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A Climber We Lost: George Whitmore, January 1

Each January we post a farewell tribute to those members of our community lost in the year just past. Some of the people you may have heard of, some not. All are part of our community and contributed to climbing.

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You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.

George Whitmore

89, January 1 

On November 12, 1958, Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore climbed what may be the most famous rock route in the world, the Nose, for the first ascent of El Capitan, Yosemite—breaking a 3,000-foot barrier. 

On New Year’s Day, 2021, Whitmore, a pharmacist by profession and a cancer survivor, died of complications from covid. He was the last survivor of the celebrated three first El Cap ascentionists.

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The ascent, in then-pioneering siege-style and spanning efforts over 16 months, involved a veritable crowd. The journey began in 1957 when Harding, Mark Powell, and Bill “Dolt” Feurer spent a busy day in El Cap Meadow with binoculars—connecting features, envisioning pendulums, winding a way up the prow. Those three carried out the first major foray, but Powell was later sidelined by an ankle injury. According to the classic Camp 4 by Steve Roper, the roster continued in this way: Wally Reed came in; Allen Steck took what he considered a terrifying turn on the wall; Dolt stayed in; Rich Calderwood and George Whitmore were asked aboard; Wayne Merry and John Whitmer joined.

Almost surprising is that Whitmore only participated in the actual climb for the final push, done with Harding, Calderwood (who descended from midway), and Merry. 

Whitmore seems to have been a steady workhorse. Roper writes: “George Whitmore, a calm and shy loner, was content to haul loads, and Harding and Merry didn’t see him for days on end as he slept lower and lower on the route.” Whitmore spent a bleak night alone on Dolt Tower in a violent wind and rain storm. 

In a 2016 interview reproduced in an excellent obituary in the Fresno Bee, Whitmore said he had gone down in climbing history as simply hauling loads while the “heroes” went ahead, “but actually I was on the climbing rope part of the time pushing the high point, and in fact I would have been up there pushing the high point more except Wayne couldn’t handle the hauling.”

The trio spent 12 days on the wall, until Harding’s famous final 14-hour push through the night took them to the top.

The Fresno Bee also reported that when Whitmore’s nephew asked him a few years ago if he would put his El Cap climb at the top of his accomplishments, “Whitmore told him he wasn’t sure he’d even put it in the list.

“Whitmore considered his conservation work to be the most important.”

“He was passionate about saving California wilderness,” his wife, Nancy, told the Los Angeles Times. “He was a constant salesman, not for himself but for the forest and the wilderness.”

She told NPR, “He was a climber but that was secondary. His love of the wilderness is the most important legacy that he has.”

Whitmore was instrumental in establishing the Kaiser Wilderness in 1976 and the California Wilderness Act of 1984. Another continuing effort was protecting the mission of Yosemite Valley as it was balanced against business interests.

According to the Los Angeles Times, “He helped protect lakes and block dam projects and highways and also helped prevent Walt Disney Co. from developing a proposed ski resort at Mineral King in the 1960s and ’70s. It was stopped after sustained opposition by the Sierra Club and other preservationists, and the valley subsequently became part of Sequoia National Park.”

Gary Lasky, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Tehipite Chapter, describes his longtime cohort Whitmore in present tense: “He has a stiff bearing, he stoops somewhat but is very proud and thoughtful and gentlemanly. He listens carefully, he has his opinions, and he usually keeps them to himself.” When asked how Whitmore responded when his views were solicited, Lasky says: “There’s a pause. He will try to understate it. There are strong opinions but he tries to be polite and respectful of the audience. That runs in some ways contrary to his reputation as a person who is outspoken with respect to the environment.”

Whitmore was a hard worker, a letter writer and researcher. He attended almost all chapter meetings until the last three years, Lasky says. “George was always on top of it.”

Whitmore was 27 years old when he climbed the Nose, and at age 77, in 2008, attended a celebration of the 50th anniversary, joined by Merry. Harding had died in 2002, and Merry was to pass in 2019. 

Whitmore’s mother had survived Spanish flu and lived to be 100; he could have had more time to do good. He is survived by his wife, Nancy; a niece, Caroline Fisher, and her husband, Bob Knous; and a nephew, Randy Fisher, and his wife, Betty.

Donations may be made to Sierra Foothill Conservancy.

See also this obituary in the New York Times.

You can read the full tribute to Climbers We Lost in 2021 here.