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.
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.' "
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
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
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
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."