At age 85, this legendary rock climber still pushes the edge of adventure

On the edge of a cliff across from the world’s most recognizable chunk of granite, a crowd gathers around 85-year-old George Whitmore.

Word has spread among tourists at Yosemite National Park that this slender, bearded man in the wide-brimmed straw hat was part of the most famous rock climb in history: the first ascent of El Capitan, rising more than 3,000 majestic feet above Yosemite Valley. Whitmore, Warren Harding and Wayne Merry reached its summit as the sun rose on Nov. 12, 1958 – more than a decade before mankind reached the moon.

The difficult and enormous climb, blazed in the early days of rock climbing, is the stuff of legend. For more than half a century, the Nose route they pioneered has served as a mecca for the best climbers from around the world.

One of those climbers, Hans Florine, describes the 1958 ascent as having been “like a journey to the center of the Earth.”

“They didn’t know whether to bring three jugs of red wine or 100,” Florine says. “It was 100 times the adventure than when we go to do it.”

As Whitmore fields questions about the climb from Taft Point, a group of couples from Florida stand in awe.

“The only mountain we climbed was a sand dune,” says one of the men, “and it was pretty easy.”

When they realize Whitmore is 85, the awe mixes with concern. The only thing keeping us from certain death at Taft Point is a metal railing Whitmore leans over.

“You’re not really there until you lean over the railing,” Whitmore says with a sly smile. “That makes it official.”

The Florida couples eventually head back, but not without giving a word of caution.

“Take care of yourself,” says the sand-dune climber, “and stay off them big mountains.”

“That’s how you take care of yourself!” Whitmore exclaims. “That’s the best way.”

At 85 he’s lost none of his boldness.

His spirit – the heart of this tale – also made him an influential conservationist who led the charge in protecting huge swaths of the Sierra Nevada, his greatest legacy, but more on that later.

Another group of admirers stop Whitmore down the trail. He’s quick-witted and -footed, hopping happily across creeks and fallen logs.

“You inspire me,” says one woman. “I will think of you while I struggle for air.”

“Keep at it. Do it,” Whitmore replies. “I struggle for air, too. Keep struggling. Stop saying ‘no.’ Say ‘yes.’

Choosing challenge

I said yes and no to Whitmore, who lives in Fresno, earlier this year after he shared this proposal, which roughly sums up all his favorite kinds of journeys: Let’s go off trail in Yosemite up a steep mountainside strewn with loose rocks and across an exposed ledge with a vertical drop-off, then up a narrow gully and across another ledge to reach the summit of Grizzly Peak! (To be fair, he sold it a bit better than that.)

I was, naturally, all in at first – and then I wasn’t. There wasn’t a fear of getting hurt or lost, just my conscience constantly reminding me that Whitmore is 85. Eighty-five! What if, despite his enduring strength and stamina, he lost his balance and fell? I would have no part in the death of a national treasure.

He asked me to join him after he read a column I wrote about hiking with Rangasamy “Sekaran” Gnanasekaran of Fresno, who regularly does 40-plus-mile day hikes. Whitmore imagined he finally found someone as fearless as himself to scale Grizzly Peak with him.

He isn’t looking for help, just someone to share the way with. Grizzly Peak is dear to him and he wants to pass it on. He first found his route up the mountain, named after his favorite creature, as a young man. On a more personal level, he wants to know if he can do it again. It’s been decades since he made the trek.

He’s spent his life pushing the limits of possible, skirting a moving line that separates pioneering from recklessness. He’s always trying to exist in this place.

But how do you find it? And how do you make sure you aren’t pushing it too far?

With a smile, Whitmore says simply: “You wing it.”

He loves all kinds of challenges. He recently sent me a text while plumbing a sink at a rental property he owns. I tell him he shouldn’t have to fix sinks at his age, and he assures me that “fixing sinks keeps me young, trying to figure out solutions to problems.”

Still, his problems of choice continue to be mountains – big ones.

Why choose extreme mountain climbing over some safer endeavor?

“I didn’t have Albert Einstein’s brain,” Whitmore says with a laugh. “I couldn’t invent a new system of mathematics. He did what he was good at and I did what I was good at. I think that’s what people tend to do. They tend to enjoy the things they are good at.”

Whitmore may not have Einstein’s brain, but his is still a sharp and ingenious one.

He was working as a Fresno pharmacist during the El Cap climb, and he and a friend designed, new larger pitons – anchor points that climbers clip ropes into for protection in the event of a fall – that Whitmore manufactured to help the team move past troubling offwidth cracks, which are too large to jam a fist into and too small to fit inside.

Whitmore prefers mountains he can scale alone, if need be, with little or no gear, but it would be his adventure tied to a rope on the vertical face of El Cap that would cement his place in the history books.

The climber

He first saw rock climbers – a rowdy bunch leaping over a pile of burning tires for fun – as a UC San Francisco pharmacy student on a Sierra Club outing in Pinnacles National Park (then Pinnacles National Monument). He was intrigued by how these people didn’t seem to “fit the mold.”

As fate would have it, he soon moved into a house with a couple of climbers and through them started exploring the vertical world in 1953. His training, in reality, started in childhood, hanging from ropes rigged in his garage for fun. He had better balance and coordination than other kids, although he was perceived as a “physical weakling.” His junior high school coach lamented that he didn’t have any muscles, and his dad didn’t take him on his fishing and camping trips.

Despite all that, Whitmore would eventually find himself on the most famous rock-climbing team ever.

Its leader was Harding, who Whitmore first met after the guy strolled into Yosemite’s Camp 4 with a young woman. Whitmore and his buddies eyed her “greasy friend” with an “unsavory appearance” suspiciously, but their view changed once they realized he could climb.

“We hit it off because he was not into rules, either, and was basically a rebel and someone who believed in doing things his way,” Whitmore says.

Whitmore also believes in selflessness.

“I’ve gone down in the books as having been the Sherpa who hauled loads while the heroes did the climbing,” he says with a laugh, “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.”

Harding and Merry climbed new sections while Whitmore and Richard Calderwood of Sanger – who turned back shortly before they reached the summit – focused on hauling supplies up and down the ropes.

“I think of him as being more on the quiet, thoughtful side,” Calderwood says of Whitmore, “more contemplative.”

Whitmore joined the climb in September 1958 after others had dropped out. He was previously an aeromedical evacuation officer in the Air Force, and then off on a climbing trip in the Andes of Peru.

Since Harding launched the expedition on Independence Day 1957, progress had been steady but slow. The men juggled climbing with work and school in an era before professional climbing and had to work around an edict forbidding climbing from Memorial Day to Labor Day in Yosemite after rangers claimed their climbing was causing traffic jams due to all the fascinated tourists. Time was also lost going up and down ropes to and from sections of the rock they hadn’t climbed yet until the team resolved in November of 1958 that all this had drug on long enough. As Harding put it, they would stay on the wall “until we finish it, or it finishes us.”

The final epic all-night push to the summit to ensure storms didn’t turn them back was made possible after Whitmore brought up a fresh supply of anchoring bolts.

The first ascent of El Cap inspired climbers everywhere to rethink climbs they previously imagined to be impossible and paved the way for other amazing feats on the gigantic granite monolith, such as last year’s grueling Dawn Wall climb, which attracted international attention, and a record-breaking speed climb of the Nose route, completed in a staggering 2 hours, 23 minutes and 46 seconds by Florine and Alex Honnold in 2012.

Whitmore’s adventures continue to astound, such as when he scaled Cathedral Peak 10 years ago with his friend Bridget Kerr.

“We had people stopping us there and asking, ‘Oh my God, are you John Muir!?’ ” she recalls. “We got a real laugh out of that. He’s old, but not that old.”

The conservationist

Whitmore’s expeditions help him champion wilderness.

He has served in a number of leadership positions for the Sierra Club’s Tehipite Chapter in Fresno, including chairman, and led local lobbying for the California Wilderness Act of 1984. The massive expanse protected as a result of the act includes the Ansel Adams, Dinkey Lakes and Monarch wildernesses, along with major additions to the John Muir Wilderness. The protections also prevented a proposed highway over Minaret Summit. In the 1970s, he was heavily involved in the creation of the Kaiser Wilderness and Mineral King.

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Lehman of Fresno says Whitmore knows the Sierra “better than anybody” and is a “go-to person” for information about the mountain range.

“There’s really two kinds of environmentalists or conservationists,” Lehman says. “There are those that are intellectual about it … and then there are people that actually go out and experience it and know the land. That’s George.”

Whitmore’s extensive Sierra knowledge also helped him woo his wife, Nancy, after they met during a Sierra Club trip he was leading in the mid-1970s.

“I was really impressed with his mind, when someone has great intelligence – and he was obviously not going to be a 300-pounder,” Nancy adds with a laugh.

Whitmore continues to review environmental documents and park plans thoroughly, and is a regular at meetings organized to gather public comments.

“He’s not afraid to dig in and keep asking questions,” Kerr says, “even if it makes whoever is putting the plan together uncomfortable. … He definitely helped the park (Yosemite) improve their plans through his astuteness with details.”

And he does it with a smile.

“George, he’s not a combative person at all,” Kerr says. “He’s very calm and polite, but he just sticks with something if he believes in it.”

His never-ending adventures are part of his commitment to protecting wild places.

“You want people doing these things,” Whitmore says, “because otherwise, eventually, it’ll be lost to somebody who wants to use it for something else.”

On top of the world

The size of his favorite adventures have changed over the years, but not the scope of every challenge.

A handful of years ago, Whitmore dug up a boulder to help return a stream to a cabin he built in the remote wilderness of British Columbia, an accomplishment that made him feel as victorious as when he reached the top of El Cap at age 27. He emailed a photo of himself standing on the rock with a great caption: “Feeling on top of the world, triumphant, happy because I have achieved the impossible.”

I love it just as much as a Fresno Bee photo of Whitmore, Harding and Merry rejoicing on top of El Cap in 1958 – a favorite image that I pinned to the door of my room when I was in college.

It’s hard to say what exactly I see in the triumphant trio, but it’s some swirl of joy, strength, adventure, rebelliousness, camaraderie and freedom – above all, freedom, of the most exuberant kind. I tip my hat to this freedom and “my boys” every time I see the image.

Whitmore says he wants to die “with his boots on” – a sentiment that worried me at first when I contemplated his Grizzly Peak proposal – but I know now that he has no death wish. There are too many mountains he still wants to climb.

At Taft Point, we sit on a boulder together as we eat lunch and bask in the beauty.

Whitmore talks about an obituary for a decorated British pilot who flew scores of military missions during World War II, and how the man said he loved flying so much that he felt he and the airplane became one.

“He was truly free because he went beyond the fear of death.”

Across Yosemite Valley, El Capitan is aglow in sunshine. Whitmore looks totally at peace as he tells me that he’s always been known for late returns.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge