Monday, August 2, 2010

A little history.. A historic first ascent

       In the 1950's and 1960's modern American rock climbing was being born. No place more than Yosemite valley California were the boundaries of this emerging sport being pushed harder. With the easy access to extremely high quality granite and some of the most enormous most impressive walls on the planet, climbers of this era were no doubt inspired. At the time climbers were using European pitons made of soft metal. However, it was quickly understood that the malleable iron and soft steel were no match for the hard rock found high up on Yosemite's walls. It is necessary to place, then remove the gear both for ethical reasons and also to use again higher up. These soft pins would mash and stick after only a few placements. Then the game changed. In the late 1950's and early 60's climbing legends John Salathe, Tom Frost and Yvon Chouinard pioneered new designs for various pitons in hardened steel. They would go on to use this new gear to conquer some of Yosemite's tallest most terrifying walls.
An old Yosemite grade piton typical of the 1960's
The top of El Cap (left) and Half Domes NW Face lit up (center)
        Climbing as in any sport, is sometimes fueled by egos and one upmanship. In the 50's and 60's this was no different. Two of the major players were Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. On June 28, 1957 Robbins along with Gallwas, and Sherrick stood atop Half Dome having climbed the sheer 2,000 foot face of Half Domes north west face. They had just completed the most difficult wall climb in North America. This would mark a historic first ascent in American climbing history and would even be the inspiration for the North Face companies logo. Warren Harding was devastated that he missed his chance to claim the first ascent on one of Americas most impressive monoliths and knew that the only way to surpass this accomplishment would be by claiming the first ascent of El Capitan. At this point, there had never been a technical rock climb of this scale or difficulty attempted. Although the face of Half Dome is huge and technical, it does not compare to the sheer magnitude of El Capitan. Using methods only previously found on high altitude expeditions, Harding used fixed ropes and stocked camps to link this massive features endless pitches. A mere six days after the first ascent of Half Dome, Harding would turn his team to El Capitan and begin their long struggle. The thin cracks found on Yosemite's walls were ideal for the pitons of the time and climbers of the day would bash one in and then pull on it to gain upward progress. This method of climbing is formally known as "aid"; where one uses artificial gear to gain upward progress. Today the more pure style is ''Free'' climbing where one uses his or her hands and feet to move up on the rock and places only removable gear as protection in the event of a fall. After three days of climbing the party reached the now famous 300 foot long  2 and 3'' cracks that appeared completely unclimbable. At the time there was no gear wide enough to place in these cracks, and therefore upward progress could not be achieved. Harding however, had foreseen this obstacle and had claimed four legs off a wood stove from a Berkeley California dump. He used these absurd tools to cover this challenging ground. This section of the route would be forever known as "the stove legs'' cracks. Today, with modern climbing techniques and gear, the stove legs cracks offer brilliant and exposed free climbing. Traffic jams increased as tourists on the valley floor gawked at Harding and his team high up on this impossible face. The next section of the route that loomed with impossibility was the boot flake. There is a huge white boot shaped flake of rock that hovers on the side of El Cap and marks the end to a crack system that the team was following. To gain the next set of cracks Harding would lower of "the boot" and pendulum wildly to his left 1500 feet above the valley floor. This was the wildest pendulum to ever be attempted and is known today as the "king swing". This is indeed one of the most... exciting... sections of the route. Harding cycled through many partners as the weeks dragged on and the climbing became more committing; eight to be precise. Harding pushed on and on November 11, 1958 arrived at the completely blank overhanging section of rock that would be their only path for reaching the top. they were 2,800 feet up the wall and increasingly battered. What Harding did next would become known as the most famous climbing episode in Yosemite's history. Starting that evening and working into the morning Warren Harding hand drilled 28 bolts in a row by head torch, an epic that would take 14 straight hours and leave him utterly broken. However at 6am he pulled the rim of El Capitan, changing climbing forever. Harding modestly named his new route "The Nose" and if you have ever stood below El Cap this seems appropriate. The route ascends the center of El Caps massive buttress. All in all the ascent took 45 days over 18 months and had re-defined what was possible in the vertical world.  
Harding on the Nose

Source: Super Topo

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