The Life of Warren "Batso" Harding
(originally published in the San Francisco Examiner’s Image Magazine, March 9,1986)
You can rue your run-of-the-mill roistering, and you can deplore your garden-variety dipsomania, but, my God, forget it, in present company the terms hardly apply. This Batso here has carved out a whole new order of magnitude in the hierarchy of riotous behavior. If Bacchus ever had a proper running mate, he sits across from me in this window booth right now. Another carafe, Batso? Why not? That makes, let’s see…oh, hell, who’s counting? Who can count at this point?
Warren J. “Batso” Harding throws a lopsided grin in my direction. “God, isn’t this fun?” he screeches in his high-register Dr. Demento voice. “I am having sooooo much fun, you just can’t imagine.”
Oh, yes I can, Batso, you madcap little renegade you. I know more than you think about your careening lifelong pursuit of skewed amusement. And, moreover, I’ve been sitting here these many hours in this bar in Poker Flat watching as you have systematically poured a full gallon of this truly awful box wine into your wracked and scarred little body. I’m happy that you’re enjoying yourself, but, really, what else is new? On your worst fur-tongued hungover day you could always find more fun than six monkeys on a Moped, and there’s certainly no reason to stop the party now, even for a fellow of the advanced age of – as you succinctly put it – sixty-one point five-five.
Batso’s flagrant romantic liaisons are part and parcel of his legend. There may have even been a marriage back there somewhere, he says, but he’s not really sure. He did once co-author a book with a beautiful climber named Beryl Knaut (nicknamed “Beasto”), a longtime paramour who was said to be nearly his equal as a fun-hog. (His more-famous 1975 book, the hilariously irreverent Downward Bound: A Mad Guide to Rock Climbing, is an acknowledged mountaineering classic.) But as a lifelong nomad, following construction jobs up and down the length of California, as well as booming out to Alaska and Vietnam, he was never what you’d call domestic material.
“Never had a bad relationship, though, and I’ve always split amicably,” he claims. “But there always did seem to be a nice lady who needed to have her tent filled out.”
Harding insists he’s not reclusive, but I can tell you it took some little sleuthing job to track him down to this fabled outpost in the Sierra foothills. I placed a lot of phone calls to his contemporaries like Rowell and Royal Robbins before I was lucky enough to get a telegram across his path. “What can I say?” he laughed when he finally called me from a pay phone. “I tend to disappear sometimes.” He was working on a construction crew building a prison near Copperopolis, he said, and I should come on up, we’d have some fun. We planned on meeting after he got off work, but it was raining like stink when I got here this morning, so he had the day off. We’ve been sitting here in this nearly-deserted resort motel bar since around 10 a.m., pounding back the malefic house plonk and watching the racing whitecaps out there on Tulloch Reservoir. And, yes, by God, we are having fun.
I’ve asked Harding to tell me his whole story, right from the beginning, and since, one, he’s a fabulous raconteur, and, two, I’m covering the bar tab, he’s not been reluctant to comply. He grew up in Downieville, up in the north end of the Gold Country above Tahoe, he begins, born into a family of Iowans who came to California before the Dust Bowl Okies. As a child of the Depression, he had to make his own fun, and thus spent a lot of time in the wilderness. “I fished a lot as a kid, but then I finally realized I was a terrible fisherman, so I thought, I’ll just leave all this gear at home, and go hiking.”
After high school he moved up and down the state doing road work, and on one of his crews he met a climber. That was the start of it. “There weren’t a lot of climbers around then, so we pretty much had it to ourselves,” he says. “I did a lot of mountaineering – the Minarets, Whitney, the Palisades – before I did any technical climbing. Then, in 1953, we took a trip to Yosemite, and I bungled my way up a few things, and I got the bug.”
He was 29 years old, tough and feisty from the construction work, with a wiry little body that was built perfectly for slithering up walls. “I was really, really drawn to it,” he says. “I think my real point of motivation was that it was the first thing I was ever good at. I couldn’t catch a ball, or any of that stuff. I could only do what required brute stupidity.”
His first major wall was the north buttress of Middle Cathedral Spire in Yosemite Valley, climbed with a stranger named Frank Tarver. “We did it very impromptu,” Harding recalls. “He came along searching for me one morning, and said, ‘Warren Harding?’ ‘Yeah,’ I said, and he said, ‘Let’s go climbing, do the buttress.’ ‘Sure, let’s do it,’ I said, and turned over to go back to sleep. ‘No, now,’ he says. ‘You’re so hot; let’s do it now.’ So we threw some food together, and started up, me thinking this guy is nuttier than a fruitcake. I thought we’d climb a ways and turn back, but we climbed so fast we overtook another party, and four and a half days later we made it to the summit – a first ascent.”
It was to be the first of many. But even though he was one of the pioneers of big-wall climbing, Harding insists that in terms of technique he could never hold a candle to his talented coevals such as Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard, T.M. Herbert, John Salathé and Galen Rowell. His style, he says, was to thrash his way up a route any way he could, and finesse be damned. “Oh, God, I was always a total mess,” he laughs. “I hate climbers like Royal Robbins who are so superior. He doesn’t mean to be, he just is. He’s methodic, scientific, capable, and so competent it makes me envious. I was climbing with some hotshot Brit in Yosemite once, and he said, ‘My God, Harding, you can’t do anything!’ I said, ‘I know, but I can do it forever.’”
Galen Rowell would certainly go along with that. “When you climbed with Warren it was like being on the rock with a human dynamo,” says Rowell, who, although a peerless climber and adventurer in his own right, is far better known for his luminous wilderness photography. “With Warren there was no turning around. He had that kind of total dedication that takes you to the top.”
Almost as important, Rowell says, was Harding’s singular ability to keep things light no matter how dicey the situation. “During our attempt on Half Dome in 1968 things really did get quite serious, but one of the things I remember is Warren making me laugh so much in spite of it. We were using two red ropes, and right off he gave each a name to distinguish them. One was Big Red, and the other was Little Harry, and each time he’d call for some slack on Big Red or tension on Little Harry I’d have to laugh out loud. It helped a lot.”
Rowell told me about another incident that added to Batso’s legend. It happened at a party in Fresno where mostly climbers were present. Harding, a little tipsy, made a wrong turn going to the john and tumbled headlong down a long flight of stairs into the cellar. “We heard this terrible crash, and we all rushed down to the cellar, and here’s Warren wedged between the water heater and the wall, stuck fast, but totally unhurt.”
Batso laughs when I remind him of this, but he insists that aside from a few harmless 60-foot zippers, it was probably the worst fall he ever took. Nonetheless, as to what he calls his “fame-iosity” as a climber, he demurely asserts that it was merely the result of being in the right place at the right time – which is to say Yosemite Valley in the 1950s, at the dawn of the Golden Age of Big Wall Climbing. That, of course, ignores the salient fact that as the author of dozens of major first ascents, he was himself instrumental in creating that historic epoch.
There were lots of non-pareil climbers on that scene, but it could be said that Harding’s only real rival was Royal Robbins, American climbing’s first superstar. The chasm between them couldn’t have been more pronounced. On the one hand was Robbins, big, strong and athletic, a dancer on the rock, while on the other was Batso, tiny, raffish and bedraggled, often climbing with serious injuries. (He once ascended El Cap soon after suffering a broken leg in an automobile accident.) Robbins was a climbing aesthete, a pillar of the mountain establishment who disdained the bolting of routes, while Harding would bash in a million pieces of iron if that’s what it took to get to the top. His feeling was that once he put his name on a wall, nobody could take it away from him for lack of style points, even the purist “Valley Christians,” as he so contemptuously called them.
“Oh, I ran into Royal right away in Yosemite,” Harding says. “We were bumping heads everywhere, vying for first ascents. The Valley was all virgin then, and the north face of Half Dome was the big deal. Me and Mark Powell and Dolt Feuerer put together a little expedition to do it, only to discover that Royal was already topping out on Half Dome. So, little egomaniacs that we were, we started looking at El Cap. But where? After referring often to a jug of wine, and looking it over very carefully, we decided we’d climb the Nose. It just seemed the obvious thing to do – the simple, dramatic place where the face comes together and…well, okay, let’s do it. We won’t make it, but we’ll give it a shot.”
Batso says it kind of pissed him off when he heard that, but it proved to be something of an overstatement. “Turns out that he had only chopped bolts on the first two pitches,” he laughs. “I guess he figured that it was a pretty nice climb after all, bolts or no, so why bother?”
Nonetheless, it was Harding and Caldwell who generated a media frenzy with their first ascent, receiving so much ink and airplay that it aroused deep resentment among their peers. What attracted all the attention was their refusal of an offer of rescue when they got stalled by a storm during their third week on the wall. Even though they had been on the route longer than anyone in Yosemite history, and were dangerously short on food, neither climber was prepared to pack it in. In explicit terms, they informed the Park Service of this via messages dropped in tin cans thousands of feet to the Valley floor.
“We were only eating maybe a half can of sardines a day and a little canned fruit,” Harding says. “But by superhuman rationing, we had stretched our one bottle of brandy so we still had some left. So, of course, I thought we were fine, but on Day Twenty the Park Service decided arbitrarily to rescue us.”
Harding and Caldwell were ensconced on the Wine Tower by this time, the only real ledge for nearly 3,000 feet, and by Harding’s account, they were enjoying a fine old time. “We were having a party!” he says delightedly. “We had saved some cheese and a nice Christian Brothers cabernet for the occasion. Then we saw ropes being lowered from the top! After a lot of screaming we finally convinced them not to come down after us. That’s what got the media so hot on the story.”
When they finally achieved the summit at noon on the 27th day, they were greeted by a horde of TV cameras and reporters. Harding says he was so emotionally over-wrought that he hid behind some boulders and bawled his eyes out before he could face the throng.
After that, Batso was a bona fide star. With his hawk-nosed good looks and piercing blue eyes, he played the role perfectly. He spent a couple of weeks in New York doing the big talk shows, had a story in Life, an interview with Howard Cosell on “Wide Wide World of Sports,” and there was talk of books and a movie. He became a hot ticket on the lecture circuit, and, of course, a willing social lion. And, Batso being Batso, he never made a dime out of any of it. “In fact, I think that after expenses, which were rather extravagant, we lost $300 on the lecture tour,” he says with a chuckle. “So after this stint of swimming in fame-iosity, all the partying and notoriety, before you knew it, I was back working construction. And the Valley Christians were complaining about how we were commercializing climbing! Christ, I’ve done a lot of nutty things in my life, but I never tore up my union card. I wasn’t just some climbing bum. I’ve always worked.”
By now the gloom of evening had settled over the lake, and Batso had taken on a distinct starboard list. At some vague point we had been joined by Harding’s girlfriend, Alice Flomp, and a friend of hers, and, since it was now officially cocktail hour, he had switched from wine to double Manhattans. In an unobtrusive manner, Ms. Flomp appeared to be rationing his drinks, and soon, at her urging, we went in to dinner.
Photo by Rob Pizem
At the table, she fussed over Harding like a child, encouraging him to eat his fettucine, and cheerfully wiping up his spills. “I forgot my bungee cords,” she laughed at one point. “I usually carry them to tie him onto barstools.”
By this point, the thread of his narrative was proving ever more elusive, but Harding soldiered on toward the finish. Over Irish coffee he told us how the name “Batso” came about. When the film Midnight Cowboy came out, it seems, his friends decided that he bore an uncanny resemblance to the gritty Dustin Hoffman character, Ratso Rizzo. From that, combined with his penchant for hanging out on rock walls like a bat, came the moniker. And from Batso came B.A.T. – Basically Absurd Technology – Harding’s resolutely unprofitable mountain gear company, one of the products of which was the infamous “Bat tent,” designed to provide shelter on high walls.
“It was a pretty good idea, the Bat tent,” Harding says. “I think I invented it, although there may have been others working on something like it at the time. It was designed to keep you out of the elements, but the first time we used it, on Half Dome, we discovered a basic flaw when a storm hit, which was that it held any water that came its way. We spent a couple of days swimming in the damn things, and nearly froze to death. Back to the drawing board.”
This, of course, was the famous attempt on the south face of Half Dome with Galen Rowell in 1968. In the annals of climbing literature, Harding’s account of his and Rowell’s “death bivouac” and eventual rescue ranks among the most thrilling. “I strongly believed that we weren’t going to survive on Half Dome,” he says. “I just had this feeling of resignation. I’ve read about dealing with likely death, and the sense of peace that comes, and even though I’m not religious, and I don’t pray up there, I had no problem with it. I was ready for it. We spent three days stuck in freezing rain and snow 750 feet from the top, and it puts you into this kind of induced shivering to try to keep yourself warm. After about 36 hours of it, you’re pretty exhausted. That’s the merciful thing about climbing – that you can get so goddamned tired you just don’t care if you die or not. It finally took a helicopter to get us off that face, and it was Royal Robbins who rappelled down to get us. I was so far gone I didn’t recognize him. Of course, hypothermia hadn’t been invented by then, so we didn’t even know we had it.”
Two years later Harding and Rowell made another attempt of the route and bagged the first ascent.
Photo by Galen Rowell/Mountain Light
The basic premise of mountaineering, according to Galen Rowell, is the trust that builds up in a team of climbers. “It’s really what it’s all about, an incredible bond and a real closeness involving tremendous respect,” Rowell says. “I’ve always had that kind of trust for Warren from our climbing together, and he’s never broken it. He’s a real renegade, and no one could ever rein him in, but you could always trust him.”
Well, you could damn well trust him to be entertaining, I’d learned that over the course of our marathon drinking day. By now it was late in Poker Flat, and they were starting to stack the chairs on the tables, but Batso wasn’t quite ready to close down the party. He ordered yet another nightcap, bringing a disapproving frown from Ms. Fromp. For a little guy, his capacity was astounding. Rowell had told me that once his wife had had the temerity to suggest to Harding that, all things considered, it might not be a bad idea for him to stop drinking. “Stop drinking?” he’d said incredulously. “Why would I want to do that? I love to drink!”
Even so, he was clearly beginning to fade. “I feel weak and old and wiped out,” he whispered, his voice having nearly deserted him. “But I’m damn sure not ready to lapse into fuddy-duddyism!”
I asked if he ever thought about climbing again. “I haven’t climbed seriously in a while,” he said ruefully. “A failed attempt to re-create the Nose climb on El Cap a few years ago was probably the last time. I’ve had soooo many failures to go along with my few successes. But then, everything I do is rather farcical. I still go to Yosemite, of course. I feel happier and healthier at high altitudes. Looking back, I don’t think of my ascents as any great works of art; they were more scratching and clawing your way upward, like a bug in a toilet bowl. And I never had any big revelations climbing either. I was just always wondering why it was going so slow.”
Harding’s head was nodding nearly to his chest by now, and he let out a deep sigh. “It was a game, all a game, you know, and nobody worries about it anymore.” Oh, no, I thought, now he’s going to turn maudlin and ruin everything. But the lantern light of his indomitable spirit flickered to life again. “We did some pretty good stuff up there, though, and that’s all that matters,” he said, thumping his fist on the table. “We got our fair share.”
That you did, Batso. And then some.
(Warren Harding died peacefully at his home in Anderson, California on February 27, 2002, at the age of 77. Galen Rowell was killed in a light plane crash near Bishop, California on August 11, 2002.)