George Whitmore, Climber Who Vanquished El Capitan, Dies at 89

Early on the morning of Nov. 12, 1958, George Whitmore, Warren Harding and Wayne Merry accomplished something many climbers considered unthinkable: They reached the top of El Capitan.

Conquering El Capitan, a 2,900-foot-tall sheer granite wall that looms over Yosemite National Park in California, seemed practically impossible given the limited tools and techniques available to alpinists of the day. The effort took the climbers 45 days, spread out over about a year and a half.

“The type of climbing had not been done before,” Whitmore said in an interview for Merry’s obituary in 2019. “We had to improvise as we went.”

In the decades since, El Cap has become one of the most famous climbs in the world. Some professional climbers ascend it without ropes, or climb so rapidly they seem to sprint up the side; the speed record on a route called the Nose, set in 2018 by Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, is just under two hours.

But Whitmore, who died at 89 on New Year’s Day at a care facility near his home in Fresno, Calif., blazed the trail.

His wife, Nancy Whitmore, said the cause was complications of the coronavirus.

Warren started climbing the Nose in 1957 with Mark Powell and Bill Feuerer. Their climb was constantly interrupted: They would reach a high point, place fixed ropes, descend for work or school and then resume the climb later on.

Their attempt was further constrained by Yosemite’s park rangers, who prohibited them from climbing during the summer tourist season.

Powell and Feuerer eventually dropped out of the climb, and Whitmore, Merry and Rich Calderwood joined Harding in 1958.

They often relied on climbing equipment that they cobbled together on their own, including pitons fashioned from the legs of old wood stoves. They subsisted on canned fruit, sardines and raisins, and water that they carried in an old paint-thinner can.

The National Park Service gave the climbers a deadline of Thanksgiving to reach the top, and in early November they began a sustained push.

The push took 12 days, in part because they were delayed by a heavy snowstorm. The Great Roof, an intimidating overhang, was not too difficult to navigate, but changes in the rock face near the end of the climb proved far more daunting.

“You’ve climbed up 2,700 feet or so, and all at once you get near the summit, and the nature of the rock changes so the cracks run horizontally,” Whitmore said.

At some point Calderwood descended the ropes to the ground without telling his comrades. The other three forged ahead.

For much of the last night of the climb, Whitmore and Merry huddled on the cliff face — “I felt like I was being impaled on a spit of rock for the whole night,” Whitmore said — while Harding climbed on by the light of a headlamp.

In a 1959 article in The American Alpine Journal, Harding described the final stretch as “completely devoid of cracks” and said it took “15 pitons, 28 bolts and 14 hours” to climb about 90 feet.

Harding finished the climb on the morning of Nov. 12, with Merry and Whitmore close behind. Members of their small support team greeted them with champagne.

Whitmore said that reaching the top brought “great relief.”

“No big sense of elation, whoop-de-do, nobody dances on the top or anything,” he said. “Just quiet satisfaction.”

George William Whitmore was born on Feb. 8, 1931, in Fresno. His father, Raymond, was a salesman, and his mother, Jean (Weir) Whitmore, was a homemaker who also worked for Pacific Gas & Electric.

After graduating from Salinas High School, George studied to be a pharmacist. He earned his degree in 1954 from the University of California, San Francisco, where he also took up climbing.

After college he served in the Air Force in a medical evacuation unit, and after leaving the service he climbed in Peru in 1958 before returning to Yosemite and El Capitan. He worked for some years as a pharmacist in the winter, taking summers off for hiking and climbing.

Whitmore became an ardent conservationist along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, which includes Yosemite National Park. He helped create the Kaiser Wilderness, a preserve to the southeast of Yosemite, and lobbied for the California Wilderness Act of 1984, which added some three million acres of land in the state to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

He also held various positions in the Sierra Club, where he met Nancy Gallaghan in the mid-1970s. They married in 1979, after his first marriage ended in divorce. She is his only immediate survivor.

In 2008, 50 years after they completed their historic climb, the House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Whitmore, Harding and Merry. Harding died in 2002, and Merry died in 2019.

Whitmore continued his environmental work for decades and kept hiking until recent years, when treatment for prostate cancer sapped his strength.

In 2016 he told The Fresno Bee that he thought outdoor adventurers, like Harding, Merry, himself and the legions of climbers who followed, helped ensure that wilderness would be preserved.

“You want people doing these things,” he said, “Because otherwise, eventually, it’ll be lost to somebody who wants to use it for something else.”

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