Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing, by Warren “Batso Harding, with illustrations by Beryl “Beasto” Knath. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1975. 204 pages, numerous photos and drawings. Price $7.95.
Climbing autobiographies have never become popular in American climbing, probably due to the lack of audience. The scene has never had a public following as in such urban cultures, as France, which has produced many fine mountain memoirs, or Britain, which has also had a goodly number. One event in American climbing certainly did catch the public s fancy: Warren Harding’s climb of the Wall of Early Morning Light. Whether this was attention long overdue, a fluke or as Warren says, “Merely the result of a slack period in the overall news scene,” it generated a lot of public interest, gave Warren his long overdue fame— though not fortune—(he mock-laments that his first ascent of the Nose twelve years before was eclipsed in the news by the death of the Pope), created widespread fear and loathing in the climbing community, and eventually resulted in this book.
Into this literary void steps the modest Batso, at times unsure for whom he is writing. The climbing community has read his trenchant pieces of satire—directed as much at himself as at others and loved him for it. Some of this new wit is obviously for them, but the book is basically for wider audiences. It starts with a lengthy discourse on the conduct of climbing, with answers to the question of “How does the rope get up there?” works into climbing “Philopharcy” and Warren’s life as a rock climber, and climaxes with “the big motha climb” itself. All this is set in play form with members of the audience, ranging from Dr. Sigmund
Fraud and Hairy-Giant Superclimber to Penthouse Pundid and Rather Well-Equipped Young Lady, rising from time to time to pose difficult questions. Warren is right in his element. But the action dragged for me; I’ve heard too many novice-oriented explanations of how climbing is done. So I watched the reactions of interested but less jaded friends. They seemed to be as enlightened as entertained. Those who have read Warren before will recognize the humor.
What delights me is Warren’s sense of proportion, disarming by understatement the usual tendency toward self-important dramatics. He answers the question of “Why climb?” with “It’s fun.” Then he adds his twist on Mallory s famous enigma: “It’s there and we’re mad!” When he finally succeeds in getting up the south face of Half Dome after many tries and one close shave, it becomes “an uneventful but tedious six days.” And his final judgment on the publicity surrounding the Wall of Early Light is turned not toward climbing, which he doesn’t see suffering from its growing popularity, but toward the public, who got “something more positive to talk about than the routine crime, crises and catastrophies that normally dominate the news.”
Physical testing is a theme that runs through Harding’s climbing and, lightly of course, through this book. Not the gymnastic sort of move strength—he pokes fun at the Yosemite scene focused on free climbing but endurance, staying power, slogging it through the long haul. Instead of working the high bar or walking the chains set up all over Camp 4, we find Warren up on the Yosemite Falls Trail trying to better his time to the rim and back. His bolting marathon on the last pitch of the Nose is well known, hammering away hour after hour at the overhanging darkness, drilling all night to arrive on the summit at dawn.
I think Warren is truly excited by steep, blank walls. While most of us like to see the features on the walls, preferably set off by surrounding blankness, he sees the blankness of the route, the holes rather than the net which defines them, the gaps. Some choose form as their task, others emptiness. Either way we haul our load of conceptualized style around with us, as surely as our water and salami. Warren sees the rock his own way and climbs accordingly: blankness begets bolts. Being inventive too, and bold, and tired of hammering, he came up with bat hooks, a device guaranteed to keep the interest up.
Climbing ethics is a favorite topic with Warren, a subject he loves to hate. But do not be deceived. He is by no means antiethical. He chastises the early attempts on the Wall of Early Morning Light for starting up the right side of El Cap Tower, which he sees as a route unto itself. His own line further to the right he considered more direct, more in keeping with the character of the route and needing fewer bolts. He turned out to be wrong about the bolts, but the character of the climbing so impressed even Royal Robbins that he decided to quit “erasing” the route. Warren’s point is not antiethical then. He is just against other people imposing their ethics on him. He is certainly his own man.
Whatever the future holds for Warren Harding, it is bound to be interesting as he continues to do “my own thing my own way.”