After losing out to Royal Robbins, Warren Harding turned his full attention to the only other unclaimed trophy in Yosemite Valley: El Capitan. By 1957, a few people had probed up this sea of granite, but no one had committed to the 3,000-foot face that included vertical and overhanging rock. While many climbers wanted to ascend this monolith, the challenge was too big and intimidating.
Harding started up El Capitan within days of Robbins reaching the summit of Half Dome. However, Harding’s ascent would be nowhere as fast. His team climbed the Nose of El Capitan in siege style over the course of 18 months. They finally reached the top in the fall of 1958 after spending a combined 47 days on the wall.
His ascent of El Capitan was a considerable accomplishment. However, it did not replace Harding’s yearning for Half Dome. After Robbins’ successful ascent, Harding said, “My congratulations were hearty and sincere, but inside, the ambitious dreamer in me was troubled.”
Attempt to Reclaim a Lost Summit
While Harding made haste in marking his claim to El Capitan, his return to Half Dome would take nearly a decade. By the summer of 1966, Harding, now over 40 years old, and his friend Galen Rowell, a mechanic turned National Geographic photographer, had found a new route to attempt on the Dome. This route went straight up the middle of the South Face.
The South Face of Half Dome rises 2,200 feet above Little Yosemite Valley. Two massive waterfalls and another 2,000 feet separate the peaceful Little Yosemite Valley from the hustle of Yosemite Valley below. The Merced River quietly flows through this broad, glacier-carved valley before cascading over Nevada and then Vernal Falls.
The start of the South Face route follows a massive, 1,000-foot tall rock arch. This is the Great Arch, and it gracefully sweeps into the middle of the face. It is the distinguishing feature on a face that otherwise appears blank and unclimbable. Above the arch, there are a few stained water grooves and large solution pockets—places where water has eroded softer rock to create a natural pothole.
While this section of rock was quite aesthetic, there was one problem. There were only a few natural cracks above the Great Arch, and they were discontinuous. Other climbers, too, had looked at the line. Unlike Harding, they dismissed it because it would require too many unnatural bolts to be drilled into the rock to gain upward progress. A firm ethic had taken hold of American rock climbing: alter the rock as little as possible. A bolt was the ultimate scar. Harding and Rowell estimated that 25 percent of the route would require bolts. For most climbers, this was unacceptable, but not for Harding. He didn’t care; he climbed for himself. He had found a beautiful piece of rock and wanted to climb it.
Harding and Rowell recruited Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt, two of Yosemite’s best climbers, to join their first attempt in the sweltering summer heat. They started up the Great Arch, but the first pitch of climbing presented a setback that would be foreboding for this climb. Chouinard dislocated his shoulder, a painful and slow healing injury. With this, Chouinard and Pratt decided to abandon their role in the climb.
Rowell also wanted to abort the mission for the time being, but Harding insisted that they continue up. Over the course of three days, they climbed 900 feet up the arch. Near the top of this feature, they found an overhang beneath which they hung their hammocks. Just as they were settling into their vertical campsite, a massive summer thunderstorm moved in. Rain fell throughout the night, and lightning illuminated the valley below. They hoped the storm would abate before long. After 36 hours of hanging in their hammocks, the rain continued to fall. Finally, they accepted defeat and rappelled to the ground.
The two friends wouldn’t get back to the route on Half Dome for another two years. Harding took a construction job in Vietnam; with the war there in full swing, it turned out to be a more dangerous job than he had anticipated.
Flirting with Disaster
By November of 1968, they were ready to head back up the South Face. It was an unusually warm and dry fall in the Sierra Nevada, and they thought the conditions perfect for another attempt up the unclimbed face.
They reached their previous high point of 900 feet up the arch after three days. That night a storm moved in, but by the morning the skies were clear and the rock dry. They continued up.
The fourth day they exited the Great Arch and started up the mostly featureless slabs of the upper wall. Their progress on the upper wall was slow. Without natural features to climb, they had to drill holes and place expansion bolts in them. Occasionally, Harding would drill a shallow quarter-inch hole, set a hook-shaped piece of iron on the bottom edge, and use that for progress. This too was slow, but faster than drilling one to 2 inches into the rock for a bolt.
The end of the 6th day brought them about 1,500 feet up the face. They talked via walkie-talkie to a friend on the ground to get a weather report. The forecast called for cloudy skies, but not storms. “Perfect,” they likely thought. The two climbers hoped to be on the summit in another three days. They settled into their constricting hammocks, ate dinner, and fell asleep.
The weather in California’s Sierra Nevada tends to be agreeable—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.
At midnight, rain started to fall on Harding and Rowell. Small drops landed on their shoulders and heads, but those drops increased to a steady rainfall as the morning drew nearer. Their nylon hammocks filled with water. Their clothes became soaked.
That morning, when they peeked out from their hammocks, a layer of snow covered everything in sight: Little Yosemite Valley, Mount Starr King, Mount Clark, and peaks of the High Sierra in the distance. The ponderosa pines below were frosted with snow, and even the wall had a crusty layer of snow plastered to it.
The snow above them started to melt in the warmth of the day. A fresh dousing of meltwater cascaded down the rock. Even with this second 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.
Unfortunately, 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 upon them.
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 exceptionally disheveled, Harding looked out from his hanging tent on the morning of the eighth day to find the landscape transformed into even more of a winter wonderland. The temperature had dropped, 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 their exposed position on Half Dome.
They shivered uncontrollably. For Rowell, his hammock 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. Reality set in. They had to descend.
Rowell attempted to rappel down the ropes. The rain and then freezing temperatures had left the ropes frozen and caked in ice. A veneer of glassy ice covered the rock face. He soon realized that descending 1,500 feet in these conditions would be impossible. He abandoned the effort and ascended back to their anchor where Harding waited.
Harding helped Rowell set up his hammock and get back inside. They took stock of their situation; it was a grim predicament. They were hypothermic and entirely exhausted—physically and mentally. How much longer could they last before succumbing to the elements?
They heard shouts from below. Harding turned on the walkie-talkie. It barely worked, and the sound was scratchy, but they heard their friend on the other end.
Harding said into the radio, “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. This was a hard defeat to accept, but they wouldn’t make it through the night without help.
That afternoon, as the sun approached the horizon, they heard the tell-tale thawp thawp thawp of a 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.
The helicopter flew by again a few minutes later. A spool of rope swung below it. 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 sunset. Then a cold and hopeless darkness washed over them.
They knew that the helicopter wouldn’t fly through the mountains at night; it was too dangerous. They wondered what was happening with the rescue and why a rope hadn’t been dropped to them yet. Finally, Harding said what they were both thinking, “We’re going to spend another night up here.”
It was their third night trapped at this lonely anchor on the massive face. Harding knew that neither of them would last two or three more hours. They dutifully climbed back into their hammocks as the mercury dropped. Their wet clothes started to freeze. They had accepted that this place could be their tomb, but the moon was out that night. They had an unparalleled view of a beautiful world above and below them. The Clark Range faded over the horizon to the south. The Cascade Cliffs dropped into the Merced River Canyon. The sound of Nevada Fall echoed from the foot of Liberty Cap.
While Harding and Rowell worried about the competence of their rescuers and the helicopter pilot, the first large-scale, technical big wall rescue in America was being organized. The helicopter ferried nine rescuers, ropes, tents, dry clothes, and warm food to the summit of Half Dome.
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—fast, slender, cliff-dwelling birds—dive-bombing down the wall. A roaring waterfall. And relentless wind. Sometime after dark Harding and Rowell heard a new and strange sound. They looked out from their hammocks to see someone rappelling 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.
Royal brought dry down parkas, warm gloves, and hot soup. The two climbers put on the dry clothes. They relished the warm soup which brought needed energy and comfort to their bodies.
They then ascended Royal’s rope to the summit where more rescuers and food waited. That night they camped on top 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 equipment dangling in a frozen vertical sea of ice, snow, and rock.
For some, this defeat would be the end of the affair. A smarter mountaineer might abandon the climb for good, but Harding and Rowell were transfixed.
Tragedy and a Haunting Cloud of Failure
They scheduled the next attempt for September 1969, but misfortune beckoned. Harding was struck by a car while crossing a street the night before they were to start their attempt. Rowell found Harding in the hospital with a demolished leg. The doctors told Harding that it would be at least a year before he would climb again, if ever. They even questioned 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 wanted to get back on the wall.
They attempted the route two more times in June of 1970, but storms beat them back.
Redemption by Piton
On July 4, 1970, they started up the route once again. It was their sixth attempt, and they were determined never to climb the route again, regardless of the outcome. 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 bivouacked. After so many failures, what went through their minds? Perhaps it was the abandonment of dichotomies such as success vs. defeat and conqueror vs. conquered.
Harding had already come to terms with abandoning these staid alpine concepts after climbing the Nose on El Capitan. 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.”
After three days, they passed their previous high point and the gear they had abandoned, a reminder of their close encounter with death. The sky hinted at a storm beyond the horizon. Moisture-rich cumulus clouds followed the high altitude cirrus clouds that herald a warm front. The high country to the east was dark and gray. Rain fell over Tuolumne, Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and Mount Lyell. Nightmares of another retreat swirled in their minds, but the two climbers continued up.
The tedious climbing on the upper slabs continued over the next three days, as did the threat of a storm.
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. A light rain fell on the climbers. Harding climbed in a down parka and a cagoule—a long, waterproof jacket.
Finally, on the afternoon of July 9, 1970, the tap tap tap of the hammer hitting a drill or a piton—a sound that floated through the air of the South Face for so many days—stopped for good. Harding yelled, “I’m up!” Their five-year obsession was over.
The hard-won climb had led Rowell to reflect deeply on the meaning of what they had done. Galen Rowell was a part of the modern conservation movement. He saw the pressures that the increasing popularity of the outdoors was putting on the environment. At the same time, he saw the demands that a ballooning world population placed on individual people, and how some of those people now sought solace in the outdoors.
He was not alone in these thoughts. Yosemite Valley was no longer a quaint retreat. Half Dome was no longer an impossible summit; it was attainable by almost any hiker. The crowds that flooded into Yosemite overwhelmed the infrastructure and the environment, including Half Dome and its surrounding forests. Humanity had to do something if this landscape was to remain pristine for future generations.