Warren Harding (climber)

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Warren Harding
Harding on the last pitch of the Dawn Wall, El Capitan. Yosemite Valley. 1970.
Born(1924-06-18)June 18, 1924
DiedFebruary 27, 2002(2002-02-27) (aged 77)
OccupationRock climber

Warren Harding (June 18, 1924 – February 27, 2002) was one of the most accomplished and influential American big wall climbers and aid climbers of the 1950s to 1970s. He was the leader of the first team to climb El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, in 1958. The route they climbed, known as The Nose, ascends 2,900 feet (880 m) up the central buttress of what is one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. Harding climbed many other first ascents in Yosemite, some 28 in all, as well as making the first true big-wall ascents in the Sierra Nevada range of California.[citation needed]

He was nicknamed "Batso", a reference to his penchant for spending days living on vertical cliffs and his exuberant and iconoclastic character. Harding developed specialized equipment for climbing big walls, such as the "bat tent" for sleeping, and "bat hooks" used to hook precariously on small cut-out bits of granite—examples of his B.A.T. or 'Basically Absurd Technology' products.

Harding authored the book Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide to Rock Climbing. The book contains a description of the ascent of the Nose and the Wall of Early Morning Light (1970), as well as instruction in climbing basics, ratings of prominent climbers of the period, a humorous account of rock climbing controversies and life-styles of the 1960s and 1970s.


Harding was raised in Downieville, California, in the northern part of the historic gold country near Lake Tahoe by a family from Iowa that had arrived before the Great Depression. Harding grew up entertaining himself, preferring hiking to fishing after he realized that he was a "terrible fisherman".[1] He began mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada in the late 1940s on Mount Whitney, the Palisades, and the Minarets. He took up technical climbing in 1953; it was, he said, the first thing he was ever really good at, because he "could do only what required brute stupidity".[1]

Within a year, Harding was an active figure in the nascent climbing community of Yosemite Valley, the huge glacial valley in which big-wall or multi-day vertical technical or roped rock climbing developed in the United States after World War II. He began pushing the limits of the sport in the 1950s, and quickly became one of the "stone masters" of his day. The hardest climb of the era, the Lost Arrow Spire Chimney, has a horrible, squeezing, dark and difficult pitch named for his lead: the "Harding Hole". He scrabbled his way up a demanding fissure called the "Worst Error" on Elephant Rock, an early effort which the British Guardian journalist Jim Perrin notes, "bears comparison with the achievements of Joe Brown and Don Whillans", famed contemporaries of his in Britain.[2] He pioneered a famous one-day climb up the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock, today one of the most-climbed routes of its nature in Yosemite Valley.[citation needed]

Harding's first major rock climb lay right nearby: the North Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock in Yosemite. Beginning "impromptu" with a "stranger" who Harding thought was "nuttier than a fruitcake", he and Frank Tarver soon passed another party.[1] They joined up since one group had ability but lacked equipment and the other had equipment but lacked ability.[3] Together, after four nights out, and 20 or more rope lengths of climbing, they made the top of the long and involved route. They had just finished the longest roped rock climb to date in North America.[citation needed]

Success for Harding in the establishment world, however, was always secondary, or out of reach. The draft board rejected him due to his heart murmur, and after working as a propeller mechanic during World War II, he trained as a land surveyor, holding a union card proudly his whole life. Known for his short stature and high voice, his hard drinking and fast cars, his greaser style black hair-do, good looks, and libidinous orientation, Harding recounts in his memoir Downward Bound that he chose the book's title because it reflected the failure of his career as a responsible wage-earner in the face of his urge to go rock climbing.[4]

The Nose[edit]

Within the year, Harding was teaming up with Mark Powell, one of the premier Yosemite climbers of the 1950s. After Harding had been part of a group which failed to climb the magnificent and vertical Northwest face of Half Dome, he and Powell found themselves in the Valley, too late by a couple of days to make the first ascent of that feature as another group, led by Harding's southern Californian rival, Royal Robbins, had just completed it.[citation needed]

Harding recounted meeting the group at the top: "My congratulations were hearty and sincere, but inside, the ambitious dreamer in me was troubled." He, Powell, and equipment inventor Bill 'Dolt' Feuerer later conspired: "In the fit of egotistical pique, we grumbled around the Valley for a couple of days, trying to figure out what to do. The solution was simple; any climb less than Half Dome was beneath us; only a great climb would do."[5] At this point, as big wall historian Doug Scott notes, Harding was truly exceptional. The 3,000-foot (910 m) face of El Capitan was so 'appallingly higher' than the other features in Yosemite, it was 'ignored by the majority of climbers'.[5]

Harding, Powell, and Feuerer began in July 1957. Unlike the single-push 'alpine' style used on Half Dome, they chose to fix lines between 'camps' in the style used in the Himalaya. Attempting to get halfway on the first push, they were foiled by the long hand sized and larger cracks. Frank Tarver cut the legs off of several wood stoves, and gave the team these "proto-type bong pitons. These crack systems later became world famous as the "Stove Legs Cracks".[6]

Compelled by the National Park Service to stop until after Labor Day due to the crowds forming in El Capitan meadows, the team had a major setback when Powell suffered a compound leg fracture on another climbing trip. Powell dropped out, and Feuerer became disillusioned. Harding, true to his legendary endurance and willingness to find new partners, 'continued', as he later put it, 'with whatever "qualified" climbers I could con into this rather unpromising venture.'[7] Feuerer stayed on as technical advisor, even constructing a bicycle wheeled 'cart' which could be hauled up to the half-way ledge which bears his name today, 'Dolt Tower'; but Wayne Merry, George Whitmore, and Rich Calderwood now became the main team, with Merry sharing lead chores with Harding.[citation needed]

In the Fall, two more pushes got them to the 2,000-foot (610 m) level. Finally, a fourth push starting in the late Fall would likely be the last. The team had originally fixed their route with 12-inch (13 mm) manila lines; and their in situ lines would have weakened more over the winter. In the cooling November environment, they worked their way slowly upward, with the seven days it took to push to within the last 300 feet blurring into a 'monotonous grind' if, Harding adds, 'living and working 2500 feet above the ground on a granite face' could be considered 'monotonous'.[8] After sitting out a storm for three days at this level, they hammered their way up the final portion. Harding struggled fifteen hours and placed 28 expansion bolts by hand through the night up an overhanging headwall, topping out at 6 AM. The whole thing had taken 45 days, with more than 3,400 feet (1,000 m) of climbing including huge 'pendulum' swings across the face; and uncounted 'mileage' of laboriously hauling bags with prusik knots up ropes and sliding by 'rappelling' back down.[citation needed]

The team had finished what is by any standard one of the 'great classics' of modern rock climbing. The Nose Route is often called the most famous rock climbing route in North America, and in good Fall weather can have anywhere between three and ten different parties strung out along its thirty rope lengths to the top. On the 50th anniversary of the ascent, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring the achievement of the original party.[9]

Later climbs and controversies[edit]

Following his climb of El Capitan, Harding put up the overhanging East Face of Washington Column in Yosemite, renamed "Astroman" after it was climbed without aid, the first of a row of serious routes he did with his partner of this period, photographer Glen Denny. This was followed by: the wildly overhanging Leaning Tower, also done with Denny and still one of the most popular big-wall routes in Yosemite; the North Face of the 'Rostrum' just outside Yosemite Valley, again with Denny (a notoriously hard and spectacular later one-day testpiece as a free climb); and the beautiful and isolated 2,500-foot (760 m) face of Mount Watkins across from Half Dome, done with Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt (with 'hard man' Harding famously refusing water on the parched last days of the climb to save it for those doing the final leads).[citation needed] Pratt wrote in the 1965 American Alpine Journal: "By the fourth day, Yvon had lost so much weight from dehydration that he could lower his climbing knickers without undoing a single button. For the first time in seven years, I was able to remove a ring from my finger, and Harding, whose resemblance to the classical conception of Satan is legendary, took on an even more gaunt and sinister appearance." [10]

Harding also pioneered big wall ascents in the Sierra Nevada, with routes such as the 2,000-foot (610 m) face of the more than 14,000-foot (4,300 m) Keeler Needle on the side of Mount Whitney and the South West Face of Mount Conness in the Yosemite high country.[11]

Harding and climber-photographer Galen Rowell nearly succumbed to a storm on the difficult and tedious, but strikingly beautiful, South Face of Half Dome in 1970.[12] After a rescue and later difficulties, one partner, Joe Faint, abandoned the project. Rowell recounted his worries when Harding didn't show up one weekend: "The next weekend, as we hike up the steep trail to Half Dome, I stop feeling sorry for Warren when he limps past me with a huge pack. Half of Warren is still twice the average man."[13] Unsuccessful and unpleasant jaunts working as a contractor in Vietnam and a serious accident—a truck hit him while working at a construction site, leaving him permanently disabled—did not stop Harding from returning and finishing the climb.[citation needed]

Harding also made a much-publicised first ascent of the "Wall of the Early Morning Light", up the tallest portion of El Capitan in its southeast side. With Dean Caldwell, he spent 27 nights on the wall, living mostly in tented hammocks designed in coordination with Roger Derryberry. When a 4-day storm rolled in, the National Park Service decided, after 22 days, that the two needed to be rescued. Ropes were lowered, but after much shouting back and forth, retracted. Harding, in his book Downward Bound, recounts what might have happened had the rescue persisted:

"Good Evening! What can we do for you."
"We've come to rescue you!"
"Really? Come now, get hold of yourselves - have some wine."[14]

Harding is the most notorious tippler in the history of modern rock climbing famous for its working class public house and campground tradition.[15] Harding preferred gallon jugs of the very cheapest variant of red, and named the creaky ledge holding their hammocks, and from which they were supposed to be rescued, "wino tower". "Had the rescue team been overzealous," he continues, "a wild insane fight with piton hammers might have ensued. For we were very determined not to be hauled off our climb."[14] Seven days later, after 27 nights on the cliff, they pulled over the top to a throng of reporters, well-wishers, the curious and the critical.[citation needed]

Harding's climbing style was considered controversial because he was more willing to employ artificial aids which become a permanent part of the environment, especially expansion bolts. These take a long time to put in, but are not removable, and as they can be put anywhere, take some of the skill and the risk out of rock climbing. Some critics, such as historian Steve Roper, English Mountain magazine editor Ken Wilson, and southern Californians like Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, felt that Harding's flamboyant willingness to use expansion bolts took some of the adventure away from climbing.[16]

Harding granted that some of those climbers had more skills than he, but always disputed their "zealotry" and "purity".[17] He also argued that it was hypocrisy to accuse him of publicity hounding, as many of them developed lucrative mountain climbing businesses, making tens of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year selling clothing and equipment. This controversy reached a high point when Harding's chief rival, Robbins, began the second ascent of his Early Morning Light route, hanging in Harding and Caldwell's bolt and bat-hook holes, and then cutting off the hangers, declaring he wished to restore the rock to its pristine state—and making a third ascent unlikely. The irritated Harding called the southerner Robbins a "Carrie Nation" of rockclimbers, and felt vindicated when Robbins eventually decided the climb was harder than it looked and then respected it by not cutting any more bolts as he and Don Lauria completed the second ascent.[18]

Retirement, influence, legends, and anecdotes[edit]

Lito Tejada-Flores, whose essay Games Climbers Play, was influential at the time of Harding's exploits, viewed Harding as 'outside' the game as it was played by most. Harding was rather 'inventing new ones' and 'from time to time, even a masterpiece.' That was how he described the 28-day Dawn Wall event: 'a great climb whose greatness is...in the experiential content of such extended life on a wall.'[19]

After the 1980s, Harding did very little climbing, retiring to the northern hills of the Sierra Nevada, going hot-air ballooning with his close friends Mary-Lou Long and Roger Derryberry, and continuing his love of cheap red wine. He died in 2002 of liver failure.


Harding describes reaching the top of El Capitan:

I suppose this article could be titled "The Conquest of El Capitan". However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.[20][21]

Harding on his legendary endurance:

Oh, God, I was always a total mess. I hate climbers like Royal Robbins who are so superior. He doesn’t mean to be, he just is. He’s methodic, scientific, capable, and so competent it makes me envious. I was climbing with some hotshot Brit in Yosemite once, and he said, "My God, Harding, you can’t do anything!" I said, "I know, but I can do it forever."[1]

Harding, on drinking, satirizing the American Alpine Club's "Accident Reports":

It has recently been demonstrated that drinking leashes can be useful in preventing needless tragedies in the home as well as on the rock. For example, at the gathering of friends in the ASCENTE office in Fresno, Batso was into his cup (as he is liable to do). Becoming incensed over some topic of conversation (as he is liable to do), he staggered off blindly, apparently heading for the upstairs bedroom. However, he referred to the wrong door and fell down the cellar stairs. Fortunately he was unhurt, wedged between the stair case and the hot water heater. Needless to say, he could have been very seriously injured, and although this wasn't the case, a drinking leash could have spared him the indignity of such an accident.[22]

Harding's "Reflections on a Broken Down Climber":

My once-keen analytical mind has become so dulled by endless hours of baking in the hot sun, thrashing about in tight chimneys, pulling at impossibly heavy loads.... so that now my mental state is comparable to that of a Peruvian Indian, well stoked on coca leaves...[23]

First ascents[edit]


  • 1954 Harding's Chimney & Harding's Other Chimney, Sugarloaf, Lake Tahoe, CA, with Jim Ohrenschall.
  • 1954 Upper & Lower Phantom Spire, Lake Tahoe, CA, with Jim Ohrenschall.
  • 1954 North West Books, Left & Right Water Cracks, Lembert Dome, Tuolomme Meadows, CA, with Frank de Saussure, friends.
  • 1954 East Buttress, Middle Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, CA, with Jack Davis and Bob Swift.
  • 1954 North Buttress, Middle Cathedral Rock, Yosemite, CA, with Frank Tarver; Craig Holden and John Whitmer.
  • 1956 East Arrowhead Chimney, Arrowhead Arete, Yosemite, CA, with Mark Powell.
  • 1956 Promulgated Pinnacle, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite, CA, with Bob Swift.
  • 1957 East Arrowhead Buttress, with Wally Reed and Mark Powell.
  • 1957 The Worst Error, Elephant Rock, Yosemite, CA, with Wayne Merry.
  • 1957 East Side, Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite, CA, with Mark Powell.
  • 1958 Northwest Buttress, Ahwiyah Point, Yosemite, CA, with Wayne Merry.
  • 1957-1958 The Nose, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, with Wayne Merry and George Whitmore (47 days in several pushes).
  • 1959 Beverly's Tower, Cookie Cliff, Yosemite, CA, with Gerry Czamanske.
  • 1959 Merry Old Ledge, Three Brothers, Yosemite, CA, with Gerry Czamanske.
  • 1959 Southwest Face, Mt. Conness, Yosemite High Country, CA, USA, with Glen Denny and Herb Swedlund.
  • 1959 East Face, Washington Column (later 'Astroman'), Yosemite, CA, USA, with Glen Denny and Chuck Pratt.


  • 1960 Keeler Needle of Mt. Whitney (14,000+ ft), with Glen Denny, Rob McKnight and Frank Gronberg.
  • 1961 West Face, Leaning Tower, Yosemite, CA, with Glen Denny and Al MacDonald.
  • 1962 Delectable Pinnacle, El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, with Brian Small.
  • 1962 North Face, The Rostrum, Yosemite, CA, with Glen Denny.
  • 1962 The Flue, Sentinel Rock, Yosemite, CA, with Bob Kamps.
  • 1964 South Face Route, Mt. Watkins, Yosemite, CA, with Yvon Chouinard and Chuck Pratt.
  • 1968 The Good Book, The (Right Side of the Folly), Yosemite, CA, with Tom Fender.
  • 1968 West Face or Direct Route (NCCS VI F8 A3), Lost Arrow Spire, Yosemite, CA, with Pat Callis.[24]
  • 1969 Southwest Face, Liberty Cap, Yosemite, CA, with Galen Rowell and Joe Faint.
  • 1969 Firefall Face, Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, CA, with Galen Rowell.


  • 1970 South Face Route, Half Dome, Yosemite, CA, with Galen Rowell.
  • 1970 Wall of the Early Morning Light (Dawn Wall), El Capitan, Yosemite, CA, with Dean Caldwell (28 days in one push).
  • 1971 West Face, Kolana Rock, Hetch Hetchy, CA, with Galen Rowell.
  • 1976 Porcelain Wall, Yosemite, CA, with Steve Bosque and Dave Lomba.
  • 1975 Rhombus Wall, Royal Arches, Yosemite, Ca, with friends.
  • 1976 West Arete, Mt. Winchell, Sierra Nevada, CA, with Galen Rowell.
  • 1978 Forbidden Wall, Yosemite Falls, Yosemite, CA, with Dave Lomba, Christie Tewes and Steve Bosque.[25]



  • Harding, Warren (2016). Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide to Rock Climbing] ((reprint, original Prentice-Hall 1975) ed.). Yosemite, CA.: Joseph Reidhead & Company Publishers. ISBN 978-1-940777-40-5.


  1. ^ a b c d Burr Snider (March 9, 1986). "The Life of Warren 'Batso' Harding". Image Magazine. San Francisco Examiner.
  2. ^ Jim Perrin (March 7, 2002). "Warren Harding". The Guardian.
  3. ^ Steve Roper, Climber's Guide to Yosemite Valley, Sierra Club, 1971. p. 258.
  4. ^ Warren Harding, Downward Bound, Prentice-Hall, 1975, pp. 12-13.
  5. ^ a b Doug Scott (1974). Big Wall Climbing. Oxford University Press. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-19-519767-9.
  6. ^ Harding, Downward Bound, pg 108
  7. ^ Warren Harding, 'Chronology of First Ascent of El Capitan,' American Alpine Journal, 1959.
  8. ^ Harding, Downward Bound.
  9. ^ Michael Doyle, 'House Honors First Climbers to Scale El Capitan', McClatchy News Service, Oct. 1, 2008.
  10. ^ Pratt, Chuck (1973). "The South Face of Mount Watkins". In Galen Rowell (ed.). The Vertical World of Yosemite. Berkeley, CA: Wilderness Press. pp. 106–114. ISBN 978-0-911824-87-2.
  11. ^ John Moynier and Claude Fiddler (1993). Sierra Classics: 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierras. Chockstone. p. 14f.
  12. ^ Galen Rowell (1979). The Vertical World of Yosemite. Wilderness Press.
  13. ^ Galen Rowell (1971). "South Face of Half Dome". American Alpine Journal.
  14. ^ a b Harding, Downward Bound, 1975, p. 151f.
  15. ^ Harding, Downward Bound, pp. 46-8, 178ff. Cf Steve Roper, Camp IV, p. 7f; Dick Williams, The Climber's Guide to the Shawangunks, Vulgarian Press, 1996, pp.11ff; Tom Patey, 'Red Pique', 'Last of the Grand Old Masters' and other drinking songs, One Man's Mountains, Victor Golancz, 1986; Joe Brown, The Hard Years, Victor Golanz, 1967; Red Rope Club.
  16. ^ Harding, Downward Bound, pp. 86ff, 183ff; Roper, Camp IV, pp. 124ff.
  17. ^ Warren Harding, Downward Bound, pp. 16-17, 186-97.
  18. ^ Harding's Downward Bound, Rowell's Vertical World, Scott's Big Wall Climbing, as well as the periodicals Mountain and Ascent all contain varying accounts. The most amusing are in Harding's own obscure satirical publication, Descent. Snider, "The Life of Warren 'Batso' Harding", writes that Harding 'spent a couple of weeks in New York doing the big talk shows, had a story in Life, an interview with Howard Cosell on “Wide Wide World of Sports,” and there was talk of books and a movie. He became a hot ticket on the lecture circuit, and, of course, a willing social lion. And, Batso being Batso, he never made a dime out of any of it.' Harding recounted to him, 'I think that after expenses, which were rather extravagant, we lost $300 on the lecture tour. ...So after this stint of swimming in fame-iosity, all the partying and notoriety, before you knew it, I was back working construction. And the Valley Christians were complaining about how we were commercializing climbing! Christ, I’ve done a lot of nutty things in my life, but I never tore up my union card. I wasn’t just some climbing bum. I’ve always worked.'
  19. ^ Quoted in Scott, Big Wall Climbing., p. 161.
  20. ^ Warren Harding (1959). "El Capitan" (PDF). American Alpine Journal.
  21. ^ "AAC Publications - El Capitan".
  22. ^ Harding's 'Descent' magazine
  23. ^ Rowell, The Vertical World of Yosemite.
  24. ^ Callis, Pat (1969). "Climbs and Expeditions". American Alpine Journal. Philadelphia, PA, USA: American Alpine Club. 16 (43): 394–395.
  25. ^ Reid, Don (1993). Yosemite Climbs: Big Walls. Evergreen, Colorado, USA: Chockstone Press. ISBN 0-934641-54-4.

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