A Few Notes on the Life of Warren Harding.


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Park Rat

Social climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Jan 5, 2011 - 04:13pm PT
It has been sometime since I first wrote of my friendship with Warren Harding. I started with a few reminisces of him, "The Warren Harding I Remember". I have almost finished a short history of Warren. I would like to share some of my thoughts about him while the whole book is being finished. In doing my research I have tried to stay true to him the man I remember, however I now see him in a more complete light.

He has turned out to be more complex of a personality than what appeared on the surface.

Warren Harding was always energetic, often generous, sometimes outrageous character who never believed that he needed to take himself or anyone else completely seriously. Warren would be known for his desire to go his own way, and not follow anyone else's ideas. His stubbornness has become legendary. I remember him always putting himself down. He loved slapstick humor and would always tell wonderful, sometimes off color stories.

He had many contradictory characteristics, some of which have made him a puzzle to unlock. While he loved publicizing his climbing feats, he did not brag about himself. He would wait for you to ask before he volunteered any climbing stories. Then he would answer in short clipped sentences. He often repeated the same answer over the years.
Like why do you climb? "Well you know all us climbers are crazy" or
"You just start at the bottom and go to the top".

For me personally having Warren for a friend was like having a crazy, but always loving older brother around. He was generous, kind and reliable. These are not the traits I expected from the average climber, but then no one ever called Warren Harding average. He was really fun to be with, you would not know what was going to come out of his mouth, but you could be sure it going to be entertaining.

To give you brief history of Harding, I have broken his life up into several segments of time.
One starting in the early 1950s, his first 10 years as a climber, roughly 1954 to 1964. The second from 1965 to 1971. The third period of time, the Batso era from 1972-1985 and the last his retirement years from 1986 - 2002

The early 1950s Harding was all energy and dash. Warren took to climbing like a duck to water and he could not get enough of it. In this period of time he made 22 FA's it was by far his most productive time as a climber. Much of what happened in this early period was trial and error. Climbing was in its infancy and the outcome of a climb was definitely not a sure thing. I think of this as the barnstorming time for climbers. It was the perfect time for someone with Warrens incredible drive and tenacity to be on center stage.

He was entering his 30ties but still had a very boyish look to him. In a few pictures he even resembles the late James Dean, who Warren may have subconsciously been imitating. Warren was driving a Jaguar and even attempted some road racing ala Dean. During this period he was very successful with the ladies and there were lots of them in his life.

He dyed his jeans black to match his very black hair. He worked out to develop his muscles, he would jog up the mist trail the top of Half Dome with a heavy pack and no water to condition himself, always trying to beat his last time. This conditioning program worked his arms became well muscled. He hated being short and did everything he could to compensate.

Warren always wanted to be taller, the fact is his height never interfered with his popularity, especially with the fairer sex. From the beginning Harding loved the ladies and they loved him back. Remember this was the 1950s when men were suppose to be gentlemen and women were expected to act like ladies. You may want to picture an uncaring playboy, but that would short change Harding. When Warren was around the guys he would act like the world's biggest womanizer, his eyes sparkled as he described his love of sex.

When he was with a young lady he was completely different, soft-spoken gentle and completely attentive in other words, just what most women say they want in a man. Harding had that rare ability to be completely macho with the guys and attentive and also tender and sweet, when he was with the girls.

This should help explain his tremendous success with the woman in his life. He was able to make the ladies all feel they were the most important people in his life, when he was talking to them. That is a rare gift and one which he had all his life.

From the beginning of his climbing days Warren was a fierce, tenacious competitor first with himself and later in wanting to achieve first ascents before other climbers. In most of his objectives he was successful, however he did lose out on the first ascent of Half Dome to Royal Robbins and his friends.

In fact Warren hiked up the mist trail with the pack which included orange juice and sandwiches. He wanted to be the first to congratulate Royal and his friends on their accomplishment. This first act of sportsmanship would continue throughout his life, he would always be on hand to congratulate a climber for their accomplishments.

Missing out on the FA of Half Dome would put Harding into competition with Royal Robbins for all of their climbing history, they would both compete to see who was best.

Warrens first ascent of El Capitan was the logical outcome of this highly competitive spirit, and a desire to make a name for himself. When his face appeared on billboards all over California he had feel a great sense of satisfaction.

While it is clear that Warren loved the publicity, he didn't let it change his personality or his humble playful nature. This may seem hard to understand, how could he be so humble and yet seek out publicity. I think the best explanation it is to look at the character of some movie stars, like that of Clint Eastwood who loves being a movie star but in his private life is quiet and humble and respectful. This is the best way I can describe what seems on the surface to be such contradictory behavior.

By the early 60s he had traded in his Jaguar for a Corvette. He continued to work full-time as a surveyor and to spend all of his free time climbing the big walls in the Park. Camp 4 was now his second home. The young climbers were his climbing partners as well as his drinking buddies. In those years much of the drinking might've occurred at the flats outside the Park as the bars stayed open till 2 AM. Warren continued dating many different girlfriends in these early years. He was unattached free to come and go as he wanted, he seemed to relish this lifestyle.

The second period of time 1965 to 1973 found him still in active climber with 13 first ascents during this period.

The mid-60s finds some changes in Warren now in his early 40ties and he is no longer so boyish looking. He is still the life of the party and for the first time he finds a lady who can keep up with him. Beryl is a beautiful blonde debutante, over 20 years his junior and she is wild about climbers, when she meets Warren she will give him a run for his money. He will be with her for the next 10 years. Beryl had to be fast on her feet keep up with him but it seems she had the goods and he was completely hooked on her.

By this time Harding is the senior member of the climbing set, to the ever younger climbers in camp 4. In this period of time climbers like Royal Robbins who was 11 years his junior, were beginning to settle down and start families of their own. Warren had no thought of marriage or of changing his lifestyle.

The closest thing to change came in 1967 when he decided to try his hand at being a civilian contractor in of all places the Vietnam, this is where he meets the real VC. He would later refer to VC in his book Downward Bound only now VC would mean Valley Christians. Warren always liked to play with words. He found working in a war zone to be unpleasant, unprofitable, and dangerous. When he came home he announced that he wanted to do something safe like rock climbing.

His unfortunate stent in Vietnam was only the beginning of a series of problems he would face in the next few years. In 1968 he and Galen Rowell were almost frozen to death when they were caught in a three-day snow storm on the South side of Half Dome. This necessitated the first night rescue using a helicopter. This was a low moment for Warren, especially so because he was rescued by none other than Royal Robbins.

In the fall of 1969 Warren was hit by a pickup truck while at work, his leg was broken and his knee shattered. Galen was pretty sure Warrens life as a climber had come to an end. Despite that in the spring of 1970 he and Galen finished their climb of Half Dome successfully.

That fall he teamed up with a new climbing partner Dean Caldwell they decided to try and do a new route up El Capitan which was called the Wall of Early Morning Light or the Dawn Wall. They planned for a long ascent using traditional climbing methods which involved lots of bolts and rivets. This climb ended up taking 27 days which was a record time on a Yosemite big wall climb. When the climb was finished the press were waiting to welcome the pair.
Warren was elated, he felt the climb had been a huge success. Harding's triumph was to be short-lived. He felt he had overcome his physical disabilities and survived this harrowing climb proving to himself and the world that good old Warren could not be stopped by mere physical injuries and or age.

What he didn't understand was his view of what he had done was not shared by many of his fellow climbers. In fact none other than Royal Robbins would shortly climb the same route with the objective of removing all of the bolts and rivets thus erasing the route permanently. As it turned out within three pitches Royal realized that Warren had actually created a high quality climbing route and he stopped chopping Warrens bolts. Royal finished the climb and has spent years explaining that his actions were his words, a bad idea.

Unfortunately for Warren the clamor over the of use of excessive bolts and out of date climbing style would haunt him for years to come.

I see the Wall of Early Morning Light as Warrens last great climb. It was also the end of his serious climbing history and the beginning of what I think of as his Batso period.

In late 1971 Warren would tell me that he had failed as a climber. He felt that he had lost the respect of his fellow climbers. He felt at that time that only Royal Robbins would be remembered as a great climber. This was truly a low point for Harding it would not really end until he published his own book which gave his side of the story, it would be called Downward Bound.

In 1972 he and Beryl moved to the Truckee area. Harding's sports car days were over, he is now driving a beat up white van. Warren went back to surveying and Beryl started a ceramics studio. During this time Warren who had always had a serious drinking problem, descended into a depression which was fueled by alcohol and a feeling that he had failed as a climber. As a result he wrote the now famous book Downward Bound in which he made fun of the climbers who he felt were persecuting him. He finished the book in late 1974 and it was published in 1975. While the book was success his relationship with Beryl ended during this time.
This later period of his life I referred to as his Batso period. Batso was a pet name that Beryl had given. He begins in the early 70ties to refer to himself as Batso, he was no longer just good old Warren.

Warren would make only 3 FAs in the mid to late 1970s.

You can see from pictures of him in the middle 70ties he has aged considerably and no longer cares about his appearance. For the first time he is without a steady lady in his life. His drinking becomes heavier and many stories about his heavy drinking, most of which are unflattering start to appear. The people who would meet him in these years may have wondered if he was the same Warren Harding who first climbed El Capitan. In many ways he was only a caricature of the old Warren.

Warren will again be in camp 4 but he is no longer as interested in climbing. He will continue to campout even in the winter in his beloved camp 4. While he is no longer able to take on the big walls, he cannot give up his lifelong love of the Park. He would say that being there always made him feel better. Knowing Warren I believe that to be true. He was now totally dependent on alcohol and was often seen stumbling around camp 4.
I view this time in his life as his lost years.

It would be 1985 before he would meet Alice his last companion. Alice was Warrens age and she would remain with him for the rest of his life. Thanks to her, his life would become more stable. He would still drink but he now had someone to take care of him. During these years Warren lived on the East side on the Sierras and for a few years in Moab Utah, in the late 90s they would return to live out his final years in the Redding California area.

Warren finally retires from surveying and he and Alice would travel and do many slide and lectures shows, as well as trade shows all over the country, talking about his days as a climber. Amazingly with all his physical problems he continued to, as he said keep on keeping on. Warren had been in failing health for several years before his death but he refused to stop drinking. He could no more stop drinking then he could start taking himself seriously. He would retain his sense of humor to the last moments of his life.

He was able to speak to and visit with many of his old climbing buddies before he died. It was only fitting that Royal Robbins was at his bedside at the end of his life. The two old competitors had made up their differences in the late 1970s and were now just old friends. Warren had always liked Royal, if anything he had envied Royals success as a climber and professional man, as well as his stable family life.

Warren would have told you that he was not the greatest climber of his age. He always said to me that Royal was a much better climber. Warren did say he got his share of first ascents.
There is no question that he will be remembered, not just for his climbing but for the exuberant, outrageous often entertaining character.

Warren's name will forever be linked with big wall climbing, his dramatic first ascent of El Capitan. The 27 day climb of the Wall of Early Morning Light. His refusal to call for help until he was nearly frozen on the south face of Half Dome, the dramatic rescue that followed.

These feats have left us with an almost mythic picture of a hardman, tough as nails, stubborn and courageous in his resolve. His persona became that of the outlaw or bad boy variety. Harding himself said
"Between the Cowboys and the Indians, I always knew I was an Indian".

His friends remember his playful character, his generous always down to earth nature. He was always wanting to have fun and be the life of the party.

Mountain climbing is no longer for only a lucky few bold young man. It is now accessible to the masses. Equipment and styles have changed the game completely. Both young men and women now race up the big walls of Yosemite. It's becoming hard to even remember what it was like for those early pioneer climbers.

I sometimes wonder how many of the great contemporary climbers would happily exchange their speed records for the chance to be the first man to have climbed the Nose of El Capitan. It is clear that climbing records will be broken over and over again.

However only a few lucky men had the incredible luck to be the first to conquer the big walls. These men will always have a special place in the history of big wall climbing.

Warren Harding was just one of these unique individuals.

Warren will always have a special place in the hearts of the many who knew and liked him. In my judgment that is the way he would want it to be.

Simper Farcissimus,


JAN 2011

Jan 5, 2011 - 04:15pm PT
Awesome stories, pics and info Susie....awesome. Thanks so much!

This is the summit shot that was on the front page of so many newpapers throughout the country when Caldwell and Harding submitted the WOTEML/AKA Dawn Wall.

the Fet

Jan 5, 2011 - 04:17pm PT
Fantastic stuff.

Trad climber
Jan 5, 2011 - 04:17pm PT
Hail to the King.

Jan 5, 2011 - 04:25pm PT
Finally something worth reading....

Thank you.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Jan 5, 2011 - 04:58pm PT
Very nice. Thank you, Susie.

Jan 5, 2011 - 05:02pm PT
Great history and stories. Thank you!


Trad climber
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:03pm PT
What a read, Park Rat. Thanks so much!

Jan 5, 2011 - 05:05pm PT
Many thanks for this!

Gym climber
wussing off the topout on Roadside Attraction
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:15pm PT
Hail Batso! or whatever he liked to be called. Thanks for that.

Every time I get on one of Harding's routes, I am impressed with two things: he had a great eye for location, and he was obviously a tough, persistent climber.

Revelation 7:12
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:27pm PT
Thanks Susie, Cheers to a Climbing Giant, Warren Harding!

Trad climber
santa fe
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:27pm PT
You didn't have to actually know Mr. Harding for him to gain a special place in the heart. Downward Bound was one of the first climbing books I ever read. Once I finished it I had a new hero. His approach to climbing and life resonated with me.

Social climber
the Wastelands
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:31pm PT

Did you get a chance to talk to Beryl or Alice about how they view their own relationships with Warren, their memories of living with him?

Those two knew him best.
Park Rat

Social climber
Topic Author's Reply - Jan 5, 2011 - 05:39pm PT

That is part of the Harding magic, he was bigger than life.


Yes, I did talk to Alice. She died in 2008, so I am glad I was able to speak to her as she filled me in on much stuff, I would never have guessed about WJH.

I am working on talking to Beryl.

Social climber
the Wastelands
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:46pm PT
Cool, Susie!

Can you give us any idea of when your book will be available?

You are filling a great niche by telling us more about the man himself than just his climbing.

We all appreciate your doing so, thank you.


Trad climber
Bay Area
Jan 5, 2011 - 05:47pm PT
I'd been climbing about 2 years when I read Downward Bound. Had been weaned on Robbins' Rockcraft books. Had read both sides of the WOEML controversy.
Was then, still am, conflicted by the differing climbing philosophies. Have the greatest respect for both men's accomplishments and as human beings. Sorry I never met Warren. In the Meadows one day, TM invited my wife and me to a Warren birthday party near Deadman Summit the next day. We didn't go. Curses. As in Real Life we all have find our own compass.
Paul Martzen

Trad climber
Jan 5, 2011 - 06:18pm PT
Thanks for the good read. Look forward to the book.

Trad climber
Pasadena, CA
Jan 5, 2011 - 06:23pm PT
Toker Villain

Big Wall climber
Toquerville, Utah
Jan 5, 2011 - 06:24pm PT
A nice read.

I first met him in C4 in '76. My experience with Warren can be, if you will, distilled into the following; it was best if you caught him between the first and third bottle.

One of these years I'l give Ken the spare bat tent carried on the WOTEML.
I have a couple of his hammers and his home made figure 8 too.

Gym climber
Jan 5, 2011 - 06:28pm PT
Instantly one of the best threads on the Taco.

Bravo Susie, many thanks.
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