Soul, passion, psyche, stoke—Warren Harding had it.
Harding died in 2002, but the Yosemite legend, who helped define the sport of climbing from the 1950s to the 1970s, is a symbol of the grizzled, non-conformist outdoorsperson that most of the rock climbing community has long worshiped as a “pure” scaler of stone. Now that a CrossFit-esque rock gym craze is sweeping through American cities, many climbing veterans worry that the outdoor soul of the sport might soon turn plastic.
Will it? Maybe. But probably not.
That ossification is inevitable only if the old guard reject the gym crowd, instead of embracing the indoor scene as the next step in rock climbing’s constant evolution.
One look at history tells us that the acceptance usually happens, even if it is begrudgingly.
In the winter of 1958, Harding and his climbing partners pulled over the rim of The Nose (2,900 feet) on Yosemite’s El Capitan. That ascent—the first up El Cap—is considered among the greatest rock climbing achievements ever.
Harding wasn’t the only Yosemite icon in the Valley in the 1950s, however. His run up The Nose was a mission to overshadow the 1957 first ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face by Royal Robbins and his crew.
Robbins was calculating and meticulous. He preached a conservative “clean climbing” style that didn’t scar the stone. Harding was a freewheeling, booze-fueled misanthrope with zero qualms about drilling and bolting his way to the tops of walls.
In Yosemite Valley, climbing culture has always been based on innovation via competition, and the friction of their old-school vs. new-school rivalry was marked by increasingly difficult first-ascents throughout the Valley.
In 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell made the first aided ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, by drilling bolts into the face. A year after Harding’s ascent, an enraged Robbins started up the wall, destroying the pins as he climbed.
Then, something strange happened—after two pitches, Robbins stopped chopping. He was impressed by the difficulty of the progressive aid climbing style.
Today’s climbing cognoscenti point to trad strongmen like Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson and Alex Honnold as champions of the outside-only, blood-and-sweat ethos that Yosemite fostered. They agonize over the future of climbing’s soul in an era when the youngest prodigies rope-up for the first time under fluorescents as seizure-inducing dubstep whomp-whomp-whomps through speakers near the kombucha fridge.
Should they be worried?
Unlike most sports, climbing is an offshoot of a once-essential skillset: safely crossing big mountains. Because of those roots, rock climbing has always been in constant development. Alpinists shelved their hobnailed boots when an Englishman invented 10-point crampons in 1908, and rock climbers swapped hemp ropes for dynamic, nylon lines in 1953.
Harding’s and Robbins’ bolts vs. gear feud is a famous battle in climbing’s evolution—which Harding won—and the progressive spirit continued in the Valley with the rise of the Stonemasters crew in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the Stone Monkeys in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Since the mid-2000s, Alex Honnold has blown minds in the Valley with his big-wall free solos—a linkup of Astroman and The Rostrum in 2007, and Half Dome’s Regular Northwest Face in 2008—and a speed record on The Nose (2:23:51) with Hans Florine.
In fact, when Honnold debuted in the mid-2000s, climbers suggested his gym background as the key to his successes.
Honnold not only agrees that his years of training on plastic helped raise the Yosemite bar, he’s stoked for the next generation of gym rats to explore real stone.
“I’m in the first generation of gym climbers,” Honnold said, “and when I came on the scene, people thought I had a higher level of fitness.
“Now, kids are climbing 5.14a indoors and it’s not even considered hard.” But, he added, “It’s just a standard demographic shift.
“The question isn’t ‘What’s going to happen when they transition outside;’ they’re going outside, and it’s amazing.”
Rock gyms have been fixtures in the climbing community since the 1990s when American climbing legend Chris Sharma’s transition from plastic to stone redefined the “world class” standard for outdoor sport climbing and bouldering.
So is the exploding popularity of indoor climbing actually dangerous? Can it be bad if it’s pushing the sport’s athleticism higher?
In fact, the fate of climbing’s soul depends on the scoffing dirtbags—veterans can shun the Gym 2.0 generation, or they can embrace them as the vanguard of the next step in climbing’s constant evolution, shepherd them outside to real stone, and teach them crag ethics.
Like Alex Megos, Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma, and Alex Honnold, Sasha DiGiulian was once strictly a gym rat.
“I realized that what I really want to be doing in the sport isn’t spending my time in the gym,” DiGiulian said during an interview in March. “Outside, there’s no limit to how you can succeed.”