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El Capitan


Yosemite Valley, California USA


Trip Report
Sports Illustrated article on Dawn Wall 1971
Thursday May 28, 2009 12:02am
I just found this... First time I have seen it. Here it is in it's entirety...

Warren J. Harding and Dean Caldwell say mountain climbing is a farce. Considering that they spent 27 days last winter pinned to the face of El Capitan, the sky-obliterating granite monolith guarding the entrance to the Yosemite Valley, their statement has the ring of authority. Still, it is a remarkable assertion coming from two athletes whose climb was the first ascent of the most difficult route up the most difficult rock face in the United States—the sheer, smooth 3,000-foot Wall of the Early Morning Light.

But if Harding and Caldwell couldn't take the feat seriously, some of the rest of the country, especially the three-quarters of it that seems to consist of California, did. The awesome declivity of the precipice, often not merely 90� from the horizontal, but 100� or 110�; the blank inhospitality of the Dawn Wall; the record length of suspension in so alien a situation; three days of wet immobility, trapped by a storm, followed by days of 60- and 150-foot progress; falls of 55 feet taken by each man; the climbers' dismissal of an attempted rescue—all these riveted the attention of people bleared by problems of population, pollution and war.

No one took the climb more seriously than the would-be rescuers, who regarded the route as all but impossible and knew Harding and Caldwell carried only 12 days' rations. When they heard rumors that the two were already badly frostbitten and down to their last two cans of sardines, they mobilized an elaborate plan to pull Harding and Caldwell from the cliff—only to be waved off as imperiously as a fledgling carrier pilot on his first wobbly approach.

Even if the rescuers had pressed their effort, they probably couldn't have reached these two Peck's bad boys of mountaineering in time to avert what ultimately happened anyway: a boisterous wine-drinking celebration (Christian Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon) atop Wine Tower, a rocky way station marking the end of the worst part of the climb, and much raucous laughter at the rest of the mountain-climbing fraternity, as well as at their own miraculous feat.

Although Harding alone has made at least 12 major ascents, he and Caldwell are simply insufficiently awed by things like the El Capitan climb to qualify as proper heroes. "I was up there on El Cap," reports Harding, "and I said to myself, 'Gee, this is a stupid thing I'm doing.' "

"It's really very boring," Caldwell says. "The reason we succeeded where other attempts failed is that we are able to stand sheer tedium. Pure sloth. Sluggish metabolisms. I counted 180 blows as Warren hammered in one rivet, and a bolt takes three times as long. We used 200 rivets and 75 bolts."

The fact that their Morning Light route was probably the most skilled piece of technical climbing ever achieved and that it made them instant celebrities, recognized on New York streets, impresses them a lot—so much so that Harding cites a book by a French climber, titled Conquistadores of the Useless, as the perfect summation of their feat. "We find even more difficult means of accomplishing nothing."

For his part Caldwell revels in addressing prestigious groups expecting, in his words, "a dry account of our tepid heroics," in such a fashion as to evoke newspaper headlines like: CONQUERORS OF EL CAPITAN SAVED BY COLOSSAL MISTAKE.

When a writer from Today's Health interviewed Harding after the climb, his first question concerned health foods the climbers had taken. "Health foods?" Harding asked blankly. Well, there was that bottle of wine, one of brandy, one of champagne, canned chili, garbanzo beans.... The line of questioning was abandoned.

"I'm afraid we were rather disappointing to these people," Harding intones sorrowfully. "As a matter of fact, we were so debauched from partying before this climb that we could hardly stagger to the base. We got in condition on the climb itself. There were farewell parties five nights in a row. The last one was so bad that we never did get up the next day. The climb, therefore, started the following day, and then at 11 in the morning. We only got 250 feet up, but we had to start. We couldn't have taken another farewell party."
There is a theory (it may even be theirs) that Harding and Caldwell are at home on rock faces because they are most comfortable when they are parallel to the nearest flat surface—cliffs, floors, sidewalks. Many of the pair's farces, as this suggests, are conducted at ground level. Harding, indeed, is founder and presiding elder of the Lower Sierra Eating, Drinking and Farcing Society, which actively espouses such virtues as sloth, gluttony, winebibbing and avarice. Plus others. "Mental conditioning is more important than physical," Harding expounds with a straight face. "Sloth, for example, is very important in climbing—just hanging with it."

Harding is also president emeritus of an organization called Downward Bound. "It originally started as a finishing school for affluent young ladies," he explains, "but we could see no real reason it shouldn't be made coed. Setting your goals too high is an instant route to failure. By the same token the sure way to success is to keep lowering your objectives."

"Of course, there is the concept of rejuvenation," says Beryl Knauth, a comely and bewitching young lady friend of Harding's who is often referred to as Beastlywoman. "You must build up to greater and greater heights so you can crash farther downward."

Harding and Caldwell's partnership began in the Yosemite Valley (it may be ending there, too; but of that, more later). They were lolling around the local lounge, the Tent Room of Yosemite Lodge, both convalescing from injuries—Harding from falling off a flat boulder, Caldwell from falling off a stump—and both obviously restless for new challenges.

Incapacitated only from the knees down, they kept their tonsils in trim by laying heavy plans for scaling El Capitan. Dave Hanna, the assistant manager of the Yosemite Lodge and a mutual friend, says it was all very casual. "You'd have thought Dean and Warren were going out to the beach with a six-pack and a Frisbee. But remember that in technical climbing they're the most advanced in the world. Warren has invented all kinds of devices—BAT tents, bat hooks, stove-leg pitons. If Warren and Dean put the same professionalism and intensity into business, they'd be captains of industry."

No better way exists to understand the magnitude of Harding and Caldwell's technical triumph than to climb to the spot—already many times the height of towering spruces below—where the aided ascent began. The sheer face starts so unaccommodatingly that only the most minimal cracks are available for pitons, and the top of El Capitan is so far, so straight up, that to see it at all requires a painful craning of the neck. From their special perspective, however, Harding and Caldwell say that the first stretch presented no problems, except for the swallows.

"When we followed that first big diagonal crack," Warren gestures, "all the swallows that nest in it were coming home from whatever they do all day. Birds were diving and screaming and generally dumping on us."

Traversing left after leaving the swallows' abode, the climbers crossed an area of nearly flawless rock with a few shallow cracks. Driving aluminum blocks, trying to avoid using bolts, Dean was seven wedges out on a lead when his last block ripped out, quickly followed by six others. Caldwell fell 55 feet.

"You think about falling a lot," Dean says, "just because it's part of your thinking about the mechanics of climbing and arranging safeguards. You plan; you put a bolt in to deflect a fall in a safer direction. It's not a death-defying game."

"On the other hand," says Harding, "when seven pins tear out, that does sort of grab your attention."
Harding had this impression confirmed when he also took a long fall on the traverse. The travelers were happy to reach another rightward-angling crack affording better conditions. When the two left this long fissure, they began the hardest part of the climb: 300 feet of absolutely blank rock requiring bolting all the way. All day long, every day, they hammered. At the approach of night, as lonesome blue shadow crept up the granite enclosure of Yosemite, leaving only the massive monolith of Half Dome lit yellow, the climbers pulled up their 300 pounds of gear and bivouacked, dangling from the sheer face on a single anchor. The secret of their being able to endure so many nights suspended from a wall was Warren's invention, the covered nylon hammocklike affair he calls a BAT tent (which he says stands for Basically Absurd Technology).

After 12 days the two were little more than a third of the way, and rations had long since been cut drastically. ("Thank heaven Dean, who figured out our provisions, is such a chowhound," says Harding.) Then the storms came. Rain, hail and snow pinned Harding and Caldwell immobile on the face for three days. They lay in water from Tuesday night to Saturday morning. Caldwell says, "During one storm I looked down and saw a pile of hail between my feet. I couldn't feel anything at all. Everybody knows it doesn't get cold in Yosemite."

"You get inured, inert," Caldwell explains. "It took me two hours to think of tying up the toot of the plastic bag I was in. That was no great piece of thinking, either. Pretty soon I was in water up to my knees."

Eventually the storms subsided. Frostbitten feet and all, the climbers enjoyed the great beauty of clouds of white vapor steaming off the wet cliff in bright sunlight. They pressed on to the long dihedral toward which they had been heading: and at the end of four more days they had almost reached Wine Tower.

Suddenly, now that the hardest part of the climb was over, much activity stirred atop El Capitan. Interrupted while driving a pin, Dean yelled up to inquire what the commotion was about. "You're being rescued!" he was informed. "The hell we are!" he roared back. (Two years earlier, rescuers had come down on ropes to "save" Harding during his ascent of Yosemite's Half Dome. Harding had boiled over on that occasion too and, cursing mightily, he had all but thrown his saviors off the cliff.)

"The rescue of Warren and Dean was, in part, conjured up in the Mountain Room bar," says Hanna with a shudder. "It started as just a probability conversation, but pretty soon plans were being drawn on bar napkins. They would have been safer coming down themselves with a broken leg apiece. The real peril would have been being rescued by that group. I can see them now, consulting cocktail napkins as they proceeded. If they lost one napkin, the whole operation would abort."

Harding says that the rescuers were getting a lot of garbled information. "They didn't research our condition at all. We were in constant communication with Dave, yet no one asked him anything. But then, the only thing more fun than a climb is a rescue."

Public fascination grew after that little drama. Fighter planes whistled under the two, and helicopters swarmed. One copter, piloted by a Colonel Lee, landed on top of El Cap, to the justified rage of a park ranger, who threatened to arrest him on the spot. A photographer hung off the top from rope, lurking, like a gargoyle, in improbable places.

When Harding and Caldwell finally heaved over the last overhang, ravenous, they found in addition to the dozen friends and fried chicken they expected, 80 or 90 members of the press. National television recorded Penny, a Yosemite Lodge bar waitress whose last name Dean did not know, planting a moist, thorough kiss on Caldwell. Caldwell has yet to explain this satisfactorily to his girl friend Elf, watching at home in Portland.

The press might have preferred more haggard survivors, but both climbers looked, if anything, healthier than when they had begun. Considering their pre-climb celebrations, this is not altogether astonishing. Harding's first act on top was to look back and cry, partly in regret that the climb had ended. "I was feeling so good I couldn't stand it," Warren says. "It was the exact antithesis of being carried away with grief. It wasn't an ordeal at all. It was superliving. Doing these hard things makes everything better."

You think of a mountaineer and think of a supergutsy person with no fear for his life," Caldwell adds. "In a way nothing could be farther from the truth. You utilize this fear to realize how great being alive is. Everything afterward is many magnitudes more satisfying."

"Beryl knows it's perfectly possible that I might be killed climbing, but she also knows it's what gives me life," Harding says. "I have a greater capacity for doing anything else, even enduring tedium, because I know I can always bug out and go climb a mountain. I wouldn't even consider it fear. Fear is being afraid you might collapse and fall apart. Or bungle enough to drop some absolutely essential item."

"The only true fear I experienced was that those bastards were going to try to rescue us," Caldwell says.

"We don't live to climb. We climb to enhance living. We hardly ever talk shop. It's extremely boring—things like doing half a pitch of 5.10 liebacking or two tied-off 6.8 mashies."

Many self-respecting mountain climbers do not appreciate this kind of disparagement. Asked if some climbers are piqued by Harding and Caldwell's irreverence. Dave Hanna solemnly thought it over, then said, "Hell, yes!"

"Piqued is hardly the word," Caldwell admitted. "Some climbers think this is a religion or a competition or cancer research. Some groove on doing the same climb faster and faster. Others get down to memorizing the location of every pin. Making the climb becomes almost superfluous. To me the advantage of a first climb on a new peak is that you're not competing with someone else. You can come to a hellish problem and not have your mind cluttered with wondering, "How did he do it?' "

"You might compare climbing El Capitan with writing a Ph.D. dissertation," contributes Dean. "It's essentially meaningless."

After El Capitan, the onward, upward school of climbers was anticipating new opportunities to blanch at the sociable pair; Harding and Caldwell had planned next to scale the prodigious ice wall of 20,000-foot Mt. Jirishanca in remotest Peru, to be followed by an ascent of the face of Angel Falls in the Venezuelan jungle.

But now, in what the two admit may be some reaction to the month-long enforced fellowship on El Cap, a fissure has developed in their working relationship)—apparently a common, usually reparable, condition among mountaineers. Each now wonders of the other: Did success spoil rock climber?

And so, while Caldwell still prepares for South America, Harding talks of surmounting certain unnamed, unclimbed spires on the Yukon-Alaska border and voices unspecified complaints about the Hanna-Caldwell relationship. He says he needs to "get away from it all," adding darkly, "maybe even life itself." Caldwell tends to shrug off the feud, his strongest criticism of Harding being that Warren's life-style is "too structured." It is a complaint Harding has rarely heard spoken of him before.

If Caldwell still goes to South America without Harding but with a replacement less skilled, it unquestionably makes the Jirishanca assault chancier, but then the preparations they had made together were hardly in the same category as the prelude to D-Day. On his last trip Dean ascended Yerupaja, a stupendously steep and beautiful peak near Jirishanca. "We planned things so meticulously that we forgot nobody spoke Spanish," Dean seems to recall. "Also, we didn't bring any supplies because we had heard Peruvian customs were bad. Customs couldn't have been any worse than shopping. We rolled up one shopping cart containing 17 rolls of toilet paper and two liters of rum and nothing else." The Lima storekeeper was clearly thinking of turning their ears in for a bounty.

When Caldwell got Yerupaja surmounted, he rafted down the R�o Mara��n, a tributary of the Amazon.

"People tended to expedite me more than I wanted," he says. "They thought, 'Norteamericano—must have a small fire built directly under his behind.' One place where the whole Mara��n narrows to only 90 feet, in wild rapids, they expedited me into a highly unmaneuverable dugout boat. It immediately sank. My photos would have been spectacular, but the emulsion really didn't come out very clear because it was under water so long. There were whirlpools as wide as a room. It turned out we were the first people that year to lose a boat and survive, and this was the 23rd of September.

"When we hauled ourselves out, dripping, this man asked, 'Did anything bite you in the water?' He was very profuse about something dangerous called a paiche. I thought it was a put-on and said, 'Naw, I'm not afraid of paiche.' 'Not afraid of paiche, Se�or? It's five to seven meters long and eats people!'

"Later, in Iquitos, I saw a stuffed paiche. Sure enough, it was five to seven meters long, and I don't doubt they eat people."

Dean ended by eating man-eating fish and capturing several tamarins and pygmy marmosets, six-inch-tall simians that now live with him in his family's house in Portland. There they have established territories, which they defend violently, screeching. "I got a letter from Dean with brown syrup spots all over it," Harding once said. "He explained that one of his marmosets had just run over his waffle and across the letter."

Donkeys could be the trouble on this trip to South America. Caldwell plans to pack in supplies to the first Jirishanca base camp on the little beasts, over serrated foothills whose vertical relief is 7,500 feet. Fortunately, the last village, Chiquian, is an unusually friendly little Peruvian mountain town whose inhabitants drive donkeys.

"I tried to work a donkey once," Dean says. "It took four days to cover a one-day trip with half a load."

The first camp will be at about 13,000 feet, the beginning of the glacier, because "people have tried to take donkeys on ice and bitterly regretted it." The second, at 17,000 feet, will be established where the glacier levels out and the real straight-up climb begins. This will be a classic route up the face's most prominent feature, which Harding blithely calls a "ridge," but which is vertical more than horizontal, being the meeting line of two huge concave walls. Three thousand feet up this sharp edge, the climbers will reach a 20,000-foot secondary peak. They will then dance precariously across a long, pitted knife-edge of a ridge to the summit, with half the continent falling away on each side. Not only is this the most dramatic route, but it may avoid the rock falls which regularly slide down Jirishanca.

Two other strong climbers will go to base camp for safety and to do photography. A wholly owned subsidiary, the Middle Andes Eating, Drinking, etc. Society, will also convene, starring Hanna, Beastly woman "and anybody else who digs the idea, hopefully in a proportion of at least two girls per male." To finance the expedition Harding and Caldwell had thought about bringing in other people on a tour-adventure basis. "They can climb a 17,000-foot mountain, watch condors or visit a village essentially unchanged from the last century of the Inca period," Caldwell said. "They can stay with a family, watch weaving in llama wool and eat anticuchos, roasted lung and Peruvian bread." Then, amid the other ephemeral wreckage of their recent schism, the tour idea was scrapped.

Angel Falls on Devil Mountain is 19 times higher than Niagara, was undiscovered until 1937 and is still inaccessible except by one perilous route—40 miles and two or three days from the diamond and resort town of Canaima. "We thought the climb itself would require 18 days, but that was before we took 27 on El Cap," Harding said. The face of Angel Falls is sandstone, but is extremely hard so that when the rock breaks, it fractures like glass, with brittle, sharp edges. "People have said walking on the fallen rock at the base is like walking on broken porcelain," said Harding. "It might shatter or be too hard to drill in. Fortunately, it looks like there are enough cracks for pitons."

Their first thought had been to climb a route dramatically near the falls, but that plan was based on a photograph taken during dry season. "We discovered later that the falls go from nothing to full torrent in an afternoon," Harding explained.

Part of the lure of Angel Falls is a question of its source. Some authorities say it comes from a branch of the Caron� River, but Caldwell has heard its source is a huge spring atop Devil Mountain. Revised plans are to scout the falls in person at high water. Raindrops falling on your head are one thing; the world's highest waterfall beating on it is another.

Since this reconnaissance won't come until months after the Jirishanca venture, the Middle Andes subsidiary of the Lower Sierra EDF Society will have ample opportunity to indulge what Caldwell calls "a real penchant for falling into a party situation."

A fine example of the society's uninhibited approach came one morning not long ago when the group impulsively decided to bake muffins at 4 a.m. The muffins all baked, someone began thinking how delightful they would be to throw at each other. A Great Muffin War ensued, an occasion of such hilarity that requests have often been made for a reprise. (In the midst of the fun, however, Caldwell demonstrated that he has a serious side. Thinking compassionately of a friend to whom he had not written for two years and who was missing the Muffin War, he sat down with needle and thread and sewed a stamp on a particularly rubbery muffin. He then addressed and mailed the pastry to him, without bothering to include any explanatory comment.)

The society also sacrificed several large cans of Reddi-Wip to an indoor whipped-cream war. Beryl and Warren managed to get completely covered with Reddi-Wip, topped with a generous quantity of dust. Deciding that they needed a shower, they danced across Yosemite Meadows toward the communal lavatory under a large sheet. They were stopped by a security guard, who wanted to know what they were doing. Their explanation didn't help.

Caldwell still finds it difficult to take his impending climbs more seriously than his last one. A friend was recalling recently how Caldwell had timed his last arrival at Jirishanca to coincide with the disastrous Peruvian earthquake. The only thing that prevented this potentially cataclysmic confrontation was an injury that kept him from traveling.

"This time," Caldwell remarked, "we must be sure not to miss the annual earthquake season."

Someone threw a meatball at him.

  Trip Report Views: 1,101
Ihateplastic
About the Author
Ihateplastic is a trad climber from Lake Oswego, Oregon.

Comments
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Captain...or Skully

climber
in the oil patch...Fricken Bakken, that's where
  May 28, 2009 - 12:23am PT
Of course they threw a meatball.
Takes one to know one.
Yowza.
Ottawa Doug

Social climber
Ottawa, Canada
  May 28, 2009 - 10:40am PT
One of the great Yosemite survival stories, those boyz, and they didn't just survive, they put up a new route.

Ciao,

Doug
Ihateplastic

Trad climber
It ain't El Cap, Oregon
Author's Reply  May 28, 2009 - 11:09am PT
I'll take non-rescues for $500, Alex.






Barry Bates.






Who was the guy who called down to Harding/Caldwell asking if they needed a rescue?


Correct!




(First reported in ST by Werner and confirmed in conversations with Caldwell and Bates.)
the Fet

climber
Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La
  May 28, 2009 - 02:35pm PT
Thanks for sharing!!!!
t*r

Mountain climber
the hills of my home
  May 28, 2009 - 08:48pm PT
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El Capitan - Wall of Early Morning Light A3 5.8 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click to Enlarge
Wall of Early Morning Light is route number 14.
Photo: Galen Rowell
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El Capitan - The Nose 5.14a or 5.9 C2 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
The Nose, 5.14a or 5.9 C2
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The Nose—the best rock climb in the world!
El Capitan - Zodiac A2 5.7 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
Zodiac, A2 5.7
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1800' of fantastic climbing.
El Capitan - Salathe Wall 5.13b or 5.9 C2 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
Salathe Wall, 5.13b or 5.9 C2
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The Salathé Wall ascends the most natural line up El Cap.
El Capitan - Lurking Fear C2F 5.7 - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
Lurking Fear, C2F 5.7
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Lurking Fear is route number 1.
El Capitan - East Buttress 5.10b - Yosemite Valley, California USA. Click for details.
East Buttress, 5.10b
El Capitan
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East Buttress with top of The Nose on left.
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