Arriving at the bank of Lost Lake above Little Yosemite Valley, I drop the 60-pound haul bag that I lugged up the steep Mist Trail and sit on a well-positioned boulder. The recent rain wasn’t enough to freshen up the stagnant lake and I am happy that I filled my water jugs in the Merced River. I look across the lake at the impressive, 2,200-foot South Face of Half Dome. A beautiful arch—the Great Arch—rises out of the base of the wall and gracefully sweeps into the middle of the face. Above the arch I only see a few giant solution pockets—dark eroded potholes—as the face stretches illogically far into the sky, never fading into the infinite low angle slabs found on the shoulders to the west and the east. From here, the headwall above the arch looks devoid of climbable features.
While scoping the route, before the first piece was placed, Harding and Galen Rowell fantasized that the potholes “were secret entrances to a giant room in the heart of the dome in which all the gods of the ancients lived.” The fantasy takes hold of me on the bank of the lake and I envision climbing to the pothole and entering a secret chamber known only to a few.
Dry water streaks leave a pattern of striped stains across the entire face. The streaks are a reminder of the severe conditions that emerge when bad weather strikes—conditions that have created several infamous epics, and subsequent rescues, on the face. Snow encrusted rock. Waterfalls. Icy ropes. Lightning. Intimidated, I stare at the wall, but the warm, golden glow of the granite in the afternoon light takes me into an enchantment stronger than any fear.
A friend has hired me to porter a load up to Harding and Rowell’s route on the South Face and help fix the first two pitches. I’ve just read Galen Rowell’s account of their attempt at the route in October of 1968, their struggle to survive through an early winter storm, and their rescue—led by Harding’s rival, Royal Robbins. The story inspired my imagination and I beg my friend to be included in the full ascent. I’ll clean every pitch! He declines—telling me—a big wall newbie—to climb more Grade Vs before getting on something so committing—a wise decision.
We continue on with our approach. After an off-trail two hour full-blown manzanita bushwhack, we arrive at the base of the Great Arch. Though my dreams of climbing it were temporarily dashed, I find myself lost in the splendor of the cracks that race up the inside of the arch. One day, I tell myself, I will climb this route.
In the winter of 1965, Harding and Rowell stood in this very place, peering up, lips pursed, and eyes squinting as the unclimbed route unfolded in their minds. They found themselves under the spell of the South Face:
“four hands touch cold rock … four eyes see no ledges on the south wall … Warren and I make a pact … silent but binding …”
Harding first considered the face while returning from a reconnaissance mission to Half Dome where he was taking in the South Face of Mt. Watkins to plan the line that Chouinard, Pratt, and he would ascend in 1964.
Using binoculars and magnified photographs, Harding and Rowell saw a series of discontinuous cracks above the arch where other climbers had assumed a blank wall. Following these cracks, they “decided that a route was possible with no more than 25 percent bolting.” This would entail hand drilling a hole, hammering a bolt into it, using the bolt to move up a couple feet, and then repeating the process, for over a quarter of the route. This degree of altering the rock was unprecedented. Many Yosemite climbers felt that Harding’s proposed style threatened the essence of the sport.
In his book Camp 4, Steve Roper recalled how the Valley regulars felt about the route and the drilling it would require:
“This route proved to be quite controversial; Harding’s stock once again went down a notch in the opinion of many climbers. … This cavalier figure shocked us: the Salathé Wall, for example, had been about 2 percent bolted; the direct northwest face of Half Dome had been about 4 percent bolted. If this 25 percent figure was acceptable, that could mean a profusion of contrived new routes on El Cap, for instance. Still, we all felt that climbing had no rules. Harding was a renegade, and there wasn’t much to say—or do. Luckily he had few imitators.”
Harding waved these concerns aside for he had found a beautiful line and wanted to climb it. Years later, while discussing Roper’s ethical qualms over the South Face of Half Dome and the Wall of the Early Morning Light, Harding reflected, “It never occurred to me to ask Steve Roper’s advice about anything. Oh I saw the guy, and I dismissed him as a ginky looking addle brain.”
That night my friends and I bivouac at the base of the route. The moon is nearly full and casts the South Face in an ethereal light. The face looks surreal—a fantastical illustration stolen from the cover of an obscure science fiction novel—a portal to something higher. Hidden to the south, Merced Lake rests in a glacier-carved valley. Above, the silhouette of Mount Clark rises from the pine forest.
I wonder how many times Harding slept in this spot, how many loads he carried up the Mist Trail, and how times he witnessed a full moon illuminate the South Face.
The first attempt to climb the face came in June 1966. Harding and Rowell were joined by Yvonne Chouinard and Chuck Pratt. Two years earlier, Chouinard and Pratt had endured up the South Face of Mt. Watkins with Harding, where Harding’s persistence and self-sacrifice saved them from perishing due to severe dehydration.
The first pitch going up the Great Arch of Half Dome’s South Face is a continuous, 180-foot hand-sized crack. Here, not even a pitch off the ground, the team encountered their first setback when Chouinard dislocated his shoulder. A shoulder dislocation is incredibly painful. The healing process is not over when the joint is returned to the socket. The damaged muscles and tissues must be rebuilt—a slow process. It would have been nearly impossible and foolhardy for Chouinard to continue. With the loss of Chouinard, Pratt bailed on the endeavor.
Gary Colliver joined the effort to make a party of three. Colliver was a long time Valley climber whose previous ascents included the Nose, the Salathé Wall, and several smaller first ascents. But after the first bivouac, Colliver retreated to the ground. His heart wasn’t in it.
With all these friends dropping out so soon, most people might rethink the endeavor. But Warren Harding was not like most people. He possessed a level of perseverance and grit rare even amongst the big wall climbers of the Golden Age. Rowell was more pragmatic, at least, at first:
“… I mention going down; Warren mentions going up, solo! … I stay …”
So the two friends continued up. The arch presented beautiful, easy to moderate aid cracks. The only bolts they placed were anchor bolts at the belays. They reached the top of the sixth pitch as the sun set on day three. A storm struck just as they were settling in at the anchor, which is protected by a large chimney shaped like the bomb-bay of an Air Force bomber. They called it “The Great Escape Hatch”.
They were holed-up in one of the few protected places on the mile-wide and half-mile high face—an 18-inch slit in the rock. Crammed into their hammocks, they tried to outlast the storm for 36 hours. Ultimately, they had to accept that the skies were not going to clear anytime soon. They rappelled to the ground after five days on the wall, pulling their ropes down with them. Their final act before retreating was to leave a haul bag attached to the highest anchor. It contained three gallons of water and several cans of food—they would be back for another attempt.
They didn’t get back on the South Face for another two years. In 1967 Harding took a construction job in Vietnam.
Rowell wrote the following:
“Warren works construction in Vietnam … guaranteed non-combat area … wakes up one morning and finds one less floor and rather few windows in his domicile … decides climbing safer … returns …”
The fall of 1968 came as an Indian summer. The usual storms that bring fresh coats of snow to the High Sierra and cold rain to Yosemite Valley were notably absent. Even though it was November, the dry and warm conditions were perfect for another attempt at the South Face.
Harding had been busy dreaming up new big wall gear. He christened the gear with the acronym B.A.T.—Basically Absurd Technology. For the South Face, they would depend on two new inventions designed to allow them to climb faster and lighter—Bat tents and Bat hooks.
The Bat tent replaced the common backyard hammock that Yosemite climbers were using, which required two anchors several feet apart. The Bat tent was a hammock with a waterproof ripstop top that could be zipped shut to protect the occupant from the wind and the rain. The early model most likely had a tough, packcloth bottom. Several nylon straps cradled the bottom of the hammock, wrapped around the sides, and converged above the hammock at a single-point, allowing the Bat tent to be suspended from one anchor rather than two. It was a small convenience, but one that would allow them to hang a Bat tent anywhere they could place a single anchor.
Chouinard, the primary manufacturer of big wall hardware, was making hooks called cliffhangers. Still in use today, a modern cliffhanger is made from steel and shaped like an inverted letter “J.” The older model cliff hanger was shaped like an inverted letter “L”—in contemporary times it has been replaced by the talon hook which has three prongs to help balance the hook on the wall. By setting a cliffhanger on a minuscule rock edge, a climber can pull through a steep, near featureless section of rock that otherwise would be unclimbable or require placing a bolt. But what if the rock is truly blank and there are no tiny edges to hook?
With an estimated 25 percent of their planned route being featureless and requiring artificial means of ascending, hand drilling holes for bolts would take an unreasonable amount time. They needed a way to move faster through the upper headwall of the face. Enter the Bat hook—perhaps the most infamous and lasting of Harding’s inventions and specifically developed for use on the South Face.
Harding took an old model Chouinard cliffhanger and ground down the point until it could be placed in a quarter inch drilled hole.
“This questionable item was invented (much to Chouinard’s consternation) by the infamous Batso Harding for use on the South Face of Half Dome … This route had great expanses of blankness—much drilling and bolting were required. The Bat-hook idea was developed to reduce the amount of time and effort required to negotiate these blank areas. The basic theory is simple: It takes five minutes to drill a 1/2-inch deep hole, fifteen to twenty minutes for a 1 1/4-inch hole.”
They now had new gear to move faster and lighter than previous attempts. Extra food and water waited for them near the top of the arch, though they would have to reclimb the lower pitches to reach it. The weather forecast looked good. They had walkie-talkies to communicate with their ground support, led by Glen Denny. They had learned from the storms of previous attempts and were prepared to outlast any weather. They were sure to succeed.
They regained their previous high point at the abandoned haul bag after three days and 900 feet of hammering pitons into the overhanging cracks. Once again, a storm moved in that night, but they stayed dry while huddled in their Bat tents inside the bomb-bay chimney.
The next pitch would take them out of the steep arch and onto the face, but it wouldn’t be easy. The pitch is a 135-foot double overhang, consisting of two near horizontal roofs that must be climbed. Harding described it as the most strenuous lead of his life. Rowell wrote that it was “the most spectacular sixth class lead” he had ever seen.
Harding swung wildly from piton to piton and thrashed in his aid ladders as worked his way out a long overhanging horizontal crack. He pounded ten pitons in row before arriving at another overhanging crack. The next crack was steep and hard, but not as severe as the one he had just nailed. After nailing ten more pitons, he at last arrived at the beginning of the upper headwall. Over 1,000 feet of near featureless vertical granite loomed above him.
With the Great Arch below them and the cracks of the headwall short and few, it was time to put the Bat hooks to use. They crawled up the wall, establishing two new pitches a day. Harding would drill eight Bat hook holes, place a bolt, and repeat. Hand drilling any size hole in granite is a slow and tiresome process—for both climber and belayer. Hit the drill with the hammer. Rotate the drill. Repeat. The subtle tap tap tap tap of the hammer filling the air.
The sound of progress trickled down to Rowell, who would feed out four feet of rope at a time, backed up by a Jumar, while resting in the belay seat. His mind wafted in and out of an Aldous Huxley book as he tried to distill why they were on this inhospitable wall.
On the fifth day Rowell led them toward the first of the potholes. He drilled Bat hooks and bolts for a hundred feet. It took six hours. Occasionally he found sections of free climbing using knobs and gritty patches of the face. He would free climb twenty feet, drill a bolt, and quest upward in tight climbing shoes until the holds or his nerves ran out. Then he would drill a quick Bat hook followed by a bolt. They estimated that free climbing accounted for about 20 percent of their advancement.
They dreamed that the potholes would be portals into Half Dome and inside they would find a room where the gods were awaiting them. They envisioned Janus, the two-faced ancient Italian god and guardian of doorways, ready to “greet the satanic Harding with ‘Come in, Warren. We have been expecting you!’ ” But their dreams of a hidden lair quickly met with reality and their more realistic hopes of a cave to sleep in were crushed. The first pothole was only a giant divot of decomposing, rotten rock.
The next day, after a short piton crack and many drilled holes, they arrived at the Tri-clops—a constellation of three large potholes. The largest was about five feet deep and fifteen feet wide. It had no ledge to stand on, only a steep ramp. But it did provide relief from the increasing wind. Rowell slammed in several pitons and set up camp for the night.
While Harding and Rowell found their way up the headwall, Glen Denny hiked up from Yosemite Valley with the latest weather report. When he reached the base of the route he shouted up to the climbers—the signal to turn on the walkie-talkie. The weather forecast called for cloudy skies over the next five days. No storms were predicted. The two climbers relayed that everything was proceeding smoothly and they would reach the summit in three days. Denny confirmed that he would carry his camera and 750 feet of rope to the summit the next day, rappel down, and take photos. But ominous clouds drifted into the sky, a sign that the incoming weather would be worse than predicted. Their plans would soon fall apart.
Rowell later described the scene that evening:
“As I watched the panorama at sunset, I seemed to be riding backward in time. From the southwest came billowing cumulus clouds moving high and fast in the sky—colored orange and red in the setting sun. From the northwest came mare’s tails, a form of cirrus clouds distorted by the winds, seemingly intersecting their brothers from the southwest directly above us. But from the west came creeping, seething white clouds. They were so low that we couldn’t see them until they came around the corner at the end of the Valley. The pure white veil slowly climbed the Merced River canyon and flowed between and around the sides of Mount Broderick and Liberty Cap, just as the ice must have done, in the opposite direction, thousands of years ago.”
Still confident in the good weather report despite the growing evidence to the contrary, they settled in for the night in their Bat tents, which were proving to be uncomfortable and constricting.
The weather in California’s Sierra Nevada tends to be good—i.e. sunny—and predictable. These are excellent conditions for rock climbing, but they breed complacency among climbers. Many assume that each day will be sunny, and if there are clouds then nothing will come out of them. But big storms do sweep through the Sierra, often settling in for two or three days. These storms can drop lots of moisture in any of its forms in any season. In Yosemite, rain wicks off the exposed granite slabs and shallow soils. Ephemeral waterfalls form instantly—jetting off cliffs and rushing down slabs.
They heard the first drops at midnight—a light drumming on the taught tops of the Bat tents. They adjusted their positions in the tents to return blood flow to various constricted body parts and then returned to sleep, still assured in the weather forecast and their waterproof nests.
Later they awoke to soaked down gear and pools of water inside the tents. They quickly punched holes in the bottoms of the tents to let the water drain. It was obvious that the tents had a major flaw in their waterproofing design. The sewn and unsealed seams stretched under the weight of an occupant, creating hundreds of small holes for water to find its way inside. Streams of water flowed down the granite, enough that the climbers could hear it rush down the face. With the porous seams of the tents pressed hard to the wet rock, it was inevitable that they would get soaked.
That morning, when they unzipped their cold and damp tents, they were greeted with a layer of snow covering everything in sight: Little Yosemite Valley, Mount Starr King, Mount Clark, and peaks of the High Sierra in the distance. The Jeffrey pines, lodgepole pine, and red firs down below were frosted with snow and even the wall had a crusty layer of snow plastered to it.
With a new day bringing warmer temperatures, the snow above them started to melt. The pothole, originally formed by water flowing over the weak rock, once again became a waterfall, further soaking the men and their gear. Even with this fresh soaking, they weren’t too concerned. They knew that later in the day the sun would come out. It would dry their gear and the rock, and they could continue with the climb.
Glen Denny radioed them later in the morning with the latest weather forecast—nothing major was coming. Denny informed them that he wouldn’t be rappelling in that day—the cables route was too dangerous now that snow-covered its slick slabs. He would go to the summit the next day to rappel down to them, when the weather and the condition of the cables route would be better. The climbers said that they might ascend his ropes if the weather didn’t improve.
The weather conditions deteriorated through the rest of the day. The snow kept falling and growing in intensity. Small avalanches sloughed washing machine-sized chunks of snow and ice off the face above them. The sun never broke through the clouds, leaving Harding and Rowell still wet and cold as the second night of the storm set in.
In November, the days are short and the nights are long. They passed the second night without sleep—14 hours in the darkness—shivering and exhausted, fighting off hypothermia. Their fingers and toes were numb; their skin purple and raw.
With dark bags under his eyes and his hair especially disheveled, Harding looked out from his Bat tent on the morning of the eighth day to find the landscape transformed into even more of a winter wonderland. The temperature had fallen and snow continued to fall. Ice clung to the rock. The small avalanches sliding down the face had grown in intensity and were battering them in the Tri-clops, which had become a funnel for water and snow.
Harding would later recount, “Well, when we were climbing up there we’d see these big grooves and we’d wonder why those grooves were there. Well, we found out.”
They shivered uncontrollably. For Rowell, the confined and tight Bat tent had become a straight-jacket that would soon be a coffin if he didn’t do something. Images of his wife, children, and home flooded his mind. It was Sunday morning—what he wouldn’t give to be at home on a quiet Sunday morning standing by the heater with a cup of tea and a hot plate of bacon and eggs.
Rowell knew that Denny would never make it up the cables route in these conditions. The cables were treacherous enough after a rainstorm. With this storm, there would be ice on the slabs and avalanches from above. Reality set in—if Denny wasn’t going up the slabs then there would be no rope fixed from above. They had to descend.
Rowell argued with Harding, trying to convince him that they had to go down, but Harding knew that they were safer staying put.
“I am nervous and vocal … Harding, the bastard, is calm … I want to try descending … Harding wants to wait it out … I don’t want to die without a fight.”
Visions of Toni Kurz sped through Rowell’s mind. Kurz, along with his partner Hinterstoisser, perished in 1936 while descending the North Face of the Eiger during a storm. He died mere meters from his rescuers, unable to reach them because he did not have the strength to pass a knot in the rope. Moments before his death he said, I can’t go on anymore.
“Warren, we’re going to rappel!”
“We, white man?”
Harding had just witnessed his trusted friend pushed over the brink of reason. Under the strain of their precarious position, Rowell became hysteric. He was fidgety and antsy to move—to do something. Knowing that they would die if they stayed there much longer, he became convinced that they had to descend and that it could be done. He had to escape the Bat tent and the face before it became his end. Harding knew how foolish such an endeavor would be. He tried to stop Rowell, to reason with him.
“You can’t do that. The ropes are frozen. You can’t even get a ‘biner through them.”
But Rowell wouldn’t listen.
“… stupid Warren is going to freeze if he stays here … I’m going down … Warren says he’s played that game before and he’s staying … I pout for a while and then set up ropes to descend … wave goodbye, promise Warren help, and disappear over the side …”
Harding became angry and said, “Go your own way then and do what you can to get out of this mess!”
To get to the next anchor below them, a single bolt, Rowell would have to descend 80 feet and then pendulum about 30 feet to his right. He descended the 80 feet without difficulty, but when he tried to swing over to the anchor he couldn’t get anywhere. The face and the soles of his shoes were covered in ice. Each attempt to swing over to the anchor was met with failure as he skidded around on the slick surface. His gloves provided no warmth in the wet and cold conditions. Soon his hands become more numb than when he was sitting in the relative comfort of his Bat tent a few minutes before.
Not being able to swing more than a couple feet from his resting place at the end of the rope, Rowell accepted that he could not get to the next anchor. But he was still determined to descend. Perhaps, he thought, he could place a new bolt, pull the rope, and continue down. He tested the rope to see if he could pull it down. The rope didn’t budge. It was frozen to the wall. His only option was to go back up. Harding was right—descending in those conditions was foolish.
Rowell put his Jumars on the rope to ascend, but the teeth were covered in ice and wouldn’t bite into the frozen rope—another failure. Feeling exhausted and frozen, thoughts that this might be the end swelled in his mind. Determined not to die just yet, he tied Prusik loops around the rope and began the painful and slow process of ascending the frozen line. Avalanches beat down on him the entire time, filling his pack and clothing with wet snow. Each time he weighted a Prusik, it would freeze to the rope, restarting a painful process of loosening the Prusik and moving it up. He covered 40 feet in an hour. Harding watched from above, helpless in aiding his friend. There was nothing he could do other than string together a ladder of slings that reached a mere 15 feet below the anchor. After another hour Rowell arrived back at the Tri-clops. His hands felt like useless wooden blocks and he was on the verge of losing consciousness.
Harding helped Rowell set up his Bat tent and get back inside. Taking stock of their situation, things weren’t looking good. They were hypothermic and totally exhausted—physically and mentally. How much longer would they last before succumbing?
They heard shouts from below. Harding turned on the walkie-talkie. It barely worked and the sound was scratchy, but they could hear Denny on the other end.
Warren, Galen, how are you?
“We’re really not doing too well … it’s cold and wet and we’re a little numb … get us off, somehow.” Harding had just asked for a rescue, the first and last of his life, but without a rescue, they wouldn’t make it through the night.
We’ll see what we can do.
Meanwhile, the clouds began to clear and the snow let up.
An hour later Denny contacted them by radio again, “Helicopter on the summit in two hours …”
It was midday and they were feeling warmer—their spirits boosted by the certainty of a rescue. Rowell got out of his Bat tent, rested in slings, and sang songs.
Soon three hours passed and there was no helicopter. Rowell, growing worried, got on the radio.
“Where is the chopper?”
“Helicopter … coming … from … 200 miles … here … before … five …”
“How will they rescue us?”
“Will … drop … rope … to … you … anchor … summit … you … will … Jumar …”
“How will we know when the rope is anchored?”
“We … will … tell … you …”
“It gets dark at five. What happens when it gets dark?”
There was no reply. The water soaked radio had died.
Nearby, Nevada Fall was roaring, flush with runoff from the storm. They strained to hear the sound of a helicopter.
“Here it comes!” Harding shouted.
No, that’s Nevada Fall.
Around 4:30 that afternoon they at last heard the tell-tale thawp thawp thawp of the helicopter’s rotors. The helicopter came up from Yosemite Valley, over the Porcelain Wall, and between Liberty Cap and the Southwest Face of Half Dome. It drifted toward them, appearing as a dragonfly hovering closer and closer, but just out of reach. After one fly by, it disappeared over the summit of Half Dome.
Why didn’t it lower a rope?
“Probably just checking the situation.”
The helicopter flew by again a few minutes later. A spool of rope swung below it. Certainly, they thought, the helicopter would drop the rope to them. But it flew out of sight. This reappearing and disappearing act played out several more times before the sun set and darkness washed over them.
They knew that the helicopter wouldn’t fly through the mountains at night. Finally, Harding said what they were both thinking, We’re going to spend another night up here.
They were starting their third night in the Tri-clops. Harding silently knew that neither of them would last far beyond two or three more hours. Harding had “a deep dreadful feeling that death [was] not far away.” They dutifully climbed back into their Bat tents as the mercury dropped and their wet clothes started to freeze. They had accepted that this place could be their tomb, but the moon was out that night and they had an unparalleled view of a beautiful world above and below them. The Clark Range disappeared into the south. The Cascade Cliffs dropped into the Merced River Canyon. The sound of Nevada Fall echoed from the foot of Liberty Cap. They were prepared to die.
While Harding and Rowell were worrying about the competence of their rescuers and the helicopter pilot, the first large-scale technical big wall rescue in America was being organized. Nine rescuers, ropes, tents, dry clothes, and warm food were ferried to the summit of Half Dome in the helicopter.
On Yosemite big walls, there is a limited range of sounds that a climber will hear. The grunts and bodily noises of their partner. The snap of carabiners and tap of the hammer. The swoosh of swifts dive-bombing down the wall. A roaring waterfall. And relentless wind. Sometime after dark Harding and Rowell heard a new and strange sound. They peaked out from their Bat tents to see someone lowering down a rope.
“Are you one of the guys from that chopper?”
The man was wearing a down parka and carried a walkie-talkie and a large pack. A head-lamp lit up his descent. He was self-assured and moved with swift confidence. The rescuer’s identity revealed itself in Rowell’s mind. Harding was still putting it together.
Harding leaned into the rescuer’s hooded face. “Who are you, anyway?”
It was Royal Robbins.
Glen Denny and the rest of the support team at the base of the route had joined the official rescue effort. As Royal descended to the stranded climbers, Denny communicated with Royal by radio and used moonlight and Royal’s head-lamp to guide the rescuer to the Tri-clops—a mere pin in the giant face.
Royal brought Jumars, dry parkas and gloves, and warm soup. They put on the dry clothes and relished the warm soup which brought needed energy and comfort to their bodies.
Rowell ascended the rope first and without too much trouble, but even the fresh rope had some ice on it. Harding, though, was having trouble. His wet down pants had frozen solid. To move his legs and ascend the rope, he had to cut the pants in several places. As he tried to ascend, the heavy and loose pants kept falling down.
Royal radioed up to the other rescuers, “Warren seems to be having a lot of trouble. His Jumars are slipping and his pants are falling off. He’s really having problems!”
By some magnificent whim of fate, perhaps those ancient deities that Harding and Rowell hoped to meet, the radio traffic for the rescue was received by every television that was on in Yosemite. The picture was clear, but the sound was of the rescue. Park rangers, concession staff, and visitors heard the entire rescue, including the ordeal with Harding’s pants.
Harding loved the humor of this predicament and would later joke, “I couldn’t be rescued because my pants were down!”
That night they camped on the summit of Half Dome. They sipped on brandy, ate firefighter rations, and slept comfortably in tents. The helicopter returned in the morning. Harding and Rowell caught the first flight down to the Valley, catching sight of their abandoned bags dangling in a frozen vertical sea of ice and snow.
For some this defeat would be the end of the affair. The climb would be abandoned for good. But Harding and Rowell were transfixed.
They scheduled the next attempt for September 1969.
Harding, Rowell, and Joe Faint—a third partner they recruited for the next attempt—were to meet at Rowell’s to pack haul bags and sort gear. Faint, originally from West Virginia, was a talented rock climber, accomplished mountaineer, angler, and Valley regular for several years.
That evening Rowell received a phone call while he organized pitons on the sidewalk in front of his home.
“Warren’s been hit by a fast moving truck while walking across the job site … don’t know how serious … except his leg is crushed.”
Rowell drove straight to the hospital in Sacramento where he found Harding in a bed with his demolished leg in traction.
Harding described the accident in Downward Bound:
“Beryl (Beastly Woman), whom I’d been courting for some time, had returned from a summer in Europe and invited me to her birthday party. I was on a construction job at the time, and it was my last day on the job. In my excitement over seeing Beryl again and getting back on the Half Dome with Galen I darted out into traffic without looking and was creamed by a pickup truck. The result was a crushed leg requiring surgery and a front-page story in next morning’s Sacramento Union about the unforeseen delay of our climb entitled “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Half Dome.” As I came out of the anesthetic later that afternoon I found my room full of people. Beryl had brought about a dozen survivors from her birthday party.”
Beryl Knauth was a spry, brunette artist from the San Francisco Bay area. She was beautiful, rambunctious, and Harding’s junior by 20 years. Of course, he was mesmerized and became determined to woo her. Beryl remembered:
“We started getting closer together around the South Face of Half Dome … I was busy trying to discourage him. I wanted to keep the friendship going, but I was really really apprehensive about us being a couple, for all the right reasons.”
All the right reasons being chiefly Harding’s age and love of alcohol—hindrances to a stable relationship. It was a tough time for Harding. He was having troubles with a climb and a girl, and then the accident happened.
The doctors told Harding that it would be at least a year before he would climb again, if ever. They were unsure if he would ever walk again.
In December of 1969, Harding had surgery to reconnect cut ligaments and insert pins to hold the bones in his leg together. Many of his friends thought that his situation was grim, but Harding was unperturbed.
He told Rowell, “We’ll go back on the wall in May.”
Harding struggled with all of the downtime—he wanted to be on a wall. “What with both climbing and construction work ruled out during my convalescence I nearly went crazy that winter in Yosemite.”
By June 1970 the team—which included Joe Faint—was ready to head up. But Rowell worried if Harding’s mind was in the right place and his body fit enough:
“… his thoughts are the property of a female … maybe he’s washed up and won’t admit it; he sure limps a lot.”
These concerns about the mental fitness of his partner were well-founded. In Downward Bound, Beryl recounted the following story from around that time:
“Over the years, Warren continued to pursue me in somewhat the same way he approached his climbing: with patience and persistence. He was very dogged and seldom gave up on any goal he set his mind to. I continued to resist, but I was afraid that if I finally rebuffed him I would lose the special bond and precious friendship we had. I enjoyed his company and attention immensely! I knew if I gave in to Warren, our relationship would last a long time, but not forever … and that I might be forfeiting any chance of a stable relationship that would lead to marriage and a family. I felt guilty that I was leading him on, and determined that I had to stop being selfish and let Warren know that there was no way we would ever be lovers.”
“Warren and I planned a 2-day backpack trip on the rim of Yosemite Valley … just the two of us. It was my plan to use this time to finally and definitively break the news to Warren in the best way I knew how. It was a beautiful and poignant time; the valley, from this vantage point, displaying all its splendor. We took photos of each other: Warren in cut-off khaki shorts and a multi-colored corduroy shirt; me standing on a precipice flexing my biceps in the manner of “Manly Woman” (which evolved into Beastly Woman, then Beast and finally Beasto). When I told Warren how I felt, his reaction was one of reluctant acceptance along with a deep sadness and disappointment; no anger, just resignation. We finished our backpacking trip on a subdued note. Warren was downcast. He seemed particularly endearing and vulnerable to me, and at the same time stalwart. … I realized that I loved him very much and was ready to be with him for however long it was meant to last.”
Rowell’s worries were quickly put to rest when Harding shouldered a heavy load and limped past him on the steep and strenuous trail that leads from Yosemite Valley to Half Dome. Rowell remembered, “Half of Warren is still twice the average man.”
Joe Faint was new to the team, but Harding and Rowell were confident in his commitment and ability. In March 1969 Faint went on a three-day winter trip to the summit of Half Dome with the other two to retrieve gear that was left behind during the 1968 rescue. Then in June 1969, he climbed the first ascent of the Southwest Face of Liberty Cap with Harding and Rowell—a grade five that ascends through the middle of the face. Rowell recounted that Faint was “really interested and determined.”
Back on Half Dome, they made it 400 feet up the Great Arch and bivouacked. The next morning Faint insisted on going down—the sky looked ominous. A storm hit them as they rappelled, reinforcing Faint’s decision to bail. Back in the Valley, Harding and Rowell tried to convince Faint to go up with them again, but their arguments fell on deaf ears. Perhaps the audacious climb and plentiful omens were too much for Faint. Several years earlier Faint had been climbing the Steck-Salathé on the Sentinel when a flake came off and broke his partner’s wrist and femur, initiating a rescue that involved the first use of a helicopter in a Yosemite climbing rescue. Soon, rumors circulated that Faint was selling his climbing equipment. They had lost another partner.
A few days later Harding and Rowell were back on the South Face. Their bags were light because they had left everything hanging at their high point when Faint insisted on going down. As they quickly prusiked up the fixed ropes, snow started to fall.
But this time they were prepared for storms. Harding had made improvements to the Bat tent. The cover was actually waterproof and the hammock more comfortable. So they climbed into their new Bat tents and waited out the storm.
The early summer storm brought lots of lightning. As mountaineers know, it’s dangerous to be hanging in a crack or a shallow cave during a thunderstorm as electricity can radiate through the granite. Rowell grew concerned about their presence in the only crack system in the massive face. Harding was unfazed.
The next day Harding pushed the rope higher up the Great Arch. Another storm struck the wall as he was leading and he hastily descended in a waterfall. They knew the storm had to lift eventually, so they spent another night in the Bat tents. At dawn the next morning the unforgiving storm continued to dump moisture. Harding had never dried out from the drenching he got in the waterfall. Yet again, they retreated to the ground in a storm.
They were in the fourth year of their Half Dome project. Both men were ready for it to be over, but at this point they couldn’t just walk away. They had to finish the route.
On July 4th, 1970 they started up the route once again. That night there was a new moon. The only light to touch the face came from the dim twinkling of stars, and none of that reached under the Great Arch where Harding and Rowell were bivouacked. After so many failures, what went through their minds? Perhaps it was the abandonment of concepts such as success vs. defeat and conquerer vs. conquered.
Harding had already come to terms with abandoning these staid alpine concepts after climbing the Nose. Now it was Rowell’s turn. In his account for the 1971 American Alpine Journal, Rowell wrote:
“Here on Half Dome our five defeats versus one still questionable success can hardly be rationalized into a ‘conquering.’ What we have shown is an extension of man’s greatest natural gift: his adaptability. The ecology movement is beginning to remind man that in order for a species to survive it must adapt not only its physical characteristics but also its behavior to its surroundings. Man has turned the tables. He is trying to adapt his surroundings to himself. Climbing is an activity in which man works in surroundings far less adaptable than normal. Is the climber trying to adapt them to his needs … to conquer them? I think not. Possibly he finds something unconsciously satisfying in returning to a biologically proven situation where it is he who becomes adapted.”
And what kind of relationship did these two men have that after so many defeats—even after fighting over how to die—they were willing to climb once again into a place so ill-boding?
Beryl Knauth remembered the following about Harding and Rowell’s friendship:
“I think that they did well together. They were close.”
“They were different people in their temperaments. Galen was extremely energetic. And Warren was more laid back. He didn’t take things as seriously as Galen did. Galen was a go-getter. Even though they there were different, with different temperaments and energy levels, they clicked really well on these climbs they did together.”
“… they had something that worked. And Warren did have the charisma. People were drawn to climb with him. He persevered so much. He got a goal in his mind and he would get it done. He wouldn’t give up. And Galen was the one who was hanging in there with him … they both had that tenacity. And they had developed enough trust in each others’ abilities that they knew they could trust each other. And the situation up there on Half Dome, when Galen tried to bail out, was one instance where maybe that trust broke down a little bit, and you couldn’t blame Galen for feeling that way because they really did think they were going to die up there.”
So they climbed into the Great Arch and onto the headwall once again—perhaps, as Rowell suggested, in pursuit of a transformation of their beings, to complete the adaptation. Or maybe the answer is simpler and more Harding-esque: they were both determined to do it.
However, no Yosemite history is complete without considering another possibility. Maybe their drive to return time and time again—to keep beating their heads against the rock—was based in the most critical element of Yosemite climbing—community. With each attempt, their friends would help them porter gear up to the South Face. Once the gear was at the climb and base camp was established, “grand parties” would follow. They drank, cooked, and sang around the campfire late into the night. Beryl Knauth remembered that at some point in the night they would “topple over and wake up on the edge of the fire the next morning and then get on with the day.” Maybe it was friendship that propelled them upward. The friendship of Harding and Rowell. And the friendship of all their friends helping them before the climb, watching out for them during the climb, and ready to jump into action if a rescue was needed.
The climbing on the headwall was monotonous and slow as they drilled Bat hooks and bolts between any natural feature they could find—whether it was free climbing on knobs or nailing pitons into shallow cracks, anything was faster than drilling.
As they passed the Tri-clops, a reminder of the tombstone they nearly had, the sky hinted at a storm beyond the horizon. Cirrus clouds were followed by moisture-rich cumulus clouds. The high country to the east was dark and gray. Rain fell over Tuolumne, Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and Mount Lyell.
Rowell grew anxious:
“Omens … we’re not superstitious … we just have enough evidence legally to establish their presence … six storms in six attempts in sunny Yosemite … climbing partners quit us like the plague …”
Earlier Rowell made the following journal entry:
Tales of Incompetence
Day 2: I drop a Jumar from the top of the arch.
Day 3: Warren drops an aid sling and later a Bat hook.
Day 3: (actually night 3) In total darkness I answer the call of nature from slings and find my hammer holster and belt missing when I reach to fasten them.
Day 4: I break my hammer which I have used ten seasons.
“AS I AM WRITING THIS, Warren discovers that he has left the climbing rope tied at the bottom of the pitch, 130 feet diagonally below him.”
The light rain continued to fall on the sixth day. Fat, fluffy cumulus clouds moved around them, hiding and then revealing Half Dome’s summit to visitors in Yosemite Valley below. Harding climbed in a down parka and a cagoule—a long, waterproof jacket. On the upper headwall, long ago accustomed to his Bat hooks, Harding would drill eleven Bat hook holes before placing a bolt, risking a long fall should a Bat hook break.
Then the tap tap tap tap that floated through the air of the South Face for so many days stopped for good.
Finally, after 140 Bat hook holes, 39 bolts, and 290 piton placements, their five-year obsession was over and Harding yelled, “I’m up!”
During the failed 1968 attempt Rowell was reading an Aldous Huxley book. Later he wrote:
“I contemplated Huxley’s likening of a human being on earth to a cancer cell on its host. Harmless by themselves, but endowed with the ability to reproduce until they destroy their matrix—the analogy was certainly well taken.”
“I contrasted Muir’s thoughts of Half Dome’s permanence with Huxley’s of man’s destruction of his environment. Had anyone ever contemplated that the development of climbing has paralleled the population explosion? Central Europe, host to the beginnings of mountaineering, was the first part of the world to feel overpopulation. The population problem lessened in Europe as people migrated to the New World (which has taken up mountaineering rather recently) where today, the population pressure has begun to be felt. I searched for connections between the two. The climber’s disdain for large groups of people, regimentation, and technocracy seemed to bear this out. The mountains represented the stability and austerity of nature in a world being raped by man. They were and are one of the few places where a man finds himself in competition with himself or his environment, not with other men.”
“It was this search for identity that placed us high on the 2,000-foot south face of Half Dome, little known to climbers or tourists.”
Was it this search that propelled the two friends upward despite so many portents? No matter how many times the face repelled them, soaked them into submission and froze them in their Bat tents, they kept returning. Clearly, they would never conquer the mountain. Yes, it would grant them passage, but they would never stand as victors. Harding calmly freezing to death in a hammock of his own design on a route of his choosing is an image of a man at peace with his present place on earth. He was dying, yes, but happy to be away from the noise below for he has finally found a place where he can be himself. And if he doesn’t die, if he can adapt to life on the wall, then maybe he has found a freedom that will allow him to stay on a wall forever—the eternal wall. Maybe he has found a temporal solution to the challenges of daily life on the ground. Maybe he has found himself.
Harding, Warren. Downward Bound. 2016, Sentinel Rock Press.
Roper, Steve. Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite rockclimber. 1998, The Mountaineers.
Rowell, Galen. The Vertical World of Yosemite: a collection of photographs and writings on rock climbing in Yosemite. 1974, Menasha Ridge Press.
Rowell, Galen. South Face of Half Dome. American Alpine Journal, 1971. Also appeared in Summit, December 1970.
Derryberry, Roger. The First Ascent of the Nose.
Beryl Knauth: October 2015.
Roger Derryberry: October 2015.