Age of Pioneers

The first installment of our three-part series, “El Capitan: Mountain of Dreams.”
A photo of the granite face of El Capitan, with text "El Capitan Mountain of Dreams"

Climbers Errett Allen and Mike Corbett expected the usual challenges while ascending the famed El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Jamming hands and feet into cracks, clinging to tiny holds on nearly featureless walls, and pendulum swings filled their first three days on the route called New Dawn.

Then a December surprise kicked their adventure into another gear. An icy rainstorm soaked the climbers and halted progress on their fourth day. By the time they hastily set up a hanging shelter, they were drenched and nearly hypothermic.

Worse yet, “we discovered that all of our bivy gear was soaking wet! We had been careless about packing it that morning,” recalled Allen. The men wrung out their wool clothes, put them on and rubbed their numb hands and feet for warmth.

As the sun set and temperature dropped even more, they found their sleeping bags and jackets were no longer wet. “They were now frozen lumps of ice, completely useless,” Allen said. “That night was the longest and coldest bivouac of my life… Sleep was impossible.”

A photo of El Capitan in the winter, with snowy trees surrounding a large granite face
Winter conditions make climbing El Capitan even more challenging, as Errett Allen and Mike Corbett learned. Photo by Matt Johanson

Climbing El Cap fulfills the lifelong dreams of many; triumphant shouts echo from the mountaintop often during the climbing season. But not everyone who attempts the 3,000-foot granite monolith succeeds, and some who do reach the coveted summit grapple with mountain-sized adversity along the way.

Glaciers and the ancestral Merced River formed Yosemite Valley over millions of years, geologists believe, revealing the granite walls visible today. Miwuks called the world’s largest granite monolith “Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La” after a legendary worm that climbed it to save two bear cubs. Members of the Mariposa Battalion named it El Capitan in 1851.

A two-panel book cover showing Warren Harding autobiography. The back cover says "Why do people climb? How the hell do I know?"
Warren Harding, who pioneered The Nose, expressed both his climbing style and personality in his autobiography.

Climbers turned their attention to El Cap starting in 1958, when Warren Harding led a team which labored 47 days to achieve the first ascent of its sheer face. A final push through a cold night brought the exhausted group to the summit on Nov. 12. “El Capitan Conquered,” cheered one newspaper, though Harding himself was more modest: “It was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered… El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.” The pioneers named their new route The Nose, as it divides the mountain’s wide face vertically down the middle.

A black and white photo of a climber working his way up the tall face of El Capitan.
Royal Robbins leads a pitch on the first ascent of Salathé Wall. Photo by Tom Frost.

That breakthrough changed climbing forever. Through the 1960s, climbers flocked to Yosemite to establish new routes. Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost made the second ascent of The Nose and first ascents of the Salathé Wall and North America Wall. El Cap witnessed an early fatality in 1968 when Jim Madsen died in a rappelling accident, though most parties prevented injuries through the use of ropes and pitons.

A three-panel collage of photos showing a young woman placing a hook into a hold in the rock, a woman looking at the camera with a smile rappeling down, and a woman walking with climbing gear on. This woman is Beverly Johnson
Beverly Johnson achieved historic firsts on El Capitan.

Women made multiple breakthroughs during the 1970s. Beverly Johnson and Sibylle Hechtel made the first all-female ascent of El Cap on the Triple Direct route in 1973. Johnson would later set more women’s firsts by soloing an El Cap route, the Dihedral Wall, and establishing another, Grape Race. “Rocks make no compromise for sex,” Johnson said. “On a rock, everything is equal.”

Allen and Corbett faced more difficulty than most on New Dawn in 1978. Despite years of experience, 200 pounds of gear and a sunny forecast, the two still had to fight for their lives. Frigid rain was just the beginning as snow arrived on the sixth day, immobilizing them again.

Because their pendulum traverses delivered them to an overhanging part of the mountain, “retreat was completely impractical.” They could not simply rappel to the ground because their rope could not reach that far; the line would end in mid-air. Still, “we felt that our situation was not desperate …. Hopefully with good weather we could continue to the top.”

A two panel graphic showing an illustration of the challenges of El Capitan, and the other panel showing the path of a popular climbing path.
Errett Allen and Mike Corbett endured a perilous snowstorm while climbing El Cap’s New Dawn route. Illustration by Christopher Hampson.

Friends shouted encouragement from El Capitan Meadow below and offered to get help. More than a few would have accepted, but Allen and Corbett declined. “We shouted back that we were okay and didn’t want a rescue,” Allen said.

Weather cleared on the seventh day, raising the climbers’ spirits. Then hope turned to terror as sunshine loosened ice above which crashed down around them. “Blocks of ice two to four feet thick and as long and wide as railroad boxcars began to peel off the rim. They would flip over and over like playing cards, making an incredibly loud and dreadful whoosh with each flip… They smashed into the wall with great force breaking into thousands of pieces which showered the forest below,” Allen said.

The climbers took refuge under a small roof, or overhanging section of rock, to shelter from the ice. Later, a falling rock hit Allen’s face “like a baseball bat,” causing “a bleeding and bruised mess.”

Finally, they pulled themselves onto the summit on their eighth day. “Though tired, sore, hungry and weak, we were completely elated at having survived and accomplished our goal through so much adversity,” Allen said. Few El Cap climbers have achieved a harder-won victory. All that remained was a final night in the freezing elements and an eight-mile descent hike through deep snow.

El Cap has a way of dealing out unexpected hardships. Yet despite the challenges, or perhaps because of them, the mountain would only attract more climbers in the future. Harding and other pioneers from the Big Stone’s first 20 years of climbing could scarcely imagine the exploits and dangers of the coming decades.

This is the first of a three-part series. Next time: Danger Zone

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