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Yosemite National Park: Rock Star Anniversary

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Yosemite’s El CapitanNext to the Golden Gate Bridge, the towering cliff known as El Capitan might be California’s best known landmark.

But the Yosemite National Park icon is more than just a majestic, 3,000-foot-high chunk of granite: within the rarified world of rock climbers, it’s also a kind of holy grail.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that Wayne Merry, George Whitmore and the late Warren J. Harding hauled themselves over the top of El Cap to complete what is still considered one of the most remarkable feats in rock-climbing history.

The first ascent of a colossus long considered unclimbable opened the doors to innovations in equipment and technique that enable climbers of today to continue pushing the sport’s frontiers.

Whitmore, Merry and four other members of the nine-man team that pioneered the Nose route up the prow of El Cap reunited at Yosemite last weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of their achievement. About 200 climbers from around the world turned out to hear them reminisce during a slide-show presentation.

Climbers Hans Florine, left, and George Whitmore, right discuss climbing“Every climber in America owes their technical skills to these people,” said Dave Bengston, director of the Yosemite Mountaineering School founded by Merry in 1969. “It’s mind-boggling to think of the rigors and challenges they went through – everything they did was 10 times harder than what we do today.”

In this photo, speed climber Hans Florine, 44, (at left), discusses nuances of climbing El Capitan with George Whitmore, 77, a member of the team that completed the first ascent of the 3,000-foot Yosemite National Park landmark on November 12, 1958.

Harding’s team spent 47 days over 16 months to achieve the first ascent of El Cap. “Of the several hundred climbers who attempt the granite face each year in modern times, most who complete the task do so in three or four days,” Bengston said. Close to 100 routes have been put up since 1958.

A new speed record on the Nose route was set October 12, when Lafayette-based Lafayette, California-based Hans Florine and his Japanese partner, Yuji Hirayama, climbed from the base to the summit in 2 hours, 37 minutes and 5 seconds.

By Janet Fullwood. Janet served as the Travel Editor at the Sacramento Bee for 21 years.

Interested in a trip to Yosemite? Don’t miss our comprehensive Off the Brochure(sm) Travel Guide to Yosemite National Park.

Need a great hotel in the area? Check out the “Grand Dame” Hotels of the National Park System.

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