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Because It's Nowhere
Harold Peterson
May 03, 1971
Warren Harding (left) and Dean Caldwell climb for strange reasons but they climbed El Cap for perhaps the best reason of all
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May 03, 1971

Because It's Nowhere

Warren Harding (left) and Dean Caldwell climb for strange reasons but they climbed El Cap for perhaps the best reason of all

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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."

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