over at a liquor store in Merced to pick up a "summit kit" of champagne and proper glasses. We were acting pretty cocky, but there was a tingle like molten lead in our veins, and a do-or-die feeling in our guts. The bets seemed pretty even.

We strategized in Camp Four, over wine. George and Rich would relay supplies up the ropes while Warren and I pushed the route ahead. John Whitmer and Ellen Searby would aid on the ground at first, then take the trail to the top to meet us. Finally, there was nothing more to say.

And so we went -- up the trail to where the wall leaped out of the ground like a castle; up the springing ropes, dangling packs tearing at our waists, into the sun and the white granite; up past the rusting pitons that secured the ropes, cotton-mouthed with apprehension. Questions nagged at us: had the ropes been chafing in the wind, or been nicked by falling rocks? Little darting shocks ran through us each time the ropes slipped over some unseen irregularity above. The upper half of the face leaned over us, incredibly high and forbidding. How far would a body fall free from up there before it touched the cliff, and how long would one have to savor the flight? We climbed far apart, one on each fixed rope.

We rested at Dolt Tower. Here was Dolt's infamous winch, with which we had earlier tried to haul supplies 1,200 feet to the Tower; here we now added cached supplies to our already heavy loads. It took us another four brutal hours to read the end of the fixed ropes and Camp IV, 600 feet above. Even though we had refined the climbing of fixed ropes with sliding prusik knots into perhaps its most effi cient form, it was still a tedious, strenuous painful business. Later parties, using the new mechanical ascenders, would manage this stretch in a fraction of the time. Camp IV was big enough to sleep two, with feet pendent. To one side was ; small sloping shelf. Only Harding was petite enough for it, and that provided he lay with knees drawn up and a rope railing augmenting his coefficient of friction. George, amiable but independent, opted to return to a lower ledge for the night. Rich and I slept well; Warren didn't. He was troubled by a recurrent dream of falling, and awoke with a start once to find that he had indeed slipped off the ledge and was dangling by his safety rope.

Just above Camp IV hung the Greal Roof, a spectacular horizontal overhang that jutted out 20 feet into the cold air. A crack led up under that barrier, but more we could not see. For us it was the Edge of the Wild -- the gateway to the unknown labyrinth of overhangs on the upper face We flipped for the lead, and Warren "won."

He attacked the long vertical crack below the Roof with a great jangling of hardware. It turned out to be more sens; tional than difficult, but there was only restrained optimism; the Roof itself might still be impassable. Harding reached it. There was a long silence, then a gleeful shout. There was a crack leading off to the right.

Warren moved gingerly, driving pitons straight up and dangling below then half expecting the grating and the ping and the downward rush as a piton pullet out; but none did. He ended his lead on ledge so small I could see part of his she soles as he stood on it. He fiddled aroun for a long time there. To queries about th route above he was noncommittal, hintin darkly that he was glad it wouldn't be his lead. As I shouted at the soles of his feet saw a drill slip from its pouch and fall: so steep was the face here that it fell past without touching, without a sound, and vanished below. We were about 2,000 feet up now, well into the final wall. Everything was either vertical or overhanging.

Harding descended to Camp IV. Though much of the day had been spent just getting organized and only one lead had been made, we were happy. The Great Roof had been a tremendous psychological barrier.

The night was cold, the ledge hard. In the morning, Rich departed down the slender, dangling ropes. I swayed upward, hauling extra coils that pendulumed under me as I traversed the line under the overhang. I could hardly believe the exposure as I watched Warren coming up infinitely more terrifying than anything else I had ever experienced.

With Harding belaying from the tiny ledge, I went to work on an obvious piton crack. It was an expanding flake 100 feet high, each piton loosening the ones below it and I had no idea how to do it safely. Somehow, with Harding's ribald encouragement rasping up from underfoot, I cobbled together a tottering trellis of pins and slings. I crawled up onto a narrow ledge hours later, with very big eyes and the stink of fear about me. It was incredibly slow progress.

Warren removed the hardware with ease, pulling some pins out with his fingers, and went on past, stopping finally at a sort of hollow 80 feet higher. There the day ended. We dined, standing, on raisins and sardines. Then it was time for bed. I drove a line of pitons into the crack behind my foot-wide ledge and tied a row of rope loops. Through these I threaded my Army surplus mummy bag, and into this cocoon insinuated myself after much struggle. There was no place to rest my head, so it hung limply at the end of my neck until I finally arranged a sort of sling for it with some cord and one dirty sock. Warren was even worse off. A medley of muttering, thrashing, and obscenity drifted down through the dark and kept me awake until midnight. About three A.M. I snapped awake as the piton supporting my feet and lower legs pulled out. The metal had contracted slightly in the cold. All the others were loose, too. By the time dawn smeared the sky we were aching, groggy, irritable, and anxious to get moving.

There followed a most unpleasant day. The autumn sun beat with astonishing force into the south-facing dihedral. Warren, leading directly above, found the cracks completely choked with dirt and dry moss, which he had to remove with the pick of his hammer before pins could be placed. He was strangled by dust, and the larger clods beat at my head or pulverized as they fell. There was no evading the choking powder. Our eyes were gritty. We were gaggingly thirsty all day, and drank all but a taste of our remaining water.

Late that afternoon I became urgently uncomfortable: there had hardly been a convenient latrine for two days. Reaching a foothold, I asked Harding to hold me on tension and tended to the matter, half hanging in space. A plastic bag served well. In the relaxation of relief, I gazed benignly at the distant throng of El Cap watchers in the meadow, then slowly became aware that many of them were clustered around something that flashed like a great lens. To check, I smiled and waved. In the mob around the telescope, someone produced a white flag and waved back vigorously. On El Capitan, there is no room for modesty.

That evening we hauled up onto a series of excellent ledges, dubbed them Camp V with complete lack of imagination, and supped on dry pumpernickel, canned tuna, and a can of peaches. A scant cup of water remained. I hoarded my share in the peach can for early morningóthen fumbled and dropped it off the edge.

That night demoralized me, and so did the morning vision of the Merced River, winding cool and green through the chasm below. It was my lead that morning. I placed two pins after vast temporizing, clung to the wall with all the1 elan of a limpet, and knew that it was not my day. Then, below, I heard a welcome voice. George had arrived with more rope, hardware, and water. I almost jumped back to Camp V. Between slobbering guzzles, I broached the question: "George, you wanna trade off with me for a day? Must be a drag, those fixed ropes. I'll go down to Camp IV and bring up a load for you. Whaddaya say?" George agreed, but I don't think he was fooled.

I was right -- it wasn't my day. On the rappel down, the single strand of nylon slipped to one side of the shoulder pad and burned into my shoulder. I couldn't stop to adjust itóthe primitive rappel was too hard to hold. So I continued down, howling blasphemy. (Twenty years later, the scar is still there.)

Above, the others were having their own species of pain. The climbing was hard, with smashed fingers, dropped pitons, and near-falls punctuating the pitches. But they discovered a fine big ledge -- triangular and six feet on a side -- that promised badly needed sleep without retreat. Soon after, I arrived from below to find George and Warren sitting on this fine ledge (Camp VI) in thirsty silence.

Then Rich arrived up the nylon highway, bringing fresh water supplies. The water and his obvious delight at our progress touched off a sort of reunion party. We laughed, recounted adventures, and horseplayed, milling around on the little ledge all clipped in, of course, to anchors. Or so we thought. Then Rich leaned back, and his anchor wasn't fastened. For an awful moment he teetered, until someone grabbed him.

Again it was time for Rich and George to leave us, slipping down the elastic threads into the void. What a job they were doing! They had all the work and none of the glory. The physical effort was enormous, and the work would have been dull except that they had to check and recheck every move, every item of equipment. They were working unbelayed, and the slightest error could mean a quarter-mile plunge.

The climbing was straightforward that day -- uncompromisingly vertical, but the cracks were good. It was just as well. Strain, dehydration, and sleeplessness were taking their toll. Worst of all, a veil of cirrus spread out of the west to dim the sun. This was November, and anything could happen. Late that day a thin drizzle whipped in on a west wind; scud wafted below us as we retreated to Camp VI. The temperature dropped, and the drizzle became sleet , then snow. Far below, on the exposed prominence of Dolt Tower, George stopped his upward haul and bivouacked. The first blast of wind destroyed his waterproof covering, leaving his down bag exposed to the elements.

Warren and I were luckier. We had an excellent tarp, and could rig it firmly like a shed. Still, this weather had an ugly look to it. We had both seen similar storms plaster the cliff with ice, and a bad ice storm could wipe out our frail lifeline -- or us. It wouldn't take even that; badly sliced ropes would be hideously dangerous to rappel on.

The night passed without respite, and another day blew in, bearing snow. This was our tenth day on the rock. No one, as far as we knew, had ever spent so long on one cliff. We huddled under the slatting tarp, counted the remaining rations -- three candy bars apiece. Should we try to retreat through the storm, or hope for a break? The hanging ropes, vanishing into a swirl of snowflakes, were not inviting. We decided to wait until tomorrow. If it looked like a break, we would go for the top and not stop climbing until we were there. It couldn't be that far now. Down below, George huddled in his wet bag, miserable and sleepless. He was determined to move up as soon as he dared.

At first light Warren stuck his head out. "It's clearing!" We gobbled a Baby Ruth, gathered our gear, and began the frightening climb up the wet ropes and the slick black wall, toward the sunlight touching the rim. We climbed slowly as the rock dried, sometimes warmed by sunlight, sometimes chilled as a cloud swept gray around us. Warren struggled up a short free bit, nailed a slow bulge, and saw at last the final overhangs, two pitches above him. Then he heard a shout from above,
and a rope snaked through the air toward us. The end dangled ten feet clear of the rock.

John Whitmer's head peered down from the summit. "Hey, why don't you guys come on up the rope and have some hot food and a good rest, and go down again and finish it tomorrow?" He was deeply concerned, sure that we must be in bad shape. Warren's reply was unprintable. John vanished, rebuffed, but the rope remained. We ignored it.

Working up an almost vertical trough, I found it barred by an enormous overhanging rock. I drove a piton up under it to move right, but the block shifted with a hollow crunch. My scalp prickled. One bolt remained; I placed it to one side and moved around the block to a good foothold, anchored there, and brought Warren up. Through intermittent mist we surveyed the last pitch: 60 feet of clean cracks ending in a towering, three-tiered overhang ó with no cracks. And we were out of expansion bolts. Warren was wild with frustration, cursing bitterly at Rich and George. Where were they when they were needed? He would never climb with either again! As if in answer, a voice drifted up from below, and George's head appeared in the mist. He had brought some bolts.

In the dusk we ate our last candy bars. Warren donned a headlamp. I anchored into a standing belay, leaning gratefully against the slings. George settled stoically onto a sharp pinnacle. And darkness came.

That night remains blurred in my mind. I can remember the rustle of an icy breeze in my parka hood, the faint sound of a car horn far below, George twisting uncomfortably on his spike. My feet cramped on the little ledge and the slings cut deep. Often I nodded off and fell sideways, until my anchor came tight and jerked me awake. And always, always came the quick tap of Warren's hammer from above. Straight up, he was a tiny black spider in a flickering halo of mist, dangling under the overhangs with his body arched impossibly back, driving his hammer upward. He worked in grim silence, hardly resting, never complaining. Hours passed.

Toward morning the mist swept away; I could see Warren above me, hanging tiny and black against a skyful of frozen stars. Then he melted from sight over a bulge. His hammer tapped very slowly now. At long intervals, the rope inched upward through my hands. Behind us, the dawn grew.

For an eternity the rope didn't move. Then it stirred and moved upward, gathering speed, slipping into the first rays of sunlight. A glad shout tumbled down over the rim of our world. It was over.


Big Wall climber
A Token of My Extreme
Aug 30, 2010 - 02:15pm PT
What a great read!

Too bad I didn't have the time and read it anyway...

Why we're here, yes indeed.

Aug 30, 2010 - 04:09pm PT
WOW!!!! bump

Trad climber
It ain't El Cap, Oregon
Aug 30, 2010 - 04:26pm PT
Mariah magazine became Outside.

I remember that article. Nice find!
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Aug 30, 2010 - 06:16pm PT
Primo find, Steel! Wayne writes so well and this is his best effort. Thanks for posting it.

Boulder climber
Tempe, Arizona
Aug 30, 2010 - 07:05pm PT
The photos are great! what an awesome find.
Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Aug 30, 2010 - 07:09pm PT
What a historical gem!! Thanks for posting.
Park Rat

Social climber
Aug 30, 2010 - 07:14pm PT
Thanks Steelmnkey,

That is just the kind of first hand writing, I am looking to find for my work on Warren Harding.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Aug 30, 2010 - 09:42pm PT
I like when the cavalry arrives in the form of George and the bolts.
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Aug 30, 2010 - 10:10pm PT
It'd been raining.
Warren didn't drink water anyway.

Mountain climber
Okinawa, Japan
Aug 30, 2010 - 11:10pm PT
This is a real treasure. Thanks!

Aug 30, 2010 - 11:33pm PT
I remember a launch party for Mariah in Chicago in the mid-70s. Laura Jasch's boyfriend Jack Smith, son of ABC news anchor Howard K. Smith and a weatherman at that time, provided the tickets. It was a weird meeting of worlds. The beautiful people of Chicago, Royal Robbins and Henry Barber, and a few dirtbag intellectuals. The highlight was a Lou Whittaker presentation of an American expedition to K2, the cause of failure of which was summed up by Laura as, "A high-altitude porter got a case of the worms."

I have a copy of Mariah lying around here, somewhere, which has Outside in smaller type on the cover. Outside had many good contributors, enough to make you tired trying to keep up.

Really good to see the above piece.

Trad climber
Armstrong BC
Sep 2, 2010 - 01:16am PT
Really enjoyed that. Thanks for posting it!

Mountain climber
there and back again
Sep 2, 2010 - 01:59am PT
Hey MH2,
Jack Smith was a climber in his own right. Must have taken after his old man. He became a war correspondent. He lived in Marin and I ended up with some of his climbing stuff when he passed on.

Great story Steel monkey
dirt claud

Sport climber
san diego,ca
Sep 2, 2010 - 10:04am PT
thanks for sharing, awesome article.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Sep 4, 2010 - 01:49pm PT
Merry old Bump!
Rick Sylvester

Trad climber
Squaw Valley, California
May 8, 2011 - 04:58am PT
As one of the above postings aludes, "Mariah" and "Outside" were two separate magazines that eventually merged. For awhile both names appeared on the cover, one much smaller than the other. Eventually "Mariah" disappeared and of course "Outside" has been a major publishing success story not to mention institution for quite some time.

Big Wall climber
Crestline CA
May 8, 2011 - 12:34pm PT
Great stuff... thanks for the post!!!

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
May 8, 2011 - 12:43pm PT
Great find. I owe you for that one, Steelmnkey!

Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 8, 2011 - 04:48pm PT
truly great find, but some of the language, where'd it come from... did Wayne get a degree in Middle English? Old German??


thanks for the post, it is a much appreciated relief from the drone of what passes as political discussion here....
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