There are very few people in this world who know anything close to what Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell may have felt when they crested the lip of the Dawn Wall 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley, unclipped from their harnesses and fell into the embrace of loved ones last week.
Calistoga native and former Santa Rosa Junior College student Wayne Merry is one of those people.
Merry, 83, was on the team of three men who climbed the face of El Capitan in 1958, becoming the first ever to ascend the granite monolith.
Merry’s accomplishment and the feat achieved by Maria Carrillo High grad Jorgeson and Caldwell were distinctly different in climbing technique, but for the “this is going to blow your mind” first ascent factor, the two climbs are comparable, experts said.
Merry’s squad used ropes, pitons and other gear not just for safety but to help haul themselves up the granite face on a route now known as “The Nose.” Few thought it possible then to climb the sheer face 3,000 feet into the sky.
Jorgeson and Caldwell “sent” what is considered an even more formidable route called the Dawn Wall and they did it “free,” meaning the ropes and harnesses affixed to their bodies were only to catch them if they fell, not to assist their ascent up the famously barren rock.
“The differences are vast in terms of the methodology of the climb. I also think of some of those early climbers as engineers more than they were climbers, in a way,” said Shannon Davis, editor of Climbing magazine. “There are a lot of tools not used in free climbing. That is a key difference between what was going on.
“The similarities to me, I still think about just the threshold of what people think is possible being demolished and I think that happened with both climbs,” he said.
Merry, like those watching from the valley below, didn’t even know if his climb was possible.
Merry was a 27-year old college student and Navy veteran when Warren Harding’s expedition, a year in the making, began to crumble. Harding, who died in 2002, is these days widely known for his climbing exploits and counter-culture P.R. savvy. But in 1958 he was a little-known climber putting together a group to tackle what some thought was a pipe dream.
“I was a seasonal naturalist for the Park Service and studying in college,” Merry, now of British Columbia, said. “I was sort of helping them plan the route, talking about it.”
It was late in the summer of ’58, the project already months in the making, and Harding called Merry with a proposition. Would he consider joining the team?
“Oh, you bet,” Merry recalled.
It seemed less crazy, dangerous or daring than simply facing the unknown, Merry recalled.
“You have to recognize that it was improbable to start with,” he said. “We didn’t know right from the start whether it could be done.”
Let’s talk improbable. And let’s start with their gear.
Rubber-soled climbing shoes? Nope. Boots.
Harnesses? No, just a line of rope around their waists.
Energy drinks and protein bars for sustenance? How about water from a paint thinner can and kipper snacks?
Portaledges to sleep in? Nah.