When California’s pioneering state geologists
– hardbitten field surveyors normally inured to the sight of wildly configured mountains in a continent of geological wonder – first clapped eyes on Yosemite’s dramatic peak of Half Dome they were amazed: “It is a crest of granite rising above the valley, perfectly inaccessible, and probably the only one of all the prominent points about Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.”
Such a statement might have been calculated to provoke a five-foot tall climbing dynamo called Warren Harding. In the 1950s he was one of a new breed of determined and technically innovative Californian climbers whose exploits expanded the limits of rock climbing possibility, changing the sport forever. In 1957, Harding lost the race to ascend the alluring Half Dome to his great rival Royal Robbins. The effect was to provoke Harding to engage in battle with an even greater challenge: the soaring 1,000m granite cliff of El Capitan and its most direct line, known as The Nose. Harding devised a siege tactic based on a series of provisioned “camps” linked together by fixed ropes, running back to a ground-level supply camp. When criticized as unsporting, Harding, never a man unduly concerned with what others thought, said: “You do it your way, and I’ll do it mine.”
“Harding was a devilish fellow,” described Yosemite historian Steve Roper. “Looking at his flashing eyes, his wild black hair, his jet black pants, I was fascinated. Other climbers I knew were bespectacled scientists, staid folks who would never have dreamed of wheeling up to a rock with a sports car and a beer and a flashy dame.” Harding and an interchangeable team of climbing friends were to pull off the groundbreaking climb after 47 days spread over almost 18 months. It had been an exhausting undertaking, during which Harding had come close to death when one of the threadbare fixed manilla ropes snapped, pitching him on to a ledge, miraculously just a few feet below. “I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was,” Harding noted laconically after reaching the summit.
In this action portrait by Glen Denny, Harding is in the middle of the last pitch of his brilliant new line on El Capitan, the Dawn Wall. He had spent 27 nights on the extreme face, living mostly in a tented hammock and consuming prodigious quantities of cheap red wine. Later that day he emerged over the top of the cliff to meet a throng of press reporters, well-wishers, and some furious Park Service rangers who had threatened both to arrest and to rescue him at various points in his epic ascent.
Showmanship was an integral part of Harding’s iconoclastically wacky character. Dubbed “Batso” – after Ratso Rizzo, the diminutive misfit in the film Midnight Cowboy – Harding certainly had a style all of his own. Unlike many of his beatnik climbing peers, who eschewed regular work to climb full-time, Harding remained a weekender, wedded to a conventional career as a land surveyor. This did not stop his leading a high life of drinking, partying, fast cars, and, frankly, some pretty fast women. Beryl Knauth, a beautiful San Francisco debutante, was one of Harding’s long-term companions, whom he jokingly referred to as “one of my many formerly fine girlfriends.”
To the end his scurrilous humour was incorrigible. “Climbing is no better or worse than anything else in life,” he said when asked to reflect on his achievements. “It’s just another asshole-ish, self-centred thing to do.” In case the listener might mistake him for a nihilist, however, he added, “but if I could do it all over again, I’d like to be taller and smarter.”
Harding died in 2002 at age 77.
This Historical Badass is excerpted from the book Mountain Heroes: Portraits of Adventure, by Huw Lewis-Jones. For more information and to purchase signed copies, See polarworld.co.uk. To follow Lewis-Jones on Twitter check out @Polarworld.
For more from AJ’s Historical Badass series, go here.