Wayne Merry, Climber Who Conquered El Capitan, Dies at 88
El Capitan, a sheer granite wall that towers 2,900 feet above Yosemite National Park in California, is one of the most famous climbs in the world. Professional climbers are so familiar with this arduous rock formation that some climb it without rope or race up as fast as they can; the speed record on a route called the Nose, set in 2018 by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, is a little under two hours.
But for climbers in the first half of the 20th century, limited by rudimentary tools and techniques, El Capitan was terra incognita. The rock face was very smooth, without many of the vertical cracks climbers rely on, and many alpinists considered it insurmountable. Most climbers who did try were content to scale a pitch or two near El Capitan’s base.
But Wayne Merry, Warren Harding and George Whitmore were determined to go much higher.
On Nov. 12, 1958, they became the first climbers to reach the top of El Capitan after ascending the Nose, notable for a daunting overhang called the Great Roof. The climb took 45 days, spread out over about a year and a half; in each leg of the climb they would secure fixed ropes to the highest point they had reached so that they could later resume the climb with relative ease.
Merry, whose pathbreaking ascent inspired many climbers who have completed El Capitan in his wake, died on Oct. 30 at his home in Atlin, British Columbia. He was 88. His wife, Cindy Merry, said the cause was metastatic prostate cancer. His death was little reported beyond climbing publications and websites.
Harding undertook the climb in 1957 with Mark Powell and Bill Feurer, who were aware of the difficulties they faced.
“It was obvious that existing methods of conducting a sustained rock climb would be inadequate,” Harding wrote in an article in American Alpine Journal in 1959. “Because of the extreme difficulty of the climbing, we anticipated slow progress — perhaps no more than 100 to 200 feet a day.”
He added, “We agreed unanimously that the only feasible plan of attack would be to establish a succession of camps up the face, linking them with fixed ropes.”
Powell and Feurer dropped out before completing the climb. Whitmore, Merry and Rich Calderwood joined Harding in 1958.
They subsisted on cheese, raisins, canned fruit and sardines. They carried water in an old paint-thinner can, and drank wine. “We trained on red wine, if anything,” Merry told The Yukon News in 2015.
They relied on improvised implements, including pitons that they fashioned from the legs of old wood stoves and tools from a hardware store that they repurposed for climbing.
“I wouldn’t hang a picture from them today, but back then we hung our lives on them,” Merry told Yukon North of Ordinary magazine in 2016.
The climbers also faced limitations imposed by humans. Yosemite park rangers forbade them to climb during the summer tourist season, so they had a limited time to climb and faced greater risk of bad weather. They also had jobs or were attending school, so they climbed mainly on weekends.
The National Park Service gave them a deadline of Thanksgiving to reach the top, so in early November they began a nerve-racking final push. During that effort Merry dropped letters to Cindy Barrison, then his girlfriend and later his wife, from the cliff in tin cans.
“We were scared to death half the time,” Merry told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, the year of the climb’s 50th anniversary. “There were days I didn’t know what I was doing up there.”
The push took about 12 days, interrupted by an intense snowstorm; Calderwood dropped out before they reached the top. Frustrated by the delay, the three remaining climbers decided to push on, even in the dark. Harding, wearing a head lamp, climbed up the final pitch overnight, scaling a 90-foot wall, which he later described as “completely devoid of cracks,” with the help of “15 pitons, 28 bolts and 14 hours.”
Harding clambered over the top of the wall at about 6 o’clock on the morning of Nov. 12, with Merry and Whitmore close behind. Members of their small support team had hiked up the mountain from the other side and greeted them with champagne. Fifty years later the House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Merry, Whitmore and Harding for the accomplishment.
Harding died in 2002. In a phone interview, Whitmore, the last survivor of the three, described Merry as “the epitome of a good, steady fellow” whose “even-tempered, usually cheerful, never negative” outlook made climbing El Capitan possible.
“Don’t get excited, just keep plugging away at it” was Merry’s climbing philosophy, Whitmore said. “Maintain a positive attitude.”
Wayne Procter White was born in Fresno, Calif., on Aug. 4, 1931, to Harold White, a radio station manager, and Sara (Procter) White. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother later married Ralph Merry, who worked for Bell Telephone, and who adopted him.
Wayne grew up mainly in Calistoga, Calif., about 75 miles north of San Francisco, and graduated from high school there in 1949. His interest in rock climbing began after he joined the Sierra Club while serving in the Navy as a dental technician, stationed in San Diego.
Discharged from the Navy in 1956, he began studying conservation at San Jose State University, where he met Ms. Barrison. He proposed to her soon after climbing El Capitan, and they married in 1959, the same year he earned his bachelor’s degree.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, Scott and Kendall; a brother, William; and a step-grandson.
Merry became a park ranger in Yosemite and later in Denali National Park in Alaska, where he oversaw a failed rescue attempt that resulted in the deaths of seven climbers in 1967. Returning to Yosemite, he founded the Yosemite Mountaineering School and Guide Service in 1969.
He later persuaded park rangers there to work with climbers, a group with whom they had often clashed, to form Yosemite Search and Rescue, now widely regarded as a top rescue program.
In the mid-1970s Merry and his wife moved to Atlin, a village in British Columbia, where for a time they did odd jobs and lived off the land. He later helped design rescue plans for different parts of the Canadian wilderness; led wilderness tours and camping trips; and taught at what is now Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit, in Canada’s far northeast, along Baffin Bay.
In 2016 a student in Atlin asked Merry how he dealt with fear on El Capitan.
“Recognize when you don’t feel up to something,” he replied. “Otherwise grit your teeth and go for it.”
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