By Cory Peterman
Warren Harding – Rock Climber
This biographical sketch focuses on Warren “Batso” Harding, a rock climber who spent the majority of his youth in Sierra County. For my readers who are unfamiliar with Harding, he was the first person to successfully climb the nose of El Capitan at Yosemite. He also completed many other first ascents at Yosemite, including the east face of Washington Column, the south face of Mount Watkins, the south face of Half Dome, the Wall of the Early Morning Light, and the Porcelain Wall; Harding was also the first to ascend California’s Keeler Needle and the West Face of Mount Conness.
Warren John Harding was born in Oakland on June 18, 1924 to William Henry Harding and his wife Agnes Berle Pursel, the couple having married in Iowa in 1922. A younger sister, Ardeth, was born in Iowa in 1929. Agnes claimed her husband’s family was related to U.S. President Warren G. Harding, stating “My late husband’s people came from the same Kansas town that President Harding’s people moved to from Ohio years back… [after the President’s death] I wrote to his widow and told her I was expecting a child.” The expectant mother stated she “received an immediate reply with a request that she name the infant, if it was a boy, after the President.” President Harding’s widow sent the newborn Warren “a sealed album with instructions that it was not be opened until his 21st birthday… but when Warren was 11 and living in Downieville, Calif., a house fire destroyed the unopened book and its contents.” Agnes stated “We never knew what was in it.”
The Harding family had moved to Sierra County in the early 1930s, variously living between Indian Valley, Goodyears Bar, and Downieville, according to census records. The elder William Harding worked for the State Department of Highways. Agnes was a writer, copyrighting a book entitled “Under the Stars and Stripes.” She also claimed to have been the true author of the 1918 silent film The Midnight Flyer, stating that the work, which she had not copyrighted, was stolen when she took it to Hollywood to sell. The young Warren Harding attended the historic Downieville School, where, according to some old-timers, he was known as a “ladies man” and for his adventurous spirit, though he would not start advanced rock climbing until he was nearly 30 years of age. One story told about Harding’s time in Downieville is when he built a makeshift raft that he wanted to float along the Yuba River, coercing a local young woman to join him on his trip downriver. The raft soon capsized, but a good laugh was had by all due to Warren’s bizarre antics. His later longtime companion Alice Flomp would say “He had his own way of doing things. He didn’t take himself seriously, and he urged others to think the same way about themselves. He felt people should be left to make their own decisions.” Regarding his childhood in Downieville, Harding stated “I fished a lot as a kid, but then I finally realized I was a terrible fisherman, so I thought, I’ll just leave all this gear at home, and go hiking.”
The Harding family left Downieville in 1937 and moved to Marysville. Warren graduated from Marysville Union High School in 1941. He worked as a propeller mechanic at Sacramento’s McClellan Field during World War II, then after the war, started a career as a surveyor, first for the state and then for the private construction industry. A self-proclaimed womanizer, Harding married and divorced a few times in the late 1940s, before discovering his other passion: rock climbing. Harding would continue to work as a surveyor, even during his fame as a rock climber (or what he called “glorified flagpole sitting”) until his retirement in the late 1980s.
Harding stated “I did a lot of mountaineering – the Minarets, Whitney, the Palisades – before I did any technical climbing. Then, in 1953, we took a trip to Yosemite, and I bungled my way up a few things, and I got the bug… I think my real point of motivation was that it was the first thing I was ever good at. I couldn’t catch a ball, or any of that stuff. I could only do what required brute stupidity.” Harding was nicknamed “Batso” by a fellow climber “for his hanging off rock walls like a bat.” He was also known for his outrageous antics, including refusing water on one of his most difficult climbs, and climbing the south face of Half Dome just a short time after his leg was permanently injured after being hit by a truck while working on a construction site. During his first ascent of the Wall of the Early Morning Light, Harding spent 27 nights living on the wall, in tented hammocks he designed especially for the ascent. Harding was also known for his heavy drinking, preferring jugs of cheap red wine over anything else. In 1975, he wrote the book “Downward Bound: A Mad! Guide to Rock Climbing.”
Harding moved to Utah after retirement, then moved back to California in 1993. He died at his home in the Happy Valley area outside of Anderson of liver failure on February 27, 2002.