Early Yosemite adventurers like John Muir and George Anderson accomplished many impressive mountaineering feats. However, their equipment and climbing techniques limited the difficulty of the climbs they could attempt. If the technical challenges could be overcome, Yosemite’s majestic granite walls presented the ultimate playground to the rogues who were discontent with merely walking on two feet.
The Introduction of Modern Climbing Techniques
Modern rock climbing with its purpose-designed ropes, hardware, and techniques did not arrive in Yosemite until the 1930s. This new era in Yosemite climbing was ushered in by way of Dr. Robert Underhill. Underhill was a Harvard professor who had climbed throughout the Alps. In the early 1930s, the Sierra Club invited him to California to teach them the skills he learned in Europe.
The rock climbing process that Underhill taught went as follows:
First, the lead climber tied a rope around his waist and began to climb. The follower, anchored to the rock below the leader, “belayed” his partner by bending the rope around his (the follower’s) waist. When the leader moved up, the belayer fed out more rope, or “slack.” Critical to this system was some form of protection that would secure the rope to the wall. That protection came from a unique piece of equipment called a piton. A piton is a forged metal spike that a climber hammers into a crack or seam in the rock. As the leader ascended the rock, he occasionally hammered pitons into the natural cracks that split the granite. The rope was attached to each piton with a carabiner or sling. If the leader fell, the belayer held the rope tight, and the leader would fall only twice the distance from his last piton. Naturally, that’s much better than a complete tumble to the ground. Modern climbing equipment has only evolved slightly from these older techniques, and the overall process is still quite similar to these “old” ways.
The early Yosemite rock climbers were well-educated Sierra Club members from Berkeley, California, including Francis Farquhar, Jules Eichorn, and Dick Leonard. They employed Underhill’s European techniques to climb several of the pinnacles and spires that are sprinkled throughout the Valley. The Crown Jewels of their pioneering ascents are the Cathedral Spires, located at the southwest end of the Valley. Their ascent of the steep and difficult Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934 was a pivotal moment in Yosemite’s climbing history.
Though these early climbers undertook impressive challenges, the big walls—El Capitan, Half Dome, the Sentinel, and the Lost Arrow Spire—were not even considerations for what was possible. One of the reasons these climbers turned their gazes away from the grand climbs was technical ability; it just did not exist at the time. These climbers were primarily mountaineers and not climbers of sheer granite walls. However, these untouched, long, and committing climbs also required specialized climbing hardware that no one had invented yet.
It would take another decade until the next evolutionary leap in Yosemite climbing took place— at which time the limit of possibility was pushed forward by an unassuming and unexpected character.
Leafy Greens, Angels, and Hard Steel Pitons Forge the Way
John Salathé was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1899. He trained and worked as a blacksmith there until 1929 when he emigrated to San Mateo, California. There, he opened his shop, the Peninsula Wrought Iron Works. He was a hard, no-nonsense worker. As World War II came to a close in the mid-1940s, health and marriage problems brought on a mid-life crisis for Salathé. He reflected deeply on the life he had lived thus far. During this reflection, he had a spiritual awakening. He decided that to restore his health—both spiritual and physical—he needed to follow a fruit diet, meditate, and spend more time in the outdoors. His explorations into California’s wilderness led him to the Sierra Club and rock climbing.
Now in his mid-forties, Salathé was old for a beginner rock climber of that time. Most of his contemporaries were still in college. He more than made up for this difference with his extreme fitness and newfound spiritual conviction. In later years, he would often speak of the angels who guided his climbing ascents.
When Salathé first visited the Valley as a climber, the only pitons available at the time were from Europe. These European pitons were made of soft iron and were designed primarily for limestone cracks. They worked well in limestone because when hammered they would bend to the shape of the irregular cracks and hold tight. However, these soft pitons did not work well in the granite cracks of Yosemite. Salathé immediately saw this on his early ascents in Yosemite. The pitons often bent over before they could be hammered deep into the cracks. A bent piton was both insecure and ruined for future use. The pitons that climbers hammered deep into cracks often bent in the process, and if that did not destroy their shape, then trying to remove them did. So, for a climber looking to do a long climb, perhaps hundreds of pitons would have to be carried. This was an expensive and laborious prospect which prevented anyone from climbing long, technical routes.
Salathé was a problem solver. One day while climbing, he saw a blade of grass protruding from a crack. “What if,” he thought, “there was a piton like that blade of grass?” A piton that could be hammered into the crack, hold its shape, hold firm to protect the climber, and be removed and reused.
To make such a piton, Salathé knew he had to use hard steel. He took an old Ford Model A axle, made from a steel alloy, melted it down, and poured the recycled steel into his piton molds. Now, all he had to do was test them.
The Ultimate Test
First, he needed a partner willing to undertake such an endeavor. One of his fellow Sierra Club members was ready. Anton “Ax” Nelson was a giant compared to the lean and wiry Salathé. The 27-year old worked as a carpenter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was strong and determined—the perfect partner.
In November 1946, to test the utility of Salathé’s pitons, they turned their eyes to the Southwest Face of Half Dome. This face is the steep shoulder of Half Dome visible from Glacier Point and on the opposite side of the Dome from McAllister’s Cables Route.
Climbers had not put up a new route on Half Dome in the seventy-one years since George Anderson climbed up the Northeast Shoulder in 1875, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Dick Leonard, who completed the first ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire in 1934, attempted to climb Half Dome’s Southwest Face twice. There is no doubt that his failure was due in part to the inferior soft iron pitons that he used during those attempts, which occurred before World War II and Salathé’s arrival in Yosemite.
Salathé and Nelson made the long hike up to the slightly less than vertical Southwest Face. They would have followed parts of Anderson’s old trail that skirted Vernal and Nevada Falls. At the mouth of Little Yosemite Valley, they would have hiked over an ancient glacial moraine with unimpeded views of Half Dome’s massive South Face. From here they walked behind Liberty Cap and Mount Broderick, around Lost Lake, another remnant of the glaciers, and on towards the “Diving Board” that sits below Half Dome’s west shoulder (not to be confused with the Visor, which juts out from the summit).
Many adventurous spirits had already ventured up here before these climbers. Ansel Adams, the most acclaimed photographer of Yosemite’s landscapes, came up to the Diving Board in the 1920s. It was here that he captured one of his most famous photographs, “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.”
Perhaps Salathé and Nelson wandered over to the Diving Board and peered over its edge. They may have fantasized about climbing the sheer, 2,000-foot Northwest Face. They wouldn’t have lingered long though, for their goal that day was more fathomable for the era and reasonably within their grasp.
At the base of the Southwest Face, they would have unpacked their rope, pitons, and carabiners. They brought about 30 of Salathé’s pitons; this was a fraction of the pitons they would have needed if they had used the older style made from soft iron. They had to organize the pitons according to size on a sling. Then the sling went around the leader’s shoulder. The leader would have tied one end of the rope around his waist. The follower would have bent the rope 360-degrees around his butt, ready to feed out slack for upward progress or grip the rope tight in case of a fall, thus putting the leader on belay.
Perhaps Salathé and Nelson were anxious. They had only been rock climbing for about a year. They had both accomplished challenging climbs, but what they were about to attempt was far bolder than those previous ascents.
They started up the wall. The climbing was tediously slow. At times, it was easy enough that the leader could place his hands and feet inside of the various cracks to pull himself up. Sometimes, the natural granite holds were not big enough to climb on. In this case, the leader had to hammer a piton into a thin crack no wider than a centimeter. Then he would pull himself upward using the piton and repeat the process. At the end of the “pitch,” or the allotted length of rope in use, the leader anchored the rope for the follower to ascend. While ascending, the follower hammered out the pitons to reuse on the next pitch.
To their delight, the new pitons worked! The recycled steel alloy was hard enough to hold its shape after repeated abuse, yet still retained enough “spring” to stay tight in the cracks and give the leader the confidence to quest upward.
The men moved steadily up the face, but night drew near. They realized that they would have to sleep in this vertical world. No one before them had ever slept on a route this technical in Yosemite. Not only were they forging their way up the first truly technical rock climbing route on Half Dome, but they also were making the first bivouac on a Yosemite wall. And Salathé’s new pitons made it all possible.
That night, on the ledge, they watched the moon rise over the High Sierra to the east. As they braced against the chill of the autumn night, they would have discussed the pitches they had completed and what might lie ahead in the morning. The climbing had not been particularly difficult. They only needed the right equipment—the hardened pitons. Even though they still had climbing ahead of them the next day, they knew that they had broken through another ceiling of impossibility. They would have wondered, with excitement, what other Yosemite walls they might climb with the aid of Salathé’s steel?
The next day, the two men reached Half Dome’s summit. They had done it. They had completed the first modern, technical rock climbing route on Half Dome. They had climbed 900 feet of technical terrain. They used Salathé’s pitons 150 times, and they didn’t drill a single bolt.
Using these same techniques, Salathé went on to make the first complete ascent of the Lost Arrow Spire with Nelson in 1947 and the first ascent of the Sentinel with Allen Steck in 1950. Perhaps unbeknownst to Salathé, he had ushered in the Golden Age of Yosemite rock climbing.
First with Anderson, then with Salathé, Half Dome slowly became the place where climbers came to shatter the impossible. The next significant ascent of Half Dome would be far more daring and break down the psychological barriers to Yosemite’s biggest walls; it would also set in place a legendary yet friendly rivalry that many climbers talk about to this day.