Yosemite's Rock Stars

Fifty years ago, climbers conquered the “unclimbable” El Capitan; today climbers and visitors are still seduced by Yosemite granite.

Photo by Buddy Mays/Corbis

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Slideshow: "Cliffhanger"

Veteran rock climber Wayne Merry shares photos and stories from the first-ever ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan in the late 1950s.

Last autumn Yosemite National Park, in California’s Sierra Nevada, was at its gorgeous best. Recent rains had turned on the legendary waterfalls; the oaks were yellowing. Thousands of visitors were there to hike and bike and admire the play of water over granite, or just gaze at the bald pate of Half Dome.

I had come to celebrate a milestone in climbing history: the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of El Capitan, that 3,000-foot granite cliff that shines like silver near the western end of seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley. It is probably the largest granite cliff face on Earth, sheared and polished by glaciers, and pretty much straight up—and oh God down—except for assorted cracks and narrow ledges.

In the late 1950s, Yosemite was already renowned for the world’s best rock climbing, with its hard, high, approachable granite. El Cap was considered unclimbable, but a mountaineer named Warren Harding was determined to do it. He assembled a team and chose a route called “the Nose,” on the prow of the massive cliff. With astonishing grit, the team spent 47 days over 16 months setting up their route with bolts, ropes, hardware, food, and camping gear. More than a dozen climbers and summit-support people were involved.

On November 12, 1958, three climbers, Harding, George Whitmore, and Wayne Merry, scrambled onto the summit. The final bottom-to-top push had taken them 12 days. This was in a time when there were no energy bars, no fleece. Climbing gear was rudimentary—some pitons were hammered out of stove legs. Merry carried his water in a large paint-thinner can, “and it tasted like hell.”

So this is how far climbing—and equipment—has come: last October 12, Hans Florine and Yuji Hirayama did the ascent in two hours, 37 minutes, and five seconds.

For a couple of days last November, seven members of the 1957–58 team (though not Harding, who died in 2002) showed up in Yosemite. They’re now in their 70s and 80s, still strong and slender, some of them still climbing. They gathered with hundreds of other mountaineers to celebrate in the Yosemite Valley visitor center. Many of them had carried their youthful passion for climbing into their professional lives, founding outdoor-equipment and adventure-travel companies. I joined them, because Yosemite climbing had also played a part in my life and career.

Wayne Merry returned to Yosemite a decade after that first ascent and started the Yosemite Mountaineering School. A course in basic rock climbing was $12 (today it costs $117). Soon after the school opened, I signed up and learned how to belay and rappel, and about the play of rock climbing on the senses: the clink of the hammer on a piton, the warmth of the sunlit granite under my hand, the radiant clouds sailing overhead. I learned not to look down much.

All around was the beauty of Yosemite, those waterfalls crashing down the massive walls into the wildflowers, the mists sifting through the granite spires, the river pooling up in the meadows to capture reflections of sunrise and moonlight on the soaring cliffs.

Back then, many of the climbers lived hand to mouth, squatting in tents at Camp Four all summer long, climbing by day, gulping jug wines by night. I dipped into their world on weekends, and a few of the nicer ones took me along on fairly easy technical climbs—in those days very few women were climbing. I began to write about my experiences, and found a niche in adventure-travel writing.

Today, climbers are still squatting at Camp Four, with their modern high-tech gear and sticky shoes, still practicing on the church-size boulders strewn around the campground—and hanging out at the Mountain Room Bar in the evenings. (The conversation can give one-upping a whole new meaning.) The Park Service estimates that there are some 25,000 to 50,000 “climber days” in the park each year—despite the all-too-real dangers of heatstroke, falling rocks, lightning, and freezing rain.

Nowadays my trips mostly include joining the park’s 3.5 million annual visitors just doing the usual things: sightseeing, struggling up the steep waterfall trails (Yosemite Falls, Vernal Fall, Nevada Fall), attending ranger programs, tracking the snowbound wilderness on cross-country skis. If the full moon is bright, I stroll over to the base of Yosemite Falls and look into the mist for the shimmering, opalescent “moonbow.” When I want to live it up, I go for a meal at the Ahwahnee, in probably the country’s grandest hotel dining room, which opened in 1927, with its columns of polished sugar pine and lofty windows looking out on the forests and meadows.

I relish the frisson when I drive into Yosemite Valley and the view unfolds: El Cap, Half Dome, Bridalveil Fall. I often pause to gaze at El Capitan. Awed tourists are usually hanging out in the meadows, staring up with binoculars or spotting scopes, watching a few climbers crawl up the daunting face like spiders up a wall. And I think about how a single experience—in my case, a rock-climbing lesson—in one national park can make the place your own, and may even change your life.