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.
Merry recalled a night he spent on a ledge he guessed was about a foot wide. He looped rope around his body and sleeping bag and ran the rope through pitons hammered into the granite.
“That didn’t work too well,” Merry said, sounding casual like he was talking about adding too much salt to his eggs. “Toward 4 in the morning I heard a tinkle and the pitons were coming out. They were not in very firmly.”
My palms were sweating at this point in the interview so I’m not sure I took the following notes quite right, but here is my best guess: “I had to get to them and put them back in and go back to bed.”
It takes a different sort to do what Merry did 56 years ago and what Jorgeson did last week. It takes a different sort to even think about it.
Merry knows that as well as anyone on the planet.
“They have done the hardest thing I can imagine ever doing,” he said. “It’s an astonishing feat.”
And Merry, who after his climb spent part of his career in the National Park Service in Yosemite, establishing the mountaineering school, the cross-country ski school and the Yosemite search-and-rescue program, before living and working in Alaska and spending decades teaching search-and-rescue courses in northern Canada, knows El Capitan better than most. And he knows how difficult the Dawn Wall is.
“That particular wall is so blank by comparison to the rest of the face. It was one of the last big problems,” he said.
But Merry’s climb was not without its problems.
Reps from the Park Service weren’t fans of the project. But prohibiting the try would have likely made for bad P.R., so officials put in place what they thought was a list of must-dos that would keep even the most determined group from proceeding.
“Finally the park service said, ‘OK, you have to finish this or get off — by Thanksgiving — one way or the other,” Merry said. “And you have to fix ropes the entire length of the thing because nobody can rescue you otherwise.”
Oh, and one more thing.
“And then you have to take it all down,” Merry said.
But the group pushed on.
Merry and Harding swapped lead climbing duties while two other climbers, George Whitmore and Dick Calderwood, used a rope system to haul up supplies behind them.
Thousands of feet off the ground, Merry slept, ate and climbed. He scooped tuna from the can with a piton, ate raisins and Baby Ruth and Oh Henry! candy bars.
And I had to ask: How does one handle bathroom needs?
Merry didn’t miss a beat; clearly he’s gotten that question before.
No. 1 goes right over the edge. No. 2?
“If you had solids to deposit, you used some kind of bag,” he said.
“Toss the thing,” he said. “Dick or George might get the full message. We almost hit them one time, but not intentionally.”
They also sent less pungent messages to friends watching from the valley below — sometimes notes stuffed into tin cans.
When the group reached the summit in the freezing, pre-dawn hours of Nov. 12, Merry was the last to scramble over the top after 13 days on the rock face. It was his job to remove ropes and rigging from the climb.
Merry looked up to see Harding, Whitmore, Harding’s girlfriend and Rick Anderson, a friend who had been dispatched to keep pesky reporters from falling to their deaths.
“But there weren’t any reporters,” Merry said, chuckling.
Seems Merry wasn’t the only one who thought the venture might be improbable.
“I honestly can’t remember any great sense of exuberance, just thinking, ‘Thank god that is over,’” he said.
They drank a toast, then (shhh) tossed the glasses over the edge.
Because they finished the climb in the pre-dawn light, there are no photos of the moment they crested, although there are some of the ensuing celebration, Merry said. Some time later, he and Harding returned to set up a shot of the two of them topping out.
He threw the rope over the ledge and looked down.
“My gut just turned over and I said, ‘My god, I can’t do this,’” he said.
Harding stepped up and actually started to rappel down, Merry said. Then he stopped. He admitted what no climber is supposed to.
“He lost the feel,” he said.
So they hiked back to the valley.
Climbing’s Davis said what Merry pulled off 56 years ago is no less remarkable than what Jorgeson and Caldwell did. Different certainly, but no less remarkable.
“I would say it’s absolutely no less of a feat,” he said.
Merry returns to Yosemite when he can, still drawn by the beauty.
And he still has reverence for El Capitan.
“I go there now and I think ‘My god, what were we thinking?’” he said. “I can’t imagine why we even started it.”
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @benefield