The South Face of Mount Watkins
The historic first ascent of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan in 1958 opened a new era in Yosemite climbing. In subsequent years, three additional routes, each over 2500 feet in height, were established on the great monolith. El Capitan’s great height, the sustained nature of the climbing and the resulting logistical problems required that the first ascent of these routes be accomplished in stages, with the use of fixed ropes to facilitate a retreat to the valley floor. Since the initial ascent of El Capitan, eight ascents of the various routes have been made, and climbers involved in this latter-day pioneering have gained great confidence and experience in sustained, multi-day climbing. By the summer of 1964, with new improvements in hauling methods and equipment, the time seemed ripe for someone to attempt a first ascent of such a climb in a single, continuous effort.
One of the few walls that had remained unclimbed by the summer of 1964 and which afforded a challenge comparable to El Capitan was the south face of Mount Watkins. Rising 2800 feet above Tenaya Creek at the east end of Yosemite, Mount Watkins rivals in grandeur even nearby Half Dome. Despite the obvious and significant challenge presented by the face, the mention of Watkins seemed to produce only a certain apathy in the resident climbers of Camp 4. Though many of them, including me, speculated on who would climb it, yet few of us were moved into action. Then one pleasant July evening at Warren Harding’s High Sierra camp on the shore of Lake Tenaya, when the wine and good fellowship were flowing in greater quantity than usual, Warren showed me a flattering photograph of the south face and invited me to join him. In a moment of spontaneous rashness I heartily agreed, and we enthusiastically shook hands, confident that the fate of Mount Watkins had been sealed.
Several days later we were strolling through Camp 4, two rash climbers looking for a third, having agreed that on this climb a three-man party was a fair compromise between mobility and safety. However, our recruiting was unrewarded. The experienced were not interested; those interested lacked the necessary experience. By evening we had resigned ourselves to a two-man party when Yvon Chouinard walked out of the darkness. He had ten days to spare and wondered if there were any interesting climbs planned.
Within the week, after a reconnaissance trip to study the face and plan a route, we were assembling food, climbing equipment and bivouac gear for a four-day attempt on the face. The three-mile approach to Mount Watkins began at Mirror Lake. As we unloaded packs at the parking lot, two young ladies approached us to ask if we were some of THE Yosemite climbers. Yvon modestly pleaded guilty and pointed out our destination. They asked if it were true that Yosemite climbers chafe their hands on the granite to enable them to friction up vertical walls. We assured them that the preposterous myth was true. Then, with perfect timing, Harding yanked a bottle of wine and a six-pack out of the car, explaining that these were our rations for four days. We left the incredulous young ladies wondering about the sanity and good judgment of Yosemite climbers. And so the legends grow.
After following the Sierra Loop Trail for two miles, we eventually began contouring the slopes above Tenaya Creek until we reached the base of Mount Watkins, where we sought out a suitable camping spot for the night. In the darkness we noted with apprehension that the granite bulk of Mount Watkins completely obliterated the northern quadrant of the sky. The following morning we awoke grim and significantly silent. With lowered eyes we approached the base of the wall.
Unlike most major Yosemite climbs, Mount Watkins has very little climbing history. Warren had been 700 feet up some years before, and climbers had studied the face from the southern rim of the valley, but ours would be the first and only all-out push for the summit. On his brief reconnaissance, Warren had been stopped by an 80-foot head- wall above a large, tree-covered ledge. After studying the face three days before, we had elected to follow his route as it involved only third and fourth class climbing and would allow us to gain a great deal of altitude on the first day. By climbing a prominent corner at the left end of the tree-covered ledge, we could gain enough height to execute a series of pendulums in order to reach a comfortable-looking ledge at the top of the headwall, thus eliminating the necessity of bolting 80 feet. This ledge would then give us access to an 800-foot dihedral system on the right of the face. The dihedral eventually connected with a thin, curving arch leading westward across the face. We hoped this arch would take us to the great buttress in the center of the face and that the buttress would in turn take us the remaining 500 feet to the summit. However, these speculations would be resolved only after several days of sustained, technical climbing. The personal challenge, the unsuspected hardships, the uncertainty, in short, the unknown, which separates an adventure from the common-place, was the most appealing and stimulating aspect of the course of action to which we had committed ourselves.
Our immediate concern was transporting 100 pounds of food, water and equipment up to Warren’s previous high point. Loading everything into two large packs, Warren and I struggled up the handlines left by Yvon as he led ahead of us up an intricate series of ledges and ramps. By noon we reached the tree-covered ledge and the base of the headwall where Warren had turned back before. Having volunteerd to haul the first day, I began repacking our loads into three duffel bags while Warren and Yvon worked their way up the shallow corner at the left end of the ledge. Two free-climbing pitches brought them to a ledge where they investigated the problems of the long pendulums necessary to reach our goal for the first day — the comfortable-looking ledge 80 feet above me at the top of the headwall. By mid-afternoon Yvon had descended 75 feet, climbed across a delicate face and after trying for half an hour to place a piton, resigned himself to a bolt. Descending once more, Yvon began a series of spectacular swings trying to reach the ledge above the headwall. After numerous failures he finally succeeded by lunging for the ledge after a 60-foot swing across the face. Warren rappelled to Yvon and after dropping me a fixed rope joined him in an effort to reach the great dihedral which we hoped to follow for 400 feet.
Prusiking up the fixed rope, I could watch Yvon leading an overhanging jam-crack in the dihedral. From the ledge I began hauling all three bags together. I was using a hauling method developed by Royal Robbins for the El Capitan routes. It consisted of a hauling line which passed through a pulley at the hauler’s anchor. By attaching a prusik knot or a mechanical prusik handle to the free end of the line it was possible for me to haul the loads by pushing down with my foot in a sling instead of hauling with my arms. The method was highly efficient and far less tiring than hauling hand-over-hand.
Yvon and Warren returned to the ledge after leaving 200 feet of fixed rope and we settled down for the first bivouac of the climb. After only one day on the wall it was evident to all of us that our greatest difficulty would be neither the climbing nor the logistics but the weather. It was the middle of July and temperatures in the valley were consistently in the high nineties. We had allowed ourselves one and one-half quarts of water per day per person—the standard quantity for a sustained Yosemite climb. Still, we were not prepared for the intense, enervating heat in which we had found ourselves sweltering for an entire day. Those mountaineers who scorn Yosemite and its lack of Alpine climbing would find an interesting education by spending a few days on a long Valley climb in mid-summer. Cold temperatures and icy winds are not the only adverse kinds of weather.
The following morning Warren and I ascended the fixed ropes and continued climbing the great dihedral, hoping to reach its top by the end of the day. The climbing was both strenuous and difficult as we resorted more and more to thin horizontal pitons and knife-blades driven into shallow, rotten cracks. However, our biggest problem continued to be the heat. We were relieved only occasionally from the unbearable temperatures by a slight breeze. Although we tried to refrain from drinking water during the day so as to have at least a full quart each to sip at night, we were all constantly digging into the climbing packs for water bottles. Every few minutes we found it necessary to moisten our throats since even a few breaths of the dry, hot air aggravated our relentless thirst. Even the hauling, which should have been a simple task, became a major problem. Yvon, who was hauling that day, exhausted himself on every pitch, becoming increasingly tired as the day wore on.
In the early afternoon, we were surprised by the passing of a golden eagle across the face. Welcoming the chance for a brief respite, we ceased our labors and watched as the magnificent bird glided effortlessly high above us. Although he presented an inspiring sight, we hoped his nest would not lie on our route. In the days to come, this eagle would seem to make a ritual out of crossing the face, sometimes as often as three or four times a day, as though he were a silent guardian appointed to note the progress of the three intruders who labored so slowly through his realm of rock and sky.
By the end of the second day, we reached a group of ledges so large and comfortable that we named them the "Sheraton-Watkins.” It was here that we were faced with the first major setback in our carefully planned route. The top of the dihedral was still some 200 feet above us. That 200 feet presented not only rotten, flaky rock and incipient cracks, but also the probability of having to place a large number of bolts. Now that we were within 200 feet of the prominent arch we had seen from the ground, we could see clearly that it did not connect with the large buttress in the center of the face, but that a gap of 100 feet or more separated them. The prospect of bolting across 100 feet of blank wall so appalled us that we began searching for other avenues of approach to the middle of the face. We were in a deep corner, the left wall of which presented messy but continuous cracks leading 80 feet to a ledge on the main wall. From this ledge, it appeared that a short lead would end on the first of a series of broken ramps sweeping westward across the face. It seemed the only reasonable alternative and we had just enough light left to ascend one pitch to the ledge 80 feet above before settling down on "Sheraton-Watkins.”
We were up early the morning of the third day in order to accomplish as much as possible before the sun began its debilitating work. From our high point Yvon began the next lead. It was here that we began to literally walk out on a limb. We could see the broken ramps leading across the face for several hundred feet. Once we left the dihedral, retreat would become increasingly more difficult. Not only would the route beyond have to be possible, but we would have to consistently make the correct decision as to which route to follow. Using every rurp and knife-blade we had brought plus three bolts, Yvon succeeded in reaching the beginning of the first ramp. Then I began the first of three leads which were to carry us 300 feet across the face. Although the climbing was moderate fifth class, it required a great deal of effort. After nearly three days of climbing, the heat had reduced our strength and efficiency to the point where we moved at a snail’s pace. Warren was barely able to manage the hauling bags without assistance and most of the afternoon was spent in getting our little expedition across the traverse. Although we had not gained much altitude, our efforts were finally rewarded when the traverse carried us into the buttress in the center of the face. Once again resorting to the indispensable rurps and knife-blades, I led a delicate and circuitous pitch past a dangerously loose flake to a curving arch. Following the arch as far as possible I descended, leaving what I thought would be a simple pendulum for tomorrow’s climbing team. We were now situated on widely spread but comfortable ledges, and as we munched on our ever decreasing supply of cheese, salami and gorp, we caught a glimpse of our friend the eagle as he passed on his daily rounds.
At the end of this, the third day of climbing, we were well aware of our critical situation. We had brought enough water for four days. It was now obvious that we could not reach the summit in less than five. 700 feet remained between us and the giant ceiling at the lip of the summit and the route remained uncertain. We reluctantly agreed that it would be necessary to reduce our ration of water to provide enough for at least one additional day on the face. We did not yet consider the possibility of retreating although the prospect of facing the unbearable heat with less than an already inadequate supply of water filled us with dismay.
The fourth day proved to be one of the most difficult and uncertain
any of us had ever spent on a climb. The sun continued its merciless torture as Yvon and Warren returned to the struggle. Warren found that I had underestimated the pendulum. After an agonizing effort, he finally succeeded in swinging to a ledge and I proceeded up to haul. By mid-afternoon, after climbing as slowly as turtles up the central buttress, we reached the most critical point on the climb. Above us a blank, 60- foot headwall topped by an overhang blocked further progress. Warren had nearly fainted several times from the heat, Yvon was speechless with fatigue and I was curled up in a semi-stupor trying to utilize a small patch of shade beneath an overhanging boulder. In an effort to provide more shade we stretched a bivouac hammock over our heads, but it provided little protection. For the first time we considered the possibility of retreating, but even that would require another day on the wall. It seemed that those very qualities which had made the climb so appealing might now prove to be our undoing. Warren investigated the possibility of rappelling 100 feet in order to reach the opposite corner of the buttress. However, we did not want to lose 100 feet of hard-earned altitude, especially since we could not be certain that the left side of the buttress continued to the summit. After a barely audible consultation, we decided to try the headwall above us, hoping eventually that we would find cracks leading to the summit, still 500 feet above us. Warren volunteered to go up first. After placing three bolts, he came down, too exhausted to continue. I went up next and with extreme difficulty placed two more, the first direct-aid bolts I had ever placed, barely adequate, even for aid. Yvon took my place and after breaking two drills was able to place one more before relinquishing the lead to Warren. Instead of placing more bolts, the latter lassoed a small tree and prusiked 15 feet to a horizontal crack. With a magnificent display of spirit and determination, Warren continued the lead over the headwall, did some extremely difficult free- climbing and reached a ledge adequate for a belay. Refreshed in spirit if not in body, Yvon followed the lead in semi-darkness, marvelling at Warren’s endurance. Leaving a fixed rope, they returned and we all collapsed gratefully on barely adequate ledges.
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 legendary resemblance to the classical conception of Satan, took on an even more gaunt and sinister appearance.
We slept late the fifth morning and awoke somewhat refreshed. Confident that we would reach the summit by nightfall, we ascended the fixed rope to study the remaining 400 feet. Once again we were faced with a critical decision. Continuous cracks led to within 100 feet of the summit, but it appeared that they would involve nailing a long, detached flake. Yvon led an awkward pitch that curved to the left around a corner. After joining him, I dropped down and swung to the left corner of the buttress. Still I was unable to see if that corner of the buttress continued to the summit. I decided to climb the cracks above Yvon. They were of jam-crack width and I pushed the free-climbing to my limit in order to conserve the few bongs we had brought. After a fierce struggle through bushes I was able to set up a belay in slings. That morning we had had two full quarts of water for the three of us. Yvon and I had already finished one quart and when he joined me I was surprised to find he still had a full quart. Warren had refused to take any water that day, preferring to give the climbing team every advantage. His sacrifice was a display of courage and discipline that I had rarely seen equaled.
With added incentive, Yvon led a mixed pitch up a strenuous and rotten chimney, executing some gymnastics at its top to gain a narrow ledge. He joyfully announced that the next pitch appeared to be easy aid climbing and that the summit was only 200 feet above him. Anxious now for the top, I climbed as rapidly as I could while Warren struggled resolutely below with the bags. What we thought was a detached flake from below turned out to be a 100-foot column, split on either side by a perfect angle crack. The right-hand crack seemed to require fewer bongs so I quickly nailed my way to the column’s top, a flat triangular ledge only 80 feet from the summit. It appeared that the next lead would just skirt the gigantic ceiling at the lip of the summit.
Yvon, resorting one last time to rurps and knife-blades, tapped his way to the crest of Mount Watkins just as the sun went down. His triumphant shout told me what we had all waited five days to hear. When Warren reached the ledge, he asked to clean the last pitch as he felt that he had not contributed enough that day! Warren Harding, who had been the original inspiration for the climb, whose determination had gotten us over the headwall below and who had sacrificed his ration of water after five days of intense thirst felt that he had not done enough! I passed him the rope and as he began cleaning the last pitch of the climb, I settled down on the ledge to my thoughts.
In the vanishing twilight, the valley of the Yosemite seemed to me more beautiful than I had ever seen it, more serene than I had ever known it before. For five days the south face of Mount Watkins had dominated each of our lives as only nature can dominate the lives of men. With the struggle over and our goal achieved I was conscious of an inner calm which I had experienced only on El Capitan. I thought of my incomparable friend Chouinard, and of our unique friendship, a friendship now shared with Warren, for we were united by a bond far stronger and more lasting than any we could find in the world below. I wondered what thoughts were passing through the minds of my companions during the final moments. My own thoughts rambled back through the entire history of Yosemite climbing—from that indomitable Scotsman Anderson, who first climbed Half Dome, to John Salathé, whose philosophy and climbing ethics have dominated Yosemite climbing for nearly twenty years, to Mark Powell, Salathé’s successor, who showed us all that climbing can be a way of life and a basis for a philosophy. These men, like ourselves had come to the Valley of Light with a restless spirit and the desire to share an adventure with their comrades. We had come as strangers, full of apprehension and doubt. Having given all we had to the climb, we had been enriched by a physical and spiritual experience few men can know. Having accepted the hardships as a natural consequence of our endeavor, we were rewarded by a gift of victory and fulfillment for which we would be forever grateful. It was for this that each of us had come to Yosemite, and it was for this that we would return, season after season.
My reverie was interrupted by a shout from above and in the full, rich moonlight I prusiked to the top where Yvon was waiting for me. Warren had hiked to the summit cap to see if anyone had come to meet us. He returned alone and the three of us shared some of the happiest moments of our lives. As we turned away from the rim to hike to Snow Creek and some much-needed water, I caught a last glimpse of our eagle, below us for the first time. In the moonlight, he glided serenely across the face as majestic as always, and as undisturbed by our presence as he had been five days before.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Yosemite Valley, California.
Ascent: First ascent of south face, Mount Watkins, July 18 to 22, 1964. Personnel: Yvon Chouinard, Warren J. Harding, Charles Pratt.