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The Climbing Gear First Used on El Capitan, Half Dome and Sentinel

A rare glimpse of the hardware carried by John Salathé, Royal Robbins, Warren Harding and William "Dolt "Feurer to pioneer Yosemite's granite crucibles.

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This feature article was first published in the 2020edition of Ascent, and is free as a thank you for supporting us in 2021.  Ascent is published once a year and is included with an Outside+ or Climbing membership. Please join us with a membership and receive the spring 2022 Ascent edition.

Pitons and Aid Sling. Jerry Gallwas, 1953-1954

Jerry Gallwas was a teenager in the early 1950s scouting for desert climbs when he found a 75-pound anvil in an abandoned mining shack. Gallwas had dreams of fashioning his own climbing gear, so, taking turns with his partner, lugged the burden five long miles back to his car. Much of the rack used on the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Half Dome in 1957 Gallwas made specifically for cracks the team had spotted on a 1954 winter recon of the route. Snow on the ledges helped them define their eventual path.

Gallwas pounded out pitons of all sizes, from 3/4-inch ring angles to several 2 1/2-inch flat-back pins, one of which the team fixed while traversing Thank God Ledge. The two-step aid slings were based on John Salathé’s early design for both speed and lightness, unlike European bulky hard step ladders from the same time that were constructed for comfort and siege tactics.

 

Warren Harding’s Climbing and Rappelling Vest, Nose Hammer and Bolt Hanger, 1957

In 1957, rappelling meant wrapping a rough braided nylon rope between your legs, around your hip, across your chest, then over your shoulder and across and down your back to your hand. The more points the rope grabbed, rubbed and tugged at, the more friction (and heat) the system generated. If the rope slipped off your shoulder, the resulting foot-long burn marks were the least of your concerns. Warren Harding, who led El Cap’s first ascent, by way of the Nose in 1958, forever transforming climbing, decided to stack the odds in his favor with this stylish suede-leather climbing vest, complete with hand-sewn gear loops and whole-grain, leather-reinforced three-snap closure technology.

The hammer is actually a modified center punch fitted with a wooden handle. Harding learned this trick from John Salathé. Harding dropped the hammer from high up EL Cap during the first ascent of the Nose. The team, consisting of Harding, Wayne Merry and George Whitmore, went down and retrieved it from the talus field only to find the handle had broken—it was replaced with local Yosemite oak, then drilled with a keeper cord to prevent future drops.

The three-piece bolt hanger, possibly created by Bill “Dolt” Feurer, was typical of those used to pioneer the Nose. While the hanger offers a number of ways to fail, it was the bolts that were much more likely to blow. “The bolts were bloody awful. I wouldn’t hang a picture from them today. I belayed from them then,” said Merry, who died last year at the age of 88. (See “Climbers We Lost in 2019,” rockandice.com)

 

 

Dolt Pins, early 1960s

Bill Feurer was a climber and photographer who worked as a machinist for McDonnell Douglas by day and made jewelry like pitons for his company Dolt Industries on nights and weekends. Highly refined and buffed to a mirror finish, his gear was prized by climbers who viewed his offerings more as religious icons than tools for ascending stone mountains. Dolt’s attention to detail and design elevated his work to art, where function often follows form, as can be seen in his wafer-like knifeblade and the elegantly crafted Cobra Hook’s thinnest of eyes. The cutouts on his chromoly bong look more playful than practical, until you pick one up and feel the featherweight of this granite-busting chunk of steel. While clearly drawing his inspiration from Salathé’s sturdy Lost-Arrow designs, Feurer created D-shaped eye and custom shaped blades that seem more whimsical than useful.

 

Aid Kit, FlashLight and Water Bottle from the first Ascent of Half Dome, 1957

Jerry Gallwas smiled as he recalled checking in with the rangers before he, Royal Robbins and Mike Sherrick hiked up to make the first ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face in 1957. “The rangers asked us if we had a first-aid kit, and we said ‘Yep.’ They never asked us what was in it.” Sixty-three years later, Gallwas still won’t spill with the kit’s contents.

The flashlight is perfectly preserved. “We didn’t use it much,” he says. “Back then you weren’t climbing in the dark.” The one-gallon hard-plastic chemical bottle cost $16 in 1957, the equivalent of $146 today. “I was making a dollar an hour at the time,” says Gallwas. “Rope was cheaper than plastic.”

Zeiss Ikon Camera, Allen Steck, 1949

Rumored to be made from the recycled steel of German Panzer tanks, the Zeiss Ikon folding camera was the perfect tool for capturing Yosemite’s Golden Age of climbing. It won’t fit into your pocket, and you can’t text your sweetheart or call for a SAR from this brick of a camera, but it did make some of climbing’s most iconic photographs.I never really thought about the weight,” says Allen Steck, who began climbing in 1940 when he was 14, and, with Steve Roper, founded Ascent in 1967. “We always wore the camera around the neck. The pack was for food and water. The camera was like a piece of climbing gear. You just got used to it.”

Steck is perhaps best-known for his first ascent of the Steck-Salathé, but he made first ascents all over the world including the Hummingbird Ridge on Mount Logan in Canada in 1965. Despite myriad attempts by climbers with modern gear and technology, the Hummingbird Ridge remains unrepeated 55 years later, and is considered one of North America’s greatest and most challenging alpine climbs.

Salathe Artifacts, 1940s-1950s

John Salathé was the grandfather of Yosemite big-wall climbing, making first ascents of the Lost Arrow Spire (1947), the Southwest Face of Half Dome (1947), and, most notably, the Steck-Salathé (1950) on Sentinel—one of the Valley’s more popular climbs even today.

A talented blacksmith, Salathé set up shop (Peninsula Iron Works, Diamond P) 200 miles from Yosemite in San Mateo, California. Many of the pieces that adorned his early rack were everyday tools that Salathé modified for climbing: a baling hook with stabilizers and ring added, the tip sharpened and grooved; hammers with picks reshaped for piton removal, handles drilled and slung with keepers. Salathé also forged purpose-built climbing tools including bolt kits, hangers, ring-angle pins, and the legendary Lost-Arrow piton. His rope was a skinny 120-foot piece of braided nylon, a product developed by the 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army during WWII. Salathé used this rope his entire 12-year climbing career.

This feature article was first published in the 2020edition of Ascent, and is free as a thank you for supporting us in 2021.  Ascent is published once a year and is included with an Outside+ or Climbing membership. Please join us with a membership and receive the spring 2022 Ascent edition.

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