American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Two New Yosemite Routes

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1970

Two New Yosemite Routes

Galen Rowell

The master builder chose for a tool, not the earthquake nor lightning to rend and split asunder, but the tender snowflowers falling noiselessly through unnumbered seasons, – the offspring of the sun and the sea. – John Muir.

Southwest Face of Liberty Cap

OF ALL the great rocks in Yosemite, Liberty Cap shows the most obvious signs of glacial origins. To the east it presents a rounded and polished hump, still strewn with erratic boulders poised on its slabs as if waiting to be used as artillery against some unknown force in the valley below. Toward the southwest, the same “step” in the Merced Canyon which created Nevada Falls also created a 1500-foot vertical face on Liberty Cap.

Some areas of Yosemite are so liberally sprinkled with climbs that a photograph showing the routes is almost completely obliterated by the dotted lines. A climber walking by the base of Nevada Falls, where the mist softens the meeting of water, rock and forest, cannot help but glance upwards at the southwest face of Liberty Cap. Sheer, but softly contoured, the rock seems rather tame compared to E1 Capitan or Half Dome. He might say to himself, “That’s a nice wall. How many routes are on it?” Until May, 1969 the answer was “None”. Warren Harding had had his eyes on the face for many years, often passing by it while making one of his trail records. (Example: 3-hour, 55-minute round trip to the top of Half Dome — a 5000-foot elevation gain on a 16-mile trail in 100° heat without a single sip of water.) When Warren asked Joe Faint and me to join him on this wall, my reaction was that it might turn into a potpourri of his past accomplishments. The 28-bolt ladder at the summit of the E1 Cap Nose route was put up by Warren on his twelfth day on the wall, bolting continuously all night and reaching the summit the next morning. Liberty Cap had an equally blank overhang blocking its midriff. All prior attempts on the face had been stopped here with such finality that not a single bolt had been placed on the headwall. We were sure that all of Warren’s talents would come into play as temperatures soared into the nineties just before the climb. It has often been said that Warren climbs better as the mercury reaches the century mark!

With great confidence we attempted to climb the route in a weekend. We met the same fate as all previous parties. We had climbed several pitches of steep direct aid up leaning cracks, reaching a high point near the usual spot just underneath the hundred-foot-high overhang. There I succeeded in convincing Warren and Joe of the relative merits of attending an AAC section meeting in Yosemite instead of bivouacking in the umbra of the overhang. When we returned the next day, we decided it was a fine day for taking pictures and swimming. Plans were made to make the climb the following three-day Memorial Day weekend.

As all big-wall and expedition climbers know, logistics can make or break a climb. Our next attempt was marked by an error in logistics unheard of in the annals of Yosemite climbing. Many valley climbs have failed because of torn hauling bags, lack of food or water, or insufficient climbing equipment. This was not to happen to us. In fact we were probably the first party in Yosemite history accidently to double rations. We ended up on the wall with six day’s food and five gallons of water! Early accounts of valley climbing mention climbers with parched throats looking down longingly at the splashes made by swimmers in the Merced River. We voraciously guzzled water as we watched tourists swelter up the hot dusty trail below.

By noon of the first day Warren was beginning to lead the overhang. He drilled shallow holes in which to place ground-down cliff hangers, which he christened “bat hooks.” He demonstrated their holding power by placing seven in a row on the overhang before placing a real bolt in a fully drilled hole. He then placed seven more bat hooks interspersed with pitons in a nebulous crack before placing another bolt. A final row including nine bat hooks finally put him on a ramp at the top of the overhang. For a normal party of climbers to bolt the overhang would have taken a couple of days. Warren had done it alone in six hours with his new technique. Only two expansion bolts were placed in the entire overhang.

Happy to be past this obstacle we bivouacked in special single-point suspension hammocks, called “bat tents”. Hanging freely above the overhang we passed a very comfortable night.

In the morning I led a direct-aid pitch up to the base of a leaning dihedral. Soon Warren joined me, and we lessened our hauling weight by transferring a considerable portion of the water from the bottles to our stomachs. Below us the spray of Nevada Falls was a giant rainbow as the sun’s first rays skewed down the Merced River. At the same time we could see another rainbow in the distance in the spray of Yosemite Falls. Joe prusiked up and led overhead, placing bongs in the steep dihedral. Warren took the next lead beginning with free climbing but ending on a steep section with a row of mediocre aid pins. He reached a large platform about fifteen feet square. Then I led up a chimney and back onto the open face. I passed a blank spot with another bolt and a couple of bat hooks before reaching a tree at the beginning of a broken area. The next lead bombed up easy fifth class but ended with a surprise F8 move onto a huge ledge which traversed the entire face just below the summit. From the ledge Warren led up a crack until it ended and made several free moves onto what we thought was the summit. In the failing light of evening I prusiked up and found the summit still guarded by a 50° slab. The contrast to the wall was so great that we thought we should be able to walk up it with our hands in our pockets, but after several abortive attempts above very mediocre pitons, I gave up for the night. In the process of backing down to Warren I pulled out one of the “protection” pitons by putting my weight on the rope for a traverse. We rappelled down to the ledge for another orgy on our still giant sack of food and water.

In the morning we prusiked back to the summit slab, where in the better lighting I placed a bolt and found my way up the slab into third-class climbing, just below the actual summit. The view from the summit was dominated by the bald and blank south face of Half Dome, robbing us of some of our pride and reminding us that some of the bigger and better things in Yosemite remained to be done.

My last memory is of following a huge hauling bag filled with food and equipment down the trail. Two rapidly moving legs protruded from the bottom of the bag as it ran past incredulous tourists toward the valley floor, with the unmistakable gait of Warren Harding.

Glacier Point Firefall Route

The scene was ludicrous, Warren was sitting in a wooden chair, wearing a white cowboy hat, eating barbecued steak from a skewer with one hand and brandishing a half-full wine bottle in the other. No, this was not a Camp 4 party. It was a bivouac.

We were on Firefall Ledge, about 1000 feet below Glacier Point and 2000 above the valley. We were attempting the unclimbed direct Firefall Face. That day we had descended from the top and rappelled to Firefall Ledge, climbing two pitches up the headwall before returning for the night to the ledge. Our avant-garde bivouac was partly due to planning, such as the skewer, wine and steak, but mostly due to items rescued from the debris on the ledge. Tourists had dropped everything imaginable including folding chairs, garbage can lids, cameras, hats, sheet metal, paper airplanes, and even underwear. To add to the atmosphere, Warren told a story about an old plan of his to coat the face of the firefall with inflammable materials during the day and wait until evening on the ledge we were now on. In the time-honored Yosemite tradition a voice would boom down from Glacier Point, “Let the fire fall!” At that moment, Warren planned to light the wall at the bottom and yell, “Let the fire rise!”

Until the firefall was cancelled two years ago by the Park Service, climbers were not eager to test their speed on first ascents against the 24-hour interval between firefalls. The lack of obvious continuous cracks was also a deterent.

In the morning, I led a traverse which had been one of the big question marks of the climb. Carefully nailing underneath overhangs, I traversed over a hundred feet to the left using two bolts and two bat hooks to bypass blank spots. To give an idea of the complexity of this pitch, Warren took three hours to follow it, sometimes on Jümars, sometimes on belay. The next pitch led up a slightly overhanging headwall, oozing water from a natural spring in the rock. Near evening, a cry from Warren gave me scant warning as I watched him sail backwards out of the crack, pulling out two pitons. Luckily only bruised, he checked the late hour and began to clean the pitch backwards as he descended to my position. Our hammock bivouac was in sharp contrast to the preceding one.

Morning dawned brilliantly as we got our half-hour daily ration of sun at seven A.M. Luckily for us, our north-facing wall stayed cool throughout the climb. While tourists in the valley below sweltered in the Labor Day hot spell, we never took off our long sleeved shirts. We both prusiked to just below Warren’s brief high point of the day before. Slowly and cautiously I nailed up the slimy crack which had forcibly ejected Warren. Higher, a bolt on the wall protected the unimproving and unpredictable mud-filled flaring groove. Soon I reached a stance protected by good cracks and Warren led an aid pitch which exited us from the slime and placed us more nearly in line with the famous overhanging rock at the summit of Glacier Point. Another traversing pitch put us in the middle of a series of scaly overhangs reminiscent of the “zig-zags” on Half Dome. As Warren led underneath and around a large flake, we both heard a voice from near the top. It was Joe McKeown who was rappelling down one pitch to see how we were doing. He reached a ledge and said he would stay there until we reached him. We told him he might have a long wait since the sun was going down and we would probably have to bivouac soon. Joe produced a headlamp and assured us that we could reach him before dark.

Meanwhile Warren had reached a ledge about a hundred feet diagonally from Joe which was completely devoid of cracks. By the time he placed a bolt for a belay anchor and I cleaned the pitch it was well past sunset. Joe shined his headlamp to help me see as I made an airy traverse in the last few minutes of light. Warren somehow made it across in almost total darkness an hour later after we had straightened out ropes and hauled bags and hardware across the traverse. Possibly the lure of the cold beer which Joe had brought down in his pack gave Warren increased powers. After a beer, Warren used the headlamp to lead the last pitch to the summit. After a last look at the lights below in the “Los Angeles of the Sierra” we headed off ourselves towards the comforts and revelries of the valley floor.

The last chapter of our Yosemite climbing in 1969 was to be an attempt on the unclimbed south face of Half Dome, which Warren and I have tried three times before. On the afternoon of Warren’s last day on his construction job — he was quitting to go on the climb — he inadvertently walked into the path of a moving truck and suffered a badly shattered leg. We sincerely hope that Warren’s determination and tenacity — so evident in his climbing — will aid his speedy recovery and allow him to climb again with renewed spirit.

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Yosemite Valley, California

ASCENTS: Liberty Cap, first ascent of southwest face, May 30 to June 2, 1969, NCCS VI, F8, A3 (subsequent ascents with all holes drilled may find it to be Grade V) or UIAA VI—, A3 (Harding, Faint, Rowell).

Glacier Point, first ascent of Firefall (direct north) Face, August 30 to September 1, 1969, NCCS V, F7, A4 or UIAA V+, A4 (Harding, Rowell).

PERSONNEL: Warren Harding, Joseph Faint, Galen Rowell.

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