On this, their final push, the trio has been on the wall 11 days, twice as long as any American has ever spent on a rock climb. Below a pitched battle, every lead sieged. They've met obstacles no rock climber has ever seen, let alone mastered--wild pendulums, nailing expanding flakes, and the back-breaking task of hauling vast supplies up the cliff side. And now, only a 50-foot headwall bars them from the summit of the mightiest rock wall in the contiguous United States. But that headwall, that last 50 feet, is dead blank and overhanging. They'll have to retreat 350 feet to Camp 6 and a good ledge, and tackle the headwall in the morning.
There comes a point in every great climber's career when technique, or fitness, or even genius falls short, that moment when success depends on brute willpower. And just then, Warren Harding was marshaling his. Never mind the swollen hands, the mangled gear and frayed ropes; ignore the rats that gnawed through haul bags, the rain and sleet and chilling retreats or the running feud with rangers; and forget the private terrors and all the sleepless nights because finally, hanging in a web of tattered slings, Harding can nearly spit to the top. Light? He don't need no stinking light!
So Harding starts bolting. And in an epic no climber should ever forget, he hammers through the night, finally punches home the 28th and last bolt, and stumbles to the top just as dawn spills into the valley. The first ascent of The Nose, one of the greatest pure rock climbs in the world, is done. It is November 12, 1958.
To the teenager whose dreams are staked wholly in rock climbing, as mine were, that first trip to the base of El Capitan is a lasting event. You park on the loop road fringing a lush meadow. The tour bus chugs past and over the loudspeaker you hear, "And, at 3143 feet high, and over a mile and a half wide, El Capitan is the largest piece of exposed granite in the world." [This oft-repeated bit of information is actually false, as pointed out by Steve Roper in his wonderful book "Camp 4": the walls lining the Ruth Glacier and the Baltoro Glacier (the Trango Towers) are larger.] You stumble into the forest and wend through the pines that finally open up, and there--before you, above you, around you--a sea of granite soars straight off the talus, stunning for its colors and sheer bulk; and terrible for the emptiness that sets in your gut as your eyes pan up its titanic corners and towers.
Faint voices trickle down and you squint up, up, finally spotting two specks. And you shudder. So you do your little climb at the base, then hike down, stealing glances over your shoulder. Then you walk out into the meadow and just stare up at nature's magnum opus.
And that was also before a certain article appeared in a climbing magazine, featuring Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler after their 10-hour blitz of the 4600-foot North Face of the Eiger. The shot showcased the duo in matching guides' sweaters and saber-creased knickers, the ice-plastered Eiger towering in the background. The article called theirs the greatest speed climbing achievement ever, never to be surpassed.
Sitting around in Yosemite's Mountain Room Bar, Jim Bridwell looked annoyed, his index finger drumming the photo. The he shoved the magazine aside. We would set the record straight, Bridwell promised. And on a class cliff, not some "heap." That business about "we" caught my attention. And so it happened that, over a couple of beers, the plan came together to try and climb The Nose in one day.
It broke down like this: I was the designated free climber and would lead the first leg to the top of Boot Flake, 17 pitches up--comparatively straightforward crack pitches we presumed would go quickly. Billy Westbay, a Colorado climber superb at both aid and free climbing, would lead the more intricate middle section from the Boot to Camp 5, the 25th pitch. Then Bridwell would take it on home with the last seven.
In my own mind the plan quickly took on fantastic importance, the kind only a 19-year old could attach to it; and so began a long winter of running stairs, trying to climb 50 pitches in one day at Joshua Tree, backing off (but not foregoing) all vice, and paying slim attention to studies. When Jim, Billy, and I stalked toward the base of El Capitan on Memorial Day, 1975, I felt like I was going to hoist the flag over Iwo Jima.
And off I went. A strenuous 5.9 flare led to a long bolt ladder and the first of the spectacular pendulums--a wild running swing right to the Stoveleg Crack (so named because on the first ascent, Harding nailed it using four crude pitons forged from the legs of an old gas stove scavenged from the Berkeley city dump).
You lower down about 60 feet, then start swinging back and forth. now at speed, you go for it, feet kicking hard, digging right, hurdle a corner, you feel the momentum ebbing, so you dive, yes, dive! If you've chanced it right, you plop a hand into a perfect jam just as your legs start to swing back. You kip your torso, kick a boot in and you're on line. The laser-cut fracture shoots up the prow for 350 feet of primarily perfect hand-jamming, each pitch ending in stark hanging belays.
I had hoped for a number of fixed pitons, but found few. We'd only brought a couple of big nuts, none of which I took on the first 5.10 pitch, thinking the fixed pins I saw above were good, soon to discover that the eyes had been blasted off by greedy hammers. (This was long before Friends, remember.) I didn't get a single nut in that pitch.
I kept climbing recklessly fast and Jim and Billy kept gassing up the lines so quickly that they gained the belays sucking wind. Then one would hand me the rack and Bridwell would ask what I was waiting for.
I took our few big chocks on the next lead, but only got one in. Two hundred feet higher, I chugged up an oily off-size slot and manteled onto Dolt Tower--and was face to face with two young Seattle climbers just slithering from their bags. It was 7 a.m. and the two begged to know what we were up to. When Billy arrived he lied that we'd forgotten the haul bag and had to make time or suffer a bivouac without gear or vitals.
Dolt Tower (named after Bill "Dolt" Feuerer, one of Harding's partners during initial efforts on the route) is flat and spacious, and is the first place to kick back and take stock of things. Perhaps 20 percent of all parties bail straight off from here because, while the cliff below plunges straight to the deck, the summit still seems miles away. If you ever get there, don't be fooled by the illusion. If you've gotten this far, only your mind can defeat you. And to be sure, climbing El Capitan is more an odyssey through your own mind than any physical task.
I tensioned right, into a steep laybacking corner, and ran two pitches together. Aside from the pendulum points and the bolt ladder above Dolt Hole, I'd managed only a couple of nuts in the last eight pitches--a really sketchy performance that would almost get me. But not just yet.
An easy bend and we were on El Cap Towers, a perfectly flat granite patio. Now, above the comparatively low-angle Stovelegs, the upper wall rifles up into razor-cut dihedrals. Out right looms the fearsome sweep of the southeast face, which during dawn light draws fabulous hues into its keeping. There lie the world's most notorious nail-ups. Since Royal Robbins, Check Pratt, Yvon Chouinard, and Tom Frost first scaled it in 1963, with the North America Wall, what human wonders this great sprawl of granite must have seen! All the tense leaders, their terrors and doubts and battered hands, hooking and bashing their way up its overhanging immensity. And all the moon-eyes glaring at belay bolts hanging half out of its gritty diorite bands, where a dropped peg strikes nothing but the ground, many feet out from the wall. A precious few specialists thrive on this kind of work, but I've never been one of them.
Across the valley looms the great tinctured bulk of Middle Cathedral, a monster without the meance; and to the left still, piebald coulds boiling over Half Dome's cleft North Face, veiled in ancient shade.
We peeled off our sweaters, cinched them into a knot, and pitched them off. This left us in pretty absurd garb--circus-colored bellbottoms and psychedelic shirts and vests--an intentional mockery of the conservative threads Habeler and Messner wore in that photo. Down below, the meadow started to fill with our friends, with an occasional car horn encouraging us to even greater speed. We'd made no secret about our plan, and over the previous few days dozens of climbers approached us to wish us luck. Did we need any gear? Did we need a ride to the base? Did we want someone to meet us on top? Mike White, a Valley regular, summed it up when he told me to "do us proud." We had all of Camp 4 to account to if we failed.
Just above El Cap Towers an unprotected chimney gained the top of Texas Flake, a thick exfoliating block the shape of which suggests the Lone Star state. Just off it, a 50-foot bolt ladder finds Boot Flake--detached and resounding to the thump--previously an exciting exercise in "expando" nailing, but recently free climbed at stiff 5.10. I clipped up the bolts, reached the crack on the right side of the Boot and immediately cranked into a layback, anxious to power it off and be done with leading. Foolishly, I chose to run out the entire Boot.
Suddenly, when I was way the hell out there, a cramp paralyzed my right forearm. My fingers curled into a fist and I felt as if I had an anvil in my pants, pulling me off. The fall looked to be a large and painful one, directly onto about where Amarillo would be on Texas Flake. I dangled off an ever-creeping left jam and desperately tried to shake out. No good. Panting, I jerkily downclimbed a few moves, slotted in a borderline nut and hung on it long enough to jiggle the cramp out. Partially recovered, I frigged up to the top of the Boot, clipped off the cabled five-bolt anchor, and kissed the rock. My part was done. It wasn't quite 8 a.m.
Jim had the lead switch all worked out. I clipped the rack onto the haul line and slid it down to Billy, then put him on belay--on the haul line. He drew a deep breath and shot off across the King Swing, an enormous pendulum left. He latched the first fixed pin, lowered, then swung left again and fired up into a steep groove.
The course now passes through a 300-foot gray diorite band involving the only nebulous climbing on the route. In a magnificent bit of anything goes, Billy would yank up on a bashie, crank off bleak laybacking, edge up onto a fixed pin, go unprotected over loose face climbing, pendulum this way and tension that way. In an hour and a half we were on Camp 4, several small shelves below the Great Roof. Billy dashed on, clipping up a string of antique ring angles.
When Frost, Pratt, Robbins, and Fitschen made the first continuous ascent of The Nose in 1960, they all agreed the Great Roof was "easily the most spectacular pitch in Yosemite." Not for challenge, but for the splendor of the colossal arc of creamy granite, which ends at an edge-of-the-world sling belay. Billy got us there before noon.
A pitch up the Pancake Flake, thin as a flapjack in spots, a decent jamming pitch, and we were on Camp 5--another terrace in the sky. It was barely past noon, and we knew we only had to keep plugging away at an easy pace. Or Jim did, since he now had the lead. And Jim needed a breather. While Billy and I had spent the previous months doing long routes and honing up, Jim hadn't done any climbing at all. Nothing! At that time, 16 years ago, there probably wasn't another climber alive who could have gotten away with this.
By Camp 6, the last big ledge two pitches higher, I regretted not having worn a harness as my swami belt--two wraps of two-inch webbing--felt to chafe right down to my spleen. We'd all worn our free-climbing boots which were too damn tight. The water ran out. Jim smacked his thumb with the hammer. When the trail line snagged a pitch higher, instead of rappeling down to free it, I simply yanked as hard as I could, eventually pulling off a granite torpedo the size of a small boy. "You idiot!" Jim yelled. We carried on...
We were over 2500 feet up the wall now, into the really prime stuff. Here the exposure is so enormous, and your perspective so distorted, that the horizontal world becomes incomprehensible. You're a granite astronaut, dangling in a kind of space/time warp. And if there is any place where you will understand why men and women climb mountains, it is here in these breezy dihedrals, high in the sky.
Pitch after pitch fell beneath us, and by the time we gained the final bolt ladder, we just wanted off. Other routes are steeper, more exposed than The Nose. But no route has a more dramatic climax. The headwall is short--50 feet--and after that, everything ends abruptly after a few friction steps. But since Harding's day, some madman has re-engineered the last belay so that it hangs at the very brink of the headwall, a mind-boggling nest where all 34 pitches spill down beneath your boots. It's a master stroke, that hanging belay, for it gives climbers a moment of pause at one of the most spectacular spots in all of American climbing. Cars creep along the loop road three-quarters of a mile below, broad forests appear as brushed green carpets and, for one immortal moment, you feel a giant in a world of ants. Then suddenly, it's over.
During those first few instants on top, curious reactions are the rule. Whether you've taken one day or one week, you are a different person than the one who started some 3000 feet below. I've heard of climbers hugging boulders, punching partners, and weeping openly--some from relief, some sad that it's over. I have seen other climbers babbling incoherently and I once saw a middle-aged Swiss team simply shake hands, abandon their gear and stroll off for the Falls trail, their climbing careers at once made and finished right there. For us, I only remember coiling ropes and booking for the East Ledges descent route, everyone cussing at having not brought a pair of tennis shoes. We got down to the loop road just as darkness fell.
As we stumbled around a bend, El Capitan burst into view, shimmering under a full moon. If you want to know something of the world's age, look at El Capitan in the moonlight. My feet suddenly felt fine and for a long beat, we three just stood fast and gaped up at it; and the majesty of the cliff, and what it meant to us to have climbed it in one day, finally struck home.