Warren Harding was a legend among climbers for his dogged assaults on Yosemite Valley's peaks. Yosemite Climbing Association

In 1958, Warren Harding redefined the possible with his ascent of El Capitan

When surveyors first laid eyes on Yosemite Valley, they remarked at its “perfectly inaccessible” granite peaks.

They could hardly have imagined Warren Harding, a boisterous and hard-partying Californian who — on this day 60 years ago — completed the first ascent of El Capitan.

Until then, no one had even considered climbing the nearly 3,000-foot monolith. But that changed in 1957, when Harding’s climbing rival Royal Robbins and two other men conquered the towering northwest face of Half Dome.

Harding’s competitive juices were flowing. “What we gonna do?” he recalled thinking in a 1999 interview. “Well, nothing but El Cap would do.”

Along with a series of partners, Harding inched up El Capitan’s so-called Nose route in stages over the course of 18 months. They used hundreds of homemade pitons and ropes affixed to the vertical slab that allowed the climbers to pick up where they had left off.

George Whitmore, Wayne Merry, and Warren Harding toasted each other atop El Capitan in 1958.

Yosemite Climbing Association

Then on Nov. 12, 1958, the men summited in freezing weather, emotionally and physically spent. Harding later remarked, “It was not at all clear to me who was the conqueror and who was the conquered.”

The men had redefined what was possible in the infant sport, ushering in an era of big wall climbing with El Capitan as the most celebrated and sought-after prize of them all.

Decades later, the latest generation of elite climbers is managing feats regarded again as unfathomable. Altogether, it took Harding and his partners about 45 days of climbing to reach the top of El Capitan. Last summer, two California climbers, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, set a new speed record on the same route: 1 hour, 58 minutes, 7 seconds.

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