No, not that one; Warren G. Harding was the 29th president of the United States. I looked rather quickly, but I could not find any mention of Harding’s involvement in the sports world.
No, the Warren Harding I am talking about is the one who was commonly referred to as Batso, who spent much of his life hanging from rock walls on “bat hooks” or spending his evenings in “bat tents”, far above Yosemite Valley.
I first became aware of the sport of rock climbing in 1971. I had been in Fresno for a few days, after loading up my station wagon in Fullerton and heading north to attend my first year at Fresno State. A few days prior to classes starting, I got a knock at my dorm room door. It was my brother Tom, who had arrived unexpectedly from somewhere on the road. He had been traveling through the western United States that summer in his VW camper van, with his first wife, Mary Helen. Knowing I was in Fresno, they decided to route their adventures through the Central Valley, with the ultimate goal of Yosemite National Park. Not knowing exactly what I was doing in Fresno anyway, I was quickly convinced to join the Volkswagen adventure. Off we went up Highway 41 to the Park’s south entrance at El Portal, and from there, down to the Valley. Upon arriving at the campground before sunset, we cruised around and observed an interesting spectacle taking place. At the base of Lower Yosemite Falls there was a group of young people hanging out and, in some cases literally hanging from the granite walls that ascended toward the top of the falls. In 1971, that was considered a “happening”. And a happening was always the place to be; Fun, and wine and girls and guys, and who knows what else going on. Apparently, there was a lot of rock climbing going on.
After a couple of days I returned to Fresno, and spent the next four years trying to figure out why I was in Fresno. Meanwhile there were a group of guys a couple of hours to the northeast who knew exactly why they were there. Warren Harding and Royal Robbins were in their hey-day. Robbins, the bookish entrepreneur from Modesto, and Harding, the iconoclastic climber, known for his hard drinking, fast cars, and amazing climbing endurance were busy making rock climbing history.
Harding in particular, had the cowboy personality and the determined drive that led him to pioneer 28 first ascents in Yosemite, as well as making some of the most remarkable climbs of all time that included the “Dawn Wall”. The Dawn Wall best epitomized the rock climbing world and the competition between Harding and Robbins in 1971, the same year that I was hanging out in a campground on the valley floor, far, far below.
Harding, 46 years old at that time and his side kick Dean Caldwell drew a national audience as they waved off a National Park rescue on their 22nd day on the wall, in the middle of a 4-day thunderstorm. They summited 5 days later to the warm reception of well wishers and reporters. Later, Robbins followed the same path up the Dawn Wall, with the intent of removing all of the permanent bolts placed by the Harding group in the earlier conquest. After several days on the wall, chopping off the bolts as they ascended, they came to the realization that in fact, Warren Harding had accomplished something significant, despite getting there in a different and what Robbins believed to be a far-less acceptable manner.
Yes, rock climbing had become a national phenomenon. It was 1971 and Warren Harding and Royal Robbins were the king(s) of the hill. They left a great legacy. Harding was never mistaken for the 29th president of the United States, but he is still recognized as one of the icons of the rock climbing world. “We’re insane. Can’t be any other reason.” – Warren Harding on the motivation of rock climbers.