George Whitmore, first to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, dies

George Whitmore of Fresno still had more mountains to climb at age 89, his family said, but COVID-19 changed that.

The respected conservationist, often remembered for his famous first ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 1958, died on New Year’s Day at a Fresno rehabilitation facility from damage caused by the contagious virus.

The day before he was diagnosed Dec. 13, Whitmore walked several blocks to check on a cat at one of his rental properties in the Fresno High area. He had remained active, doing repairs on the properties himself, as usual, until a few weeks ago.

Throughout his life, Whitmore survived many daring mountain climbs, being chased by grizzly bears, and cancer that he continued to battle into remission 15 years after his diagnosis. But in the span of a few weeks, COVID-19 would take his life. His family doesn’t know where he got it.

“Had it not been for COVID, we probably would have had this alert, amazing person with us for 10 more years or more,” said Betty Fisher, who is married to Whitmore’s nephew. “So people need to take it seriously. They need to social distance and wear masks and wash hands and follow the guidance until we get past it … because we are losing a generation that we don’t have to lose quite yet.”

George Whitmore, one of the three men on the first team to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, is seen on a hike to Taft Point with El Capitan in the background across Yosemite Valley on May 26, 2016. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]

First ascent of Nose route on El Capitan in Yosemite

Whitmore’s nephew Randy Fisher asked Whitmore a few years ago if he would put his El Cap climb on the top of his list of accomplishments. Whitmore told him he wasn’t sure he’d even put it on the list.

Whitmore considered his conservation work to be the most important. He spent his life tirelessly working to protect huge swaths of California wilderness as a Sierra Club and grassroots leader while continuing to enjoy the mountains he loved.

But for many, he is best remembered for his first ascent of El Capitan on the morning of Nov. 12, 1958, with Warren Harding and Wayne Merry. Whitmore was the last surviving member of that three-man team.

The difficult Nose route they pioneered, blazed in the early days of rock climbing, is the stuff of legend. Enormous El Capitan, rising more than 3,000 majestic feet above Yosemite Valley, has since been a mecca for the world’s best rock climbers.

One of those climbers, Hans Florine, who broke speed climb records on El Cap in the years to follow, described Whitmore’s 1958 ascent as “like a journey to the center of the Earth.”

“It was 100 times the adventure than when we go to do it,” Florine said.

George Whitmore near the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park during its first ascent in 1958. FRESNO BEE ARCHIVE

“I’ve gone down in the books as having been the Sherpa who hauled loads while the heroes did the climbing,” Whitmore said with a laugh during a 2016 interview with The Fresno Bee, “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.”

Whitmore was formerly an aeromedical evacuation officer in the Air Force, and then off on a climbing trip in the Andes of Peru. He was working as a pharmacist in Fresno when he joined the El Cap climb in September 1958 after others dropped out.

Whitmore and a friend helped the team move past troubling cracks in the rock by designing and manufacturing new, larger pitons – anchor points climbers clip ropes into for protection in case of a fall.

Since Harding launched the expedition on Independence Day 1957, the men juggled climbing with work and school in an era before professional climbing, and had to work around an edict forbidding climbing in Yosemite from Memorial to Labor Day. Time was also lost going up and down ropes to sections of rock not climbed yet.

In November of 1958, a final epic all-night push to the summit was made possible after Whitmore brought up a fresh supply of anchoring bolts.

Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore, left to right, on Nov. 12, 1958, a few minutes after becoming the first people to have climbed the sheer face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Fresno Bee photographer Loyal Savaria was waiting for them on the summit to help share the joy. FRESNO BEE ARCHIVE

Atop El Cap, a Fresno Bee reporter asked them why they risked their lives for climbing. Whitmore, then 27, said, “I was talking it over the other day. The key word seemed to be adventure.”

At 85, he described his lifelong passion for mountain climbing humbly, and with a laugh: “I didn’t have Albert Einstein’s brain. 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.”

George Whitmore, then 85, sits at Taft Point with El Capitan in the background on May 26, 2016 in Yosemite National Park. He was one of three men on the first team to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]

Conservation work protecting Sierra Nevada wilderness

He might not have had Einstein’s brain, but his was still sharp. He pored over environmental documents and plans, and was a regular at public meetings about proposed projects. Whitmore served in leadership positions for the Sierra Club in local, state and national capacities, including as chairman of the Tehipite Chapter based in Fresno.

It was his intelligence that attracted his wife of 41 years, Nancy Whitmore, during a Sierra Club outing in the 1970s, where Whitmore was fast at work imparting his vast knowledge of the Sierra to the group. He wanted them to be interested in helping advocate for converting some forest lands into wilderness.

George Whitmore, left, then 85, one of three men on the first team to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, answers questions from visitors who learn of his 1958 feat during a hike to Taft Point on May 26, 2016 in Yosemite National Park. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]

That would happen, in no small part because of Whitmore. A detailed, 20-page statement advocating for the Kaiser Wilderness that he presented in 1975 before a Senate committee in Washington, D.C., is one preserved example of the workings of his astute mind and dogged determination.

“His stubbornness and tenacity were legendary,” Nancy Whitmore said. “That’s how he got up things.”

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George Whitmore climbing El Capitan for the first time in 1958. WHITMORE FAMILY Special to The Bee

His lobbying helped establish the Kaiser Wilderness in 1976, and the California Wilderness Act of 1984, which added 1.8 million acres into the National Wilderness Preservation System. That legislation created new wilderness lands in present-day Ansel Adams, John Muir, Dinkey Lakes and Monarch wildernesses, and helped protect Mono Lake, among many other additions. It also prevented a proposed highway over the Sierra in the San Joaquin River corridor.

“What means most is that protection is now complete from Tioga Pass Road in the north to Sherman Pass Road on the Kern Plateau in the south,” Whitmore told The Bee in September 1984. “It is the longest stretch of de facto wilderness in the lower 48 states.”

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Lehman of Fresno in 2016 said Whitmore knew the Sierra “better than anybody” and described him as a “go-to person” for information about the mountain range.

“There’s really two kinds of environmentalists or conservationists,” Lehman said. “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.”

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George Whitmore during a hike up Grizzly Peak in Yosemite National Park. Nevada Fall is pictured in the background. BRIDGET KERR Special to The Bee

Whitmore was also very involved in protecting Mineral King, and helped prevent a proposed ski resort there by The Walt Disney Company in the 1960s and ’70s. The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit and launched a letter writing campaign to protect its “outstanding beauty” and stop the “commercialized perversion of public land to private profit.”

“He fought to defend the boundaries in a way that would be in perpetuity,” said his niece Caroline Fisher, “so that basically 40-acre lot parcels couldn’t be sold off for housing tracts. He was just really aware of what could happen.”

Whitmore was quoted in scores of Bee stories over the years as a leading voice concerning the environment. Reporter Gene Rose started a 1982 Bee story this way: “When George Whitmore talks conservation, the timber industry listens. So do the National Park Service and the U.S Forest Service. … After nearly 20 years of fighting such major battles as the Yosemite master plan and Mineral King ski development, Whitmore is a respected member of Fresno’s conservation community.”

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George Whitmore during a hike in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park in 2018. LAURA CLARK Special to The Bee

Friend and fellow conservationist Bridget Kerr said Whitmore was also a good ally to Friends of Yosemite Valley and helped the grassroots group win a decisive court victory in the 2000s against the Park Service that halted some development near the Merced River, protected by the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

“Nature doesn’t clear cut trees for parking lots and neat road corridors,” Whitmore said in a 2004 Bee story about that. “They don’t need to log an area near a river to make a road that shouldn’t be moved in the first place.”

He was quoted as opposing a number of other proposals for Yosemite over the years, including asphalt walking paths, using cinders to melt snow on Tioga Road, and an aerial tramway from Yosemite Valley to Glacier Point.

Kerr said Whitmore is an inspiring example of what one person can do with “bravery and honesty.” She said of his legacy, “It’s OK to be against the mainstream. It’s OK to speak up when you think something is ethically wrong. He did, and that was something I really valued about him.”

Friend Laura Clark, who described Kerr and herself like the Whitmores’ adopted daughters, said something similar about lessons she learned during their hikes together.

“You don’t always have to stay on the path,” Clark said. “Sometimes it’s a good idea to get off the path. … He taught me to not always follow the rules.”

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George Whitmore while climbing Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park in 2006. BRIDGET KERR Special to The Bee

Whitmore used his enterprising spirit to improve his own organization, too. In a 1992 Bee story about the 100th anniversary of the Sierra Club, Whitmore talked about how club membership should better reflect California’s ethnic diversity, and said the club had failed to adequately address a number of quality-of-life issues, including air and water, along with the preservation of farmland, and the unregulated pumping of groundwater.

Whitmore also helped stop a proposed dam on the Kings River above Pine Flat Reservoir, and worked to protect land along the San Joaquin River. All of his hard work was rooted in a deep understanding and love of the natural world.

In a 1970 Bee story about the Sierra Club pushing for a wilderness designation around the San Joaquin River, Whitmore described the land almost poetically, talking about rugged gorges and small wooded vales formed by glaciers, surrounded by awe-inspiring sweeps of granite.

“Living off the beaten track, the wilderness of the San Joaquin offers a greater measure of solitude than do many other backcountry areas,” Whitmore said. “Solitude is becoming increasingly hard to find even in our wildernesses and many visitors to the San Joaquin value it for this quality.”

Whitmore, the adventurer, wanted to die with his ‘boots on’

Whitmore was a lifelong resident of the central San Joaquin Valley, apart from summer trips he took to a small, beloved cabin he built in the remote wilderness of British Columbia. Whitmore’s father, a Marine during WWII who later became a stock broker, moved the family to the Valley during the Great Depression.

While Whitmore’s great passion was mountains, he also previously worked part-time as a pharmacist in the Valley for about 20 years, and as a landlord and repairer of Fresno rental properties since the early 1980s. He talked approvingly of that work.

“Fixing sinks keeps me young,” Whitmore said a few years ago, “trying to figure out solutions to problems.”

He climbed many other mountains before and after his El Capitan feat, usually preferring mountaineering treks he could complete with little or no gear, not sheer-vertical ascents like his 1958 Yosemite adventure.

Whitmore liked to say he wanted to die “with his boots on,” perhaps falling from a mountain ledge, or from a brush with a grizzly bear – his favorite animal.

He was sure-footed and fearless during a Yosemite hike to Taft Point at age 85, where he mused about an obituary recounting the life of a decorated British pilot in World War II who loved to fly.

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

George Whitmore, then 85, who was one of the three men on the first team to climb El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, looks out from Taft Point during a short hike May 26, 2016 in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is in the background across Yosemite Valley. The first El Cap climb, which culminated in November of 1958, remains one of the major feats in climbing history. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA [email protected]

Whitmore’s family and friends had every expectation the active man would live to become a centenarian like his mother, who survived the Spanish flu in the early 1900s, now often compared to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was really hoping COVID would be the bear he could outrun … this one last bear, but he didn’t,” Kerr said.

His wife was allowed to be at his side when he died Jan. 1 at Sierra Vista Healthcare Center. The state reported that Fresno facility had 88 coronavirus patients since the pandemic began, a total of 67 health care workers with the virus this year, and less than 11 COVID-19 patient deaths. Those totals are similar to many nursing homes in Fresno County and across California as COVID-19 cases continue to sharply rise in communities across the state.

Whitmore was transferred from Saint Agnes Medical Center to Sierra Vista on Christmas Day. A few days later, on Dec. 29, the skilled nursing facility reported having no active cases.

Whitmore’s case was not counted, presumably, because he had tested negative for the virus before being transferred there. Whitmore never had to be on a ventilator or in a hospital intensive care unit, family said. It seemed he had beaten the virus in the hospital, but couldn’t overcome the damage it had done to his lungs.

“He still had mountains left to climb,” niece Caroline said, “and rental home roofs to repair. … It’s the world’s loss really.”

This spring, he texted a friend about being the last surviving member of the first team to climb El Capitan:

“I am now the last man standing, and the wolves are circling,” Whitmore wrote. “Probably don’t have that much time left. Another 20 years and I may be gone. In the meantime, I get satisfaction from repairing unrepairable doors. Questing after the unreachable stars.”

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George Whitmore during the first ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 1958. WHITMORE FAMILY Special to The Bee

George Whitmore

Born: Feb. 8, 1931

Died: Jan. 1, 2021

Residence: Fresno

Occupation: Conservation leader, retired pharmacist, and landlord

Survivors: Wife Nancy Whitmore; niece Caroline Fisher and her husband, Bob Knous; and nephew Randy Fisher and his wife, Betty Fisher.

Memorial service: Future details pending, possibly outdoors in the summer, depending on COVID-19 conditions.

Remembrances: In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Sierra Foothill Conservancy in memory of George at The conservancy works to conserve land throughout Fresno, Madera, Merced and Mariposa counties.

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Carmen George is a features and news reporter for The Fresno Bee. Her stories have been recognized with Best of the West, George F. Gruner, and McClatchy President’s awards, and 11 first or second place awards from the California News Publishers Association. She has a passion for sharing people’s stories to highlight issues and promote greater understanding.
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