Life on the edge

The sun had just emerged over the horizon on the morning when Wayne Merry, Warren Harding and George Whitmore stood on top of the world's most iconic cliff face. 

The sun had just emerged over the horizon on the morning when Wayne Merry, Warren Harding and George Whitmore stood on top of the world’s most iconic cliff face.

It was Nov. 12, 1958 and the trio had powered through the night to complete the first ascent of El Capitan’s Nose route, the 3,000-foot (915-metre) granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.

Until then, the colossal rock face was thought to be unclimbable because of its steep, flat surfaces.

A support party greeted them at the top with champagne and long-stem glasses, two of which had broken along the way. Merry took his in a small aluminum cup.

“It was quite a feeling to get that over with,” said the 84-year-old Merry, who has spent the past 40 years living in Atlin, B.C.

It’s considered one of the greatest climbing achievements in history, and a reason why Merry has earned his spot among rock-climbing royalty.

Next week, on the 57th anniversary of the climb, he’ll be at Baked Cafe giving a slideshow presentation on the experience.

Originally from Napa Valley, California, Merry met the enigmatic Harding at a beach picnic in San Francisco in 1956.

The pair hit it off, Merry said, and they began climbing ocean cliffs together in the area.

“We decided we had a lot of determination between the two of us, so we started doing things in Yosemite,” he said.

The following year Harding learned that his former climbing partner, Royal Robbins, had beat him in becoming the first to climb the Northwest Face of Half Dome.

By then, all of the major rock walls in Yosemite Valley had been climbed with the exception of the Northwest Face of Half Dome and El Capitan.

Many of the best climbers at the time believed El Capitan couldn’t be ascended, Merry said, but Harding was committed to doing it – and one-upping Robbins.

Harding put together a team in July 1957 and started on the epic quest.

The group managed to make it about one-third of the way up over two summers, leaving fixed ropes along the way.

Merry wasn’t on the original team because he was working at the park as a seasonal naturalist.

But in 1958 when a few members of Harding’s team dropped out, Merry was asked if he wanted to join.

“You bet,” Merry said.

“I’ve always been one to try new things and that fit into the category.”

Their training regimen wasn’t nearly as intense as it would be for today’s rock climbers. Harding worked full-time and took care of his mother, while Merry went to college and lived off a $100 monthly stipend provided for military veterans.

As a result, the pair could only get away on weekends. They would go up the cliff face on fixed ropes, a bit higher each time, and leave more ropes.

“We trained on red wine, if anything,” Merry said.

In early November, they decided to make a final push for the summit.

Two friends who would act as their support team, Whitmore and Rich Calderwood, joined them.

Using a climbing method called prusiking – where loops of rope are tied to another rope, allowing one to climb – they made their way up to within 300 feet (90 metres) of the summit over several days.

Their equipment was “primitive,” Merry said. It consisted mostly of metal spikes called pitons, rock drills, bolts, wood hammers and yachting rope.

Merry wore marine corps combat boots with modified Vibram soles and had a few polyester sweaters.

They went up without any rain gear or down parkas, which would have been welcomed on the two nights it snowed, Merry said.

“We certainly didn’t have the fleece or Gore-Tex jackets you have today,” he added.

But fortunately Merry had a rubberized nylon tarp that sheltered them from the snow.

They would communicate with friends and girlfriends down below by writing short letters and putting them in empty soup cans, which they hurled off the cliff.

“She (his wife Cindy) still has all of them,” Merry said.

Their diet consisted of candy bars, kipper snacks, jerky, trail mix and water.

By the end of the climb they were only drinking a quart per day – about four cups – which wasn’t nearly enough, he said.

In an interview a few years ago, Merry said he’d lost 15 pounds by the time he reached the summit due to dehydration.

The only close call came when Merry was hauling a 50-pound (22.5 kilogram) bag of supplies up the cliff, and it almost fell off a ledge where it was sitting.

“If I’d pulled it off the ledge I would have been toast,” he said.

It wasn’t exactly the safest climb in the world.

According to the 2015 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering, which has a special section on El Capitan, there were more than 100 incidents on the monolith between 1974 and 2014 – 41 of which were on the Nose route.

Their accomplishment was recognized by the Yosemite Climbing Association in 2008 with a three-day celebration.

Merry signed autographs for three hours, he said.

The U.S. House of Representatives also unanimously passed a resolution honoring the achievement.

Nowadays, El Capitan remains one of the great challenges for rock climbers, although Merry’s feat has been repeated many times by now. In September, American rock climber Hans Florine completed his 100th ascent of El Capitan’s Nose route.

There are plenty of climbs that are harder and longer, Merry said. But few climbs have such a perfect route to the top.

“It remains iconic because it has the most perfect line on the biggest and most impressive piece of rock in the United States,” he said.

“The rock itself is just magnificent, too. The feel of it is remarkable.”

Merry will speak about the climb at Baked Cafe on Nov. 12 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. There is no cost to attend, but donations would be appreciated.

Contact Myles Dolphin at