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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
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
"On the other
hand," says Harding, "when seven pins tear out, that does sort of grab