On a cool November day in 1958, in the early dawn light, a pair of cracked and dirty hands appeared at the rim of El Capitan, 2,900 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. The hands belonged to Warren Harding, who’d finally finished his months-long start and stop push up the wall once thought unclimbable. Shortly after, Wayne Merry topped out, followed by George Whitmore. The three men were the first to scale the mighty El Capitan. Suddenly suddenly all rock climbs seemed possible.
The team died in the order they reached the top of El Cap; Harding in 2002, Merry in 2019. And on New Year’s Day just last week, Whitmore, the last surviving member, died from complications arising from COVID-19. He was 89.
Whitmore joined Harding’s team after two other climbers had dropped out over the many months Harding had been laboring to haul himself and a team up the rock face. Whitmore was 27 years old, and had only been climbing for a few years, after being turned onto climbing as a pharmacy student by roommates in his San Francisco home. Harding was casting about for any competent climbers to join him during his final fall push, and Whitmore answered the call.
Whitmore fashioned pitons from aluminum, and ferried gear up the rock, supporting Harding and Merry who led the climb. During the final 12-hour push, it was Whitmore’s load of bolts he brought up to Harding that made the top out possible.
“I’ve gone down in the books as having been the Sherpa who hauled loads while the heroes did the climbing,” Whitmore told The Fresno Bee in 2016, “but actually I was on the climbing rope part of the time pushing the high point, and in fact, I would have been up there pushing the high point more except Wayne couldn’t handle the hauling.”
At the top, the trio clinked glasses of champagne, marveled at what they’d done. The door to the impossible had been kicked open.
“There was this great uncertainty, is it possible? nobody knew,” Whitmore once told an interviewer about their climb.
Whitmore pursued a career as a pharmacist, while climbing in Yosemite and the central and southern Sierra for decades. He became an active conservationist and a leader with the Sierra Club, eventually becoming a chapter leader in Fresno. Whitmore tirelessly lobbied Congress with letters, helping to establish the Kaiser Wilderness and the California Wilderness Act. He also was a vocal opponent of an attempt to build a ski resort in magnificent Mineral King in the 1960s.
He lived most of his life in the San Joaquin Valley, working as a handyman and landlord for rentals in Fresno after he retired as a pharmacist. As such, he was a valuable resource for the valley community that was deeply connected with the nearby Sierra. The Fresno Bee has routinely interviewed Whitmore over the years, and their archive is a treasure trove of stories about the gracious man who lived for the mountains and built a life around protecting them.