Several that were there have called Mark Powell the best free climber of the 1950s, in California anyway. He was also the original dirtbag climber, eschewing the comforts of job, home and wife and devoting himself full time to climbing, practically unheard of at the time.
Powell was the first to live in Camp 4 in Yosemite Valley for an entire season and over that summer of 1955, and the summer of ’56, he put up fifteen bold, attention-getting first ascents. One was Arrowhead Arete, a seven-pitch 5.8 and a hard lead for the era. Nowadays of course a climber of his talent would have sponsorship, fancy gear, probably an Instagram page. And even though his leading-man looks got him an extra role in a Hollywood movie or two he chose to live a hand-to-mouth existence—fully committed to climbing. A true dirtbag before there was a word for it.
In 1957 he led several of the early pitches on the infamous first ascent of the Nose route on El Capitan with Warren Harding but while on a break from that, and while climbing another route, he took a fall that severely broke his ankle. It took a long time for him to be rescued and brought down from the rock, meanwhile an infection set in which gave him problems for half a century. With a fused ankle he managed some notable ascents after the accident but it ultimately shut down his extremely promising climbing career. After many years of suffering he finally and recently had the foot amputated. Many have speculated on the climbs that he could have led through the ‘60s and beyond and the further impact he would make on climbing but it wasn’t to be.
Jim Herrington is a photographer and author of The Climbers, a book of sixty black-and-white portraits of early-to-mid 20th Century mountain climbing legends. The book, published in October 2017, won the Grand Prize at the 2017 Banff Book Awards, as well as the Mountaineering History Award.