The South Face of Mount Watkins revisited


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Social climber
the Wastelands
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 18, 2008 - 05:42pm PT

THE HISTORIC first ascent of Yosemite Valley's El Capitan in 1958 opened a
new era in Yosemite climbing. In subsequent years, three additional routes,
each over 2500 feet in height, were established on the great monolith. El
Capitan's great height, the sustained nature of the climbing and the
resulting logistical problems required that the first ascent of these routes
be accomplished in stages, with the use of fixed ropes to facilitate a
retreat to the valley floor. Since the initial ascent of El Capitan, eight
ascents of the various routes have been made, and climbers involved in this
latter-day pioneering have gained great confidence and experience in
sustained, multi-day climbing. By the summer of 1964, with new improvements
in hauling methods and equipment, the time seemed ripe for someone to
attempt a first ascent of such a climb in a single, continuous effort.

One of the few walls that had remained unclimbed by the summer of 1964 and
which afforded a challenge comparable to El Capitan was the south face of
Mount Watkins. Rising 2800 feet above Tenaya Creek at the east end of
Yosemite, Mount Watkins rivals in grandeur even nearby Half Dome. Despite
the obvious and significant challenge presented by the face, the mention of
Watkins seemed to produce only a certain apathy in the resident climbers of
Camp 4. Though many of them, including me, speculated on who would climb it,
yet few of us were moved into action. Then one pleasant July evening at
Warren Harding's High Sierra camp on the shore of Lake Tenaya, when the wine
and good fellowship were flowing in greater quantity than usual, Warren
showed me a flattering photograph of the south face and invited me to join
him. In a moment of spontaneous rashness I heartily agreed, and we
enthusiastically shook hands, confident that the fate of Mount Watkins had
been sealed.

Several days later we were strolling through Camp 4, two rash climbers
looking for a third, having agreed that on this climb a three-man party was
a fair compromise between mobility and safety. However, our recruiting was
unrewarded. The experienced were not interested; those interested lacked the
necessary experience. By evening we had resigned ourselves to a two-man
party when Yvon Chouinard walked out of the darkness. He had ten days to
spare and wondered if there were any interesting climbs planned.

Within the week, after a reconnaissance trip to study the face and plan
a route, we were assembling food, climbing equipment and bivouac gear for a
four-day attempt on the face. The three-mile approach to Mount Watkins began
at Mirror Lake. As we unloaded packs at the parking lot, two young ladies
approached us to ask if we were some of THE Yosemite climbers. Yvon modestly
pleaded guilty and pointed out our destination. They asked if it were true
that Yosemite climbers chafe their hands on the granite to enable them to
friction up vertical walls. We assured them that the preposterous myth was
true. Then, with perfect timing, Harding yanked a bottle of wine and a
six-pack out of the car, explaining that these were our rations for four
days. We left the incredulous young ladies wondering about the sanity and
good judgment of Yosemite climbers. And so the legends grow.

After following the Sierra Loop Trail for two miles, we eventually began
contouring the slopes above Tenaya Creek until we reached the base of Mount
Watkins, where we sought out a suitable camping spot for the night. In the
darkness we noted with apprehension that the granite bulk of Mount Watkins
completely obliterated the northern quadrant of the sky. The following
morning we awoke grim and significantly silent. With lowered eyes we
approached the base of the wall. Unlike most major Yosemite climbs, Mount
Watkins has very little climbing history. Warren had been 700 feet up some
years before, and climbers had studied the face from the southern rim of the
valley, but ours would be the first and only all-out push for the summit. On
his brief reconnaissance, Warren had been stopped by an 80-foot headwall
above a large, tree-covered ledge. After studying the face three days
before, we had elected to follow his route as it involved only third and
fourth class climbing and would allow us to gain a great deal of altitude on
the first day. By climbing a prominent corner at the left end of the
tree-covered ledge, we could gain enough height to execute a series of
pendulums in order to reach a comfortable-looking ledge at the top of the
headwall, thus eliminating the necessity of bolting 80 feet. This ledge
would then give us access to an 800-foot dihedral system on the right of the
face. The dihedral eventually connected with a thin, curving arch leading
westward across the face. We hoped this arch would take us to the great
buttress in the center of the face and that the buttress would in turn take
us the remaining 500 feet to the summit. However, these speculations would
be resolved only after several days of sustained, technical climbing. The
personal challenge, the unsuspected hardships, the uncertainty, in short,
the unknown, which separates an adventure from the common-place, was the
most appealing and stimulating aspect of the course of action to which we
had committed ourselves.

Our immediate concern was transporting 100 pounds of food, water and
equipment up to Warren's previous high point. Loading everything into two
large packs, Warren and I struggled up the handlines left by Yvdn as he led
ahead of us up an intricate series of ledges and ramps. By noon we reached
the tree-covered ledge and the base of the headwall where Warren had turned
back before. Having volunteered to haul the first day, I began repacking our
loads into three duffel bags while Warren and Yvon worked their way up the
shallow corner at the left end of the ledge. Two free-climbing pitches
brought them to a ledge where they investigated the problems of the long
pendulums necessary to reach our goal for the first day - the
comfortable-looking ledge 80 feet above me at the top of the headwall. By
mid-afternoon Yvon had descended 75 feet, climbed across a delicate face and
after trying for half an hour to place a piton, resigned himself to a bolt.
Descending once more, Yvon began a series of spectacular swings trying to
reach the ledge above the headwall. After numerous failures he finally
succeeded by lunging for the ledge after a 60-foot swing across the face.
Warren rappelled to Yvon and after dropping me a fixed rope joined him in an
effort to reach the great dihedral which we hoped to follow for 400 feet.

Prusiking up the fixed rope, I could watch Yvon leading an overhanging
jam-crack in the dihedral. From the ledge I began hauling all three bags
together. I was using a hauling method developed by Royal Robbins for the El
Capitan routes. It consisted of a hauling line which passed through a pulley
at the hauler's anchor. By attaching a prusik knot or a mechanical prusik
handle to the free end of the line it was possible for me to haul the loads
by pushing down with my foot in a sling instead of hauling with my arms. The
method was highly efficient and far less tiring than hauling hand-over-hand.
Yvon and Warren returned to the ledge after leaving 200 feet of fixed rope
and we settled down for the first bivouac of the climb. After only one day
on the wall it was evident to all of us that our greatest difficulty would
be neither the climbing nor the logistics but the weather. It was the middle
of July and temperatures in the Valley were consistently in the high

We had allowed ourselves one and one-half quarts of water per day per
Person - the standard quantity for a sustained Yosemite climb. Still, we
were not prepared for the intense, enervating heat in which we had found
ourselves sweltering for an entire day. Those mountaineers who scorn
Yosemite and its lack of Alpine climbing would find an interesting education
by spending a few days on a long Valley climb in mid-summer. Cold
temperatures and icy winds are not the only adverse kinds of weather. The
following morning Warren and I ascended the fixed ropes and continued
climbing the great dihedral, hoping to reach its top by the end of the day.
The climbing was/both strenuous and difficult as we resorted more and more
to thin horizontal pitons and knife-blades driven into shallow, rotten
cracks. However, our biggest problem continued to be the heat. We were
relieved only occasionally from the unbearable temperatures by a slight
breeze. Although we tried to refrain from drinking water during the day so
as to have at least a full quart each to sip at night, we were all
constantly digging into the climbing packs for water bottles. Every few
minutes we found it necessary to moisten our throats since even a few
breaths of the dry, hot air aggravated our relentless thirst. Even the
hauling, which should have been a simple task, became a major problem. Yvon,
who was hauling that day, exhausted himself on every pitch, becoming
increasingly tired as the day wore on.

In the early afternoon, we were surprised by the passing of a golden eagle
across the face. Welcoming the chance for a brief respite, we ceased our
labors and watched as the magnificent bird glided effortlessly high above
us. Although he presented an inspiring sight, we hoped his nest would not
lie on our route. In the days to come, this eagle would seem to make a
ritual out of crossing the face, sometimes as often as three or four times a
day, as though he were a silent guardian appointed to note the progress of
the three intruders who labored so slowly through his realm of rock and sky.
By the end of the second day, we reached a group of ledges so large and
comfortable that we named them the "Sheraton-Watkins.'' It was here that we
were faced with the first major setback in our carefully planned route. The
top of the dihedral was still some 200 feet above us. That 200 feet
presented not only rotten, flaky rock and incipient cracks, but also the
probability of having to place a large number of bolts. Now that we were
within 200 feet of the prominent arch we had seen from the ground, we could
see clearly that it did not connect with the large buttress in the center of
the face, but that a gap of 100 feet or more separated them. The prospect of
bolting across 100 feet of blank wall so appalled us that we began searching
for other avenues of approach to the middle of the face. We were in a deep
corner, the left wall of which presented messy but continuous cracks leading
80 feet to a ledge on the main wall. From this ledge, it appeared that a
short lead would end on the first of a series of broken ramps sweeping
westward across the face. It seemed the only reasonable alternative and we
had just enough light left to ascend one pitch to the ledge 80 feet above
before settling down on "Sheraton-Watkins."

We were up early the morning of the third day in order to accomplish as
much as possible before the sun began its debilitating work. From our high
point Yvon began the next lead. It was here that we began to literally walk
out on a limb. We could see the broken ramps leading across the face for
several hundred feet. Once we left the dihedral, retreat would become
increasingly more difficult. Not only would the route beyond have to be
possible, but we would have to consistently make the correct decision as to
which route to follow. Using every rurp and knife-blade we had brought plus
three bolts, Yvon succeeded in reaching the beginning of the first ramp.
Then I began the first of three leads which were to carry us 300 feet across
the face. Although the climbing was moderate fifth class, it required a
great deal of effort. After nearly three days of climbing, the heat had
reduced our
strength and efficiency to the point where we moved at a snail's pace.

Warren was barely able to manage the hauling bags without assistance and
most of the afternoon was spent in getting our little expedition across the
traverse. Although we had not gained much altitude, our efforts were finally
rewarded when the traverse carried us into the buttress in the center of the
face. Once again resorting to the indispensable rurps and knife-blades, I
led a delicate and circuitous pitch past a dangerously loose flake to a
curving arch. Following the arch as far as possible I descended, leaving
what I thought would be a simple pendulum for tomorrow's climbing team. We
were now situated on widely spread but comfortable ledges, and as we munched
on our ever decreasing supply of cheese, salami and gorp, we caught a
glimpse of our friend the eagle as he passed on his daily rounds.

At the end of this, the third day of climbing, we were well aware of our
critical situation. We had brought enough water for four days. It was now
obvious that we could not reach the summit in less than five. 700 feet
remained between us and the giant ceiling at the lip of the summit and the
route remained uncertain. We reluctantly agreed that it would be necessary
to reduce our ration of water to provide enough for at least one additional
day on the face. We did not yet consider the possibility of retreating
although the prospect of facing the unbearable heat with less than an
already inadequate supply of water filled us with dismay.

The fourth day proved to be one of the most difficult and uncertain any of
us had ever spent on a climb. The sun continued its merciless torture as
Yvon and Warren returned to the struggle. Warren found that I had
underestimated the pendulum. After an agonizing effort, he finally succeeded
in swinging to a ledge and I proceeded up to haul. By
mid-afternoon, after climbing as slowly as turtles up the central buttress,
we reached the most critical point of the climb. Above us a blank, 60-foot
headwall topped by an overhang blocked further progress. Warren had nearly
fainted several times from the heat, Yvon was speechless with fatigue and I
was curled up in a semi-stupor trying to utilize a small patch of shade
beneath an overhanging boulder. In an effort to provide more shade we
stretched a bivouac hammock over our heads, but it provided little
protection. For the first time we considered the possibility of retreating,
but even that would require another day on the wall. It seemed that those
very qualities which had made the climb so appealing might now prove to be
our undoing. Warren investigated the possibility of rappelling 100 feet in
order to reach the opposite corner of the buttress. However, we did not want
to lose 100 feet of hard-earned altitude, especially since we could not be
certain that the left side of the buttress continued to the summit. After a
barely audible consultation, we decided to try the headwall above us, hoping
eventually that we would find cracks leading to the summit, still 500 feet
above us. Warren volunteered to go up first. After placing three bolts, he
came down, too exhausted to continue. I went up next and with extreme
difficulty placed two more, the first direct-aid bolts I had ever placed,
barely adequate, even for aid. Yvon took my place and after breaking two
drills was able to place one more before relinquishing the lead to Warren.
Instead of placing more bolts, the latter lassoed a small tree and prusiked
15 feet to a horizontal crack. With a magnificent display of spirit and
determination, Warren continued the lead over the headwall, did some
extremely difficult free-climbing and reached a ledge adequate for a belay.
Refreshed in spirit if not in body, Yvon followed the lead in semi-darkness,
marvelling at Warren's endurance. Leaving a fixed rope, they returned and we
all collapsed gratefully on barely adequate ledges.

By the fourth day Yvon had lost so much weight from dehydration that he
could lower his climbing knickers without undoing a single button. For
the first time in seven years I was able to remove a ring from my finger,
and Harding, whose resemblance to the classical conception of Satan is
legendary, took on an even more gaunt and sinister appearance. We slept late
the fifth morning and awoke somewhat refreshed. Confident that we would
reach the summit by nightfall, we ascended the fixed rope to study the
remaining 400 feet. Once again we were faced with a critical decision.
Continuous cracks led to within 100 feet of the summit, but it appeared that
they would involve nailing a long, detached flake. Yvon led an awkward pitch
that curved to the left around a corner. After joining him, I dropped down
and swung to the left corner of the buttress. Still I was unable to see if
that corner of the buttress continued to the summit. I decided to climb the
cracks above Yvon. They were of jam-crack width and pushed the free-climbing
to my limit in order to conserve the few bongs we had brought. After a
fierce struggle through bushes I was able to set up a belay in slings. That
morning we had had two full quarts of water for the three of us. Yvon and I
had already finished one quart and when he joined me I was surprised to find
he still had a full quart. Warren had refused to take any water that day,
preferring to give the climbing team every advantage. His sacrifice was a
display of courage and discipline that I had rarely seen equaled.

With added incentive, Yvon led a mixed pitch up a strenuous and rotten
chimney, executing some gymnastics at its top to gain a narrow ledge. He
joyfully announced that the next pitch appeared to be easy aid climbing and
that the summit was only 200 feet above him. Anxious now for the top,
climbed as rapidly as I could while Warren struggled resolutely below with
the bags. What we thought was a detached flake from below turned out to be a
100-foot column, split on either side by a perfect angle crack. The
right-hand crack seemed to require fewer bongs so I quickly nailed my way to
the column's top, a flat triangular ledge only 80 feet from the summit. It
appeared that the next lead would just skirt the gigantic ceiling at the lip
of the summit.

Yvon, resorting one last time to rurps and knife-blades, tapped his way
to the crest of Mount Watkins just as the sun went down. His triumphant
shout told me what we had all waited five days to hear. When Warren reached
the ledge, he asked to clean the last pitch as he felt that he had not
contributed enough that day! Warren Harding, who had been the original
inspiration for the climb, whose determination had gotten us over the
headwall below and who had sacrificed his ration of water after five days of
intense thirst felt that he had not done enough! I passed him the rope and
as he began cleaning the last pitch of the climb, settled down on the ledge
to my thoughts. In the vanishing twilight, the valley of the Yosemite seemed
to me more beautiful than I had ever seen it, more serene than I had ever
known it before. For five days the south face of Mount Watkins had dominated
each of our lives as only nature can dominate the lives of men.

With the struggle over and our goal achieved I was conscious of an inner
calm which had experienced only on El Capitan. I thought of my incomparable
friend Chouinard, and of our unique friendship, a friendship now shared with
Warren, for we were united by a bond far stronger and more lasting than any
we could find in the world below. I wondered what thoughts were passing
through the minds of my companions during the final moments. My own thoughts
rambled back through the entire history of Yosemite climbing--from that
indomitable Scotsman Anderson, who first climbed Half Dome, to John Salathe,
whose philosophy and climbing ethics have dominated Yosemite climbing for
nearly twenty years, to Mark Powell, Salathe's successor, who showed us all
that climbing can be a way of life and a basis for a philosophy. These men,
like ourselves had come to the Valley of Light with a restless spirit and
the desire to share an adventure with their comrades. We had come as
strangers, full of apprehension and doubt. Having given all we had to the
climb, we had been enriched by a physical and spiritual experience few men
can know. Having accepted the hardships as a natural consequence of our
endeavor, we were rewarded by a gift of victory and fulfillment for which we
would be forever grateful. It was for this that each of us had come to
Yosemite, and it was for this that we would return, season after season.

My reverie was interrupted by a shout from above and in the full, rich
moonlight I prusiked to the top where Yvon was waiting for me. Warren had
hiked to the summit cap to see if anyone had come to meet us. He returned
alone and the three of us shared some of the happiest moments of our lives.
As we turned away from the rim to hike to Snow Creek and some much-needed
water, caught a last glimpse of our eagle, below us for the first time. In
the moonlight, he glided serenely across the face as majestic as always, and
as undisturbed by our presence as he had been five days before.

Standing Strong

Trad climber
hopping on a moonshadow
Jul 18, 2008 - 09:03pm PT
ummm... bump

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jul 18, 2008 - 11:00pm PT
What a great loss that we have so little of Pratts writings-his Watkins story is a beautiful tribute to the man many consider the spiritual leader of that era.

Trad climber
calistoga, ca
Jul 21, 2008 - 12:52am PT
Having looked up at this face from about half way up the wall with a fancy topo map in my pocket makes this story even more special.

Bobbie-Joe Panguitch
Lynne Leichtfuss

Social climber
valley center, ca
Jul 21, 2008 - 01:21am PT
Norton, I don't know many details about the history of this area/climb or even of these men, tho I know their names and some of their stories.

This article is killer. Warren Harding....WOW !

Again, thank you for putting this on Super Topo. I will now re read and marvel over these incredible, gifted, gutsy guys that, simply put, are the heart and soul of life and real uncontrived adventure. They really put it out there for the love and desire of figuring out the way to the top.

Really, thanks again, Lynne

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Jul 21, 2008 - 08:12am PT
Bump AGAIN!!!!!

Patrick Sawyer

Originally California now Ireland
Jul 21, 2008 - 11:46am PT
A fantastic read.

Mountain climber
Jackson Hole Wyo.
Jul 21, 2008 - 03:17pm PT
I think this came from the AAJ and is one of only about four or five pieces Pratt published, despite his obvious command of the English language. (View from Dead Horse Point might be another). On Watkins (Hook Line & Sinker),in the late '70s we, too saw "Pratt's Eagle" as I call the monarch of Tenaya.

Stoked OW climber
San Jose, CA
Jul 21, 2008 - 04:01pm PT
Wow, this really captures the climbing experience for me.

And after having my own experience without water stuck on a climb (for just a day, after a day with 3 liters), I just can't fathom the inner strength of these guys to go for so long on so little water. It is like overcoming immutable laws of nature, outside the realm of reality.

I'm feeling the serenity now, sitting at my desk, as if I was just beginning the slow descent by twilight. Thanks for posting this! And thanks Chuck for writing it :)

A friends backyard with the neighbors wifi
Jul 21, 2008 - 05:23pm PT
That is a really awesome account of a fantastic wall. I was just up there in June, we did the south face, it was really magnificent. Its such an awesome wall.

Pretty neat to read through the story and know exactly where each pitch is going and what it provides. I am pretty sure that I huddled under the same exact rock as Pratt to stay out of the sun.

so much fun, they were so bad ass.

Gym climber
Jul 21, 2008 - 05:46pm PT
How they could even move with that little water is beyond me.

Trad climber
Santa Clara, Ca.
Jul 21, 2008 - 06:03pm PT
Now that is a good read.

Social climber
Jul 21, 2008 - 06:46pm PT
hey there norton... thanks for the post of this... you can feel the words... i wish i knew the rock from pictures, too, so i could see the actual route.... however, i can still see them climbing, mind-wise, as the writing is so precise....

what a great first route experience they had... and the eagle was an unexpected treasure, through it all...

what a great team they made, too... i love how they all joined-up, too... with the third member, justttttttt in time...

thank you, i would never heard yosemite history like this, if weren't for all you guys posting...


Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Jul 22, 2008 - 02:22pm PT
Pratt, starting the prusick from Overnight Ledge on the first ascent of the East Face of Washington Column, July 22, 1959.

A rare photo by Roper with Hardings camera.

He "loaned" me this photo for a high school paper (9th grade) that I was writing on the History of Yosemite Climbing in 1960. Hey Roper if you are out there lurking, you will have to have to contact me on ST to get the photo back. Phones are for wussies!

scuffy b

Sartre's No Exit 1/32 mile
Jul 22, 2008 - 04:46pm PT
Happy 49th Birthday, photo of Pratt by Roper.

Mountain climber
Aug 31, 2010 - 05:04pm PT
Bumping this incredible gem.

Trad climber
The state of confusion
Aug 31, 2010 - 11:14pm PT

And a big bump for Guido for holdin' that picture hostage!!!!!

C'mon, Stevo, say hi to us!@!!!!!1

Trad climber
The Great North these days......
Aug 31, 2010 - 11:39pm PT
Guido, you sure that's not the boulder pitch on Aman? sure looks familiar.
Captain...or Skully

Mar 30, 2011 - 12:07am PT
No doubt.
Love that story. Badass.

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
Mar 30, 2011 - 12:42am PT
One of my favs. So was Chuck.

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