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."
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."
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.
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.)
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
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
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."