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Remembering George Whitmore (1931-2021)

George Whitmore in the Canadian Rockies, 1962. [Photo] Ed Cooper

George Whitmore on the approach to Mt. Alberta in the Canadian Rockies, 1962. [Photo] Ed Cooper

In the failing light of an early November day in 1958, Warren Harding stopped to set up a belay stance high in the upper dihedral of a route that would become known as the Nose on El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La).

“Keep climbing–there’s a good ledge not far above you,” George Whitmore yelled up from the belay.

“How do you know that?” Warren asked.

“I saw it with a telescope,” George replied, referring to a reconnaissance he’d done from the opposite side of the valley.

Once Warren reached what is now known as Camp VI, he shouted back down, “This is fantastic! We’ll have to call it Whitmore Tower.” That night they celebrated their newfound luxury with a small bottle of port that the team had carefully hauled from the ground that was now thousands of feet below.

At least that’s how George told me the story when I first met him in 2007 while I was gathering autographs on route maps of El Capitan. George looked over the myriad route lines until he found the Nose and traced downward until his finger arrived at “Camp VI.” He looked up and said firmly, “This should be called Whitmore Tower, you know.” After he finished signing my maps, I told him that I would do what I could to reestablish the name of Whitmore Tower.

George William Whitmore, born February 8, 1931, passed away on New Year’s Day, 2021, in Fresno, California, from complications of COVID-19 after 89 fruitful years.

Although George was best known to the outdoor community for being one of three men to tackle the south buttress, or the “Nose” of El Capitan in 1958, his true passion as a climber and conservationist lay elsewhere. George’s widow, Nancy, recently told an NPR reporter, “He was a climber but that was secondary. His love of the wilderness is the most important legacy he has.”

George’s father, Raymond Swett Whitmore, and his mother, Jean (Weir) Whitmore, met in Washington, D.C., and settled in the San Joaquin Valley in the early 1920s. For a while, they lived in Hanford, California, where his sister Ruth Jean was born, before moving to Fresno, where George was born on February 8, 1931. The family later moved again to Salinas, where George finished high school and attended a year of community college. Then he enrolled in the University of California San Francisco pharmacy school.

Several of his fraternity brothers were climbers, and George learned the ropes at Indian Rock and other Bay Area crags. His father had served in the Marine Corps during World War I before becoming a stockbroker, so George signed up for ROTC training in Berkeley, which he completed with the rank of second lieutenant in the Air Force. After earning his pharmacy degree in 1954, George was stationed in South Carolina, where he worked as an aeronautical evacuation officer.

While living in Fresno, George had begun climbing new routes in Yosemite. From 1954 to 1955, he established a route on Nickel Pinnacle and a variation on the Washington Column Direct Route with Mark Powell, followed by another major variation on the Direct Route with Mary Ann “Corky” Corthell. George also climbed Sentinel Spire and Arch Rock Pinnacle with Warren Harding. The following season, he climbed the Lost Brother with Merle Alley in 1958 and the Ahwahnee Buttress with Merle, George Sessions and Jerry Dixon.

In 1957 George joined Will Siri, Dave Rynin, James Wilson, John Dorsey and Dick Houston to climb the southwest face of the remote and untrodden Snowside Mountain (just south of Bella Coola) in the Coast Range of British Columbia. The group’s first attempt failed after some adventurous exploring, but George returned with Dorsey, Rynin and Wilson two days later, and they succeeded by aiding through steep, icy gullies with pitons.

His job as a pharmacist allowed George some time flexibility, so during the summer of 1958 he joined Fred Ayres, Henry Kendall, Graham Matthews, David Michael, and Irene and Leigh Ortenberger for the North American Andean Expedition to Peru. That August, George climbed Chekiaraju (17,340′) and the North Peak of Huantsan (20,056′), and he soloed the first ascent of Talpuraju (16,752′).

As for the Nose in October of 1958, after Mark Powell had become injured and eventually abandoned the effort along with several other climbers, Warren Harding was searching for a few solid partners to finish climbing the enormous south buttress of El Capitan. Thus, George and Rich Calderwood teamed up with Warren and Wayne Merry.

Park Service officials had restricted climbing between Memorial Day and Labor Day because of the spectacle it created, and they insisted that fixed lines be installed from bottom to top to prevent the need for a rescue. After the climbers had spent 14 months intermittently laying siege to the route, the officials further insisted that the project should be completed by Thanksgiving.

The team climbed for a few days in October and then left the ground on November 1 to complete the last thousand feet of the route in a push. Though certainly capable of leading, George was content to take on the grueling and crucial task of hauling up the gear and supplies in support of Warren and Wayne. Rich Calderwood had to quit the team in order to save his job once the actual time commitment became clear, and his departure added to the workload as the team neared the summit. At 6 a.m. on November 12, Harding stood on flat ground after bolting through the night by headlamp in a herculean effort. By Thanksgiving, the foursome had cleared all the equipment and supplies from the route as they had agreed with the NPS. Curiously, though a road ran nearby at the base, the face of El Capitan was vertical wilderness in a very real sense. It had been a grand and satisfying adventure.

Furthering his interest in wild mountaineering, George joined Glen Denny, Ed Cooper and Joe and Joan Firey to visit the rugged Southern Picket Range in the Washington Cascades resulting in the first ascents of the Himmelgeisterhorn, Ottohorn and Frenzelspitz in September 1961.

Farther north, the Coast Range of British Columbia had cast a spell on him, and he would return many times to explore and climb. With his first wife, Frances, and his climbing partners Joe and Joan Firey, George pioneered a route on the west peak of Mt. Jacobson. With the Fireys, Frank de Saussure, Arnie Bloomer and “Bella Coolites” Jim Wilson and Dick Houston, George climbed Poet, Helios, Luna, Horribilis, Second Fiddle, Cerberus, Chili, Basin and Talchako Peaks in 1962. Joined by Phil Bettler and Leslie Wilson (Jim’s son), the same group climbed the Cleaver, Mt. Geryon, Sciron Mountain and Sciron Spire in 1964.

George also climbed in the Canadian Rockies and was involved in three attempts to climb the remote and imposing west face of Mt. Alberta. After a preliminary reconnaissance with Glen Denny and Jerry Dixon in 1961, he came within 400 feet of the summit with Ed Cooper in 1962, and within 200 feet with John Hudson, Doug Tompkins and Art Gran the following season. The latter two attempts ended because of lightning and deteriorating weather. Remarkably, this climb wasn’t completed until 2009.

During the early 1970s, George built a modest cabin entirely by hand in a wild area accessible only by float plane and footpath. He would return almost every year to recharge his soul and take in the gorgeous glaciated mountain environment.

In 1952, David Brower became the executive director of the Sierra Club, and he focused the club’s energy on wilderness conservation. George joined in June 1953 and became a founding member of the South Sierra Tehipite Chapter based in Fresno. Unlike most aspiring climbers, George was attracted to join in support of the core conservation mission. Inspired by his experiences as a mountaineer, he sought out the wilder areas in the Sierra Nevada, hiking and scrambling extensively to study and evaluate the character of the entire range firsthand, occasionally achieving a first ascent while out alone.

When the Disney Company wanted to build a ski resort in the Mineral King area, George helped stop the development. He retired as a pharmacist in 1973 to devote himself to conservation, and he was instrumental in establishing the Kaiser Wilderness in 1976.

While leading groups of interested hikers preparing the updated Roadless Area Review Evaluation (RARE II) of 1977, George met Nancy Gallaghan who was immediately impressed. They began to spend time together, eventually marrying in 1979.

RARE II led to California challenging the National Forest Service wilderness designation methods and policies, ultimately leading to the California Wilderness Act in 1984, which added 1.8 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System and protected three million acres statewide.

A thorough examination of George’s conservation legacy and his later life can be found in the memorial piece by the Fresno Bee, which often covered his activities.

George was a true gentleman adventurer, model citizen and passionate steward of public lands. His subtle determination and thoughtful personality has been a rare gift to his friends and larger community. He admirably left the world a much better place through his efforts and is deeply missed.