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Inside the Legendary Climbing Journeys at Yosemite in the ’50s

 A new book gathers firsthand accounts of the golden age of California climbing.


Overhanging Rock, Glacier Point, a favorite spot for “I was there” photographs. Photo: Jerry Gallwas Collection

All photos from Yosemite in the Fifties: The Iron Age, edited by Dean Fidelman and John Long. Copyright © 2015 by Patagonia®. Used by permission of Patagonia®

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Bob Swift on the summit of Yosemite Point Buttress. Photo: Allen Steck

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Mark Powell, Dolt, and Warren Harding (circa 1957) toasting after a rainy day on El Capitan. Photo: Beverly Powell Woolsey

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George Whitmore, Wayne Merry, and Warren Harding toast on the summit of El Capitan. Photo: Ellen Searby Jori

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Hardware rack, 1957. Photo: Bill Feuerer Collection, Don Lauria

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John Salathé and Ax Nelson on the north rim, after ascending Lost Arrow Chimney on Labor Day, 1947. Photo: Yosemite Climbing Association Collection

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Barbara Lilley on the summit of Lower Cathedral Spire, 1956. Photo: Barbara Lilley Collection

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By the 1950s, Yosemite had been drawing campers and casual adventurers for generations, yet it was still dotted with precipices and towering rock faces that felt as inaccessible to humans as the moon. Nowadays, climbers practically scurry up El Capitan with the aid of the latest equipment. But in the fall of 1958, it took climber Warren Harding, dangling off the 3,000-foot prow of sheer granite, an entire night to crawl the last 200 feet

Yosemite in the Fifties, a new book out from Patagonia, gathers firsthand accounts and archival photos of those seminal ascents, back when climbing was still an oddball sport practiced by flannel-wearing hipsters—the 1950s, Jack Kerouac variety—and wanderers.

In an essay about that first ascent up the Nose, on El Capitan, Harding’s climbing companion Wayne Merry chronicles their final 12-day push after more than a year of preparation. Along with George Whitmore, Harding and Merry slept on skinny ledges thousands of feet in the air, contended with rats eating through their sleeping bags, and huddled under a tarp to wait out a snowstorm. All the while they kept up the hard labor of driving pitons, or spikes, into crags to make their way slowly up.

The book, edited by Dean Fidelman and John Long, zooms in on day-by-day accounts. Novice readers may find themselves wishing for a dictionary of terms and a narrator who can offer a thumbnail sketch of each journey. But the personal essays make up for that insidery bias with occasional glimpses into the intimacy of living for nearly two weeks on a rock face. 

Merry, having gone two days without a proper bathroom break, at one point has Harding hold him on tension so he can relieve himself into a plastic bag, hanging midair. Merry, it turns out, had an audience. “In the relaxation of relief,” he writes, “I gazed benignly at the distant throng of El Cap watchers in the meadow,” who were congregated around a telescope. “I smiled and waved,” Merry recounts. “In the mob around the telescope, someone produced a white flag and waved back vigorously. On El Capitan, there is no room for modesty.”


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