GRASSROOTS climbers are uncomfortable with saying ‘the hardest climb in the world’. But most would agree that this month’s first, free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, Yosemite, ranks as one of the toughest.
Americans Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson spent 19 days on the famous, 3,000-foot wall in California. As professional climbers, the men are no strangers to elite-level performance. But the climb drained them.
Keen to grasp any marginal gains, the two 30-somethings climbed the most difficult parts in the shade or at night; the cooler temperatures allowing them better purchase on the razor-blade-thin granite holds.While resting, they repaired the holes in their fingertips with sandpaper and superglue, and sanded the rough edges of their tight-fitting, rubber-compound rock shoes.
Many people think climbing is an odd activity; which is strange, as we climb instinctively at a young age — how else do we go up and down stairs in the first few months of life? Most of us give up early, discouraged by parents and by self-preservation. Tommy Caldwell never did; he was rock-climbing aged just three.
Caldwell’s Dawn Wall journey began seven years ago, when he first inspected the line as a potential free-climb.
Originally designated an ‘aid-climb’, meaning climbers fix ropes and use shunts, the Dawn Wall was considered impossible to free-climb, due to its sheer lack of holds and the wall’s relentlessly steep angle.
I, too, have glanced across at the face while climbing a neighbouring route; it is an extraordinary expanse of rock.
Caldwell, 36, had the vision and the self-belief. He dared to dream. And after watching a movie of Caldwell climbing sections of the route, Jorgeson, a former indoor world champion, asked to join him on the project. They failed on five occasions, spread over several years.
The ultimate aim was for both climbers to climb all 32 pitches (sections of rock) from bottom to top without falling, gripping the rock features with their hands and feet. While the men had safety ropes, these were to halt a fall and couldn’t be relied upon for progress up the wall.
There were other aspects of the climb that were unusual. For one, the camaraderie between the two climbers. In a show of team-spirit, Caldwell said it was crucial that both members of the team made the summit — a rare sentiment in a sport that has, in recent years, followed the mainstream in celebrating the cult of the individual.
“More than anything, I want to top-out together,” Caldwell said on day 13. “We gotta make that happen. It would be such a bummer to finish this thing without Kevin. I can’t imagine anything worse, really.”
But that ambition was severely tested when Jorgeson struggled on pitch 15. Everything was in the balance.
With bleeding fingertips, and worried that he was holding his teammate back, Jorgeson finally made it, and, exuberantly, he posted on Instagram: “After 11 attempts spread across seven days, my battle with pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall is complete. Hard to put the feeling into words. There’s a lot of hard climbing above, but I’m more resolved than ever to free the remaining pitches.”
The men had trained hard and prepared as well as they possibly could. Still, they needed the gods on their side.
“The conditions were just magic. It was the one moment, over the last 10 days, when it was actually cloudy and cold enough to climb during daylight. It all lined up to create this one moment in which my skin was good enough and the conditions were perfect,” said Jorgeson.
The level at which top climbers now operate is flabbergasting, even to the most experienced. Jorgeson climbed pitch 16 by making a jump six-feet horizontally to catch a downward-sloping edge of rock, which he then had to hold despite the swinging momentum of his body. Now, with the most difficult section of the wall completed, the duo felt invigorated, and the people watching, via their social-media updates, began to scent success.
So what does it take to climb at this level? Three broad spheres require mastery: the physical, technical and mental. Being strong in all three is rare. Think elite gymnast, ballerina, and chess-player rolled into one.
Physical requirements include finger strength, maintaining contact with a variety of different-shaped holds; generating anaerobic power via fast-twitch muscle fibres for single, desperate moves; good lactate tolerance in the forearms to sustain strength through consecutive, difficult moves; and core strength and flexibility to ensure the feet can reach and engage footholds.
Technically, these climbers have thousands of movement patterns ingrained from years of experience, as well as very specific moves for this climb that were rehearsed over several years. These mental schemes mean they can act on a sequence of moves quickly, almost unconsciously. The glaciated granite of Yosemite is notoriously difficult to climb, requiring a suite of movement skills.
Caldwell has dedicated most of his climbing career to ascending the big walls of Yosemite. Mental tenacity and the ability to focus under extreme pressure are what distinguish the best climbers. Overcoming the fear of falling and of failure is often the biggest challenge, whatever the level.
But Caldwell has overcome many difficulties in life.
In 2000, while climbing in Kyrgyzstan, he and his team were taken hostage by Islamist militants. Left briefly with a single guard, Caldwell pushed him over what he assumed was a cliff, allowing his team to escape at night.
Finally, it emerged the guard had survived the fall. But Caldwell was traumatised by the incident and the media interest it stirred. Then, just a year later, he cut off his own index finger with a saw in a DIY accident. It was re-attached by surgeons, but it lost most of its function, so Caldwell had it re-amputated.
To complete pitch 15 alone of this climb would be considered world-class. In the context of 32 pitches, it is mind-boggling. Caldwell and Jorgenson also had to live in winter on a sheer-rock face for three weeks, hauling up their supplies behind them and setting up ‘porta-ledges’ — mobile, double-mattress-sized camp beds erected at 90 degrees to the wall. Their supplies included fresh coffee and iPhones.
They practised yoga and did press-ups to maintain good form between attempts at each section. A small, expert film crew accompanied them, moving around on a complex web of fixed ropes. Nothing was left to chance. Above pitch 16, the climbing relents.
On the final part, I am sure the climbers will have been accustomed to the flow — at one with the wall and utterly focused. Vertical and overhanging terrain becomes normal and, with each small success, the will to succeed grows deeper. The dream closer.
What is so special about El Cap? The first time I saw it, I had just finished my first year of university. I was mesmerised. I had climbed the north face of the Eiger and a couple of Himalayan peaks by first ascents, but, still, I had never seen a piece of stone so big and flawless. The fact that you can drive underneath it makes it logistically simple to reach. Even with a big load, a 30-minute hike from the parking lot through trees brings you to the base.
The descent off the back requires caution and a few abseils — that’s not unreasonable for a descent. But its front is a smooth, sheer, stupefying cliff full of history.
There is a great sense of camaraderie among the climbers in ‘the Valley’, particularly on Camp 4, a place steeped in legend. Just next to it is the base of the Yosemite rescue team, which is comprised of top climbers. There is a feeling that you are part of something special in Yosemite. On that first trip, I had spent three days on the wall. It is a strange, alien world.
For days afterwards, I was dehydrated and my hands were cut and swollen. But I felt so alive.
Over the past 30 years, almost every climber I have met either has visited Yosemite or wants to desperately. A true climbing Mecca, even the easiest big free-climbs on El Cap, such as Freerider, are still too difficult for the majority.
Some complete the West Buttress and the shorter East Buttress, but they are not tackling the highest, steepest part of the wall. Most people come to climb The Nose, right up the centre, using at least some aid. In peak season, small international teams are strewn from bottom to top, inching their way up.
Most of the routes here started out as aid climbs, the pioneers linking cracks and corners up to the top. Later, bolder aid-climbs were established, with big reputations and requiring specialist skill. The first major line to be free-climbed was Salathé, by Paul Piana and Todd Skinner, a real breakthrough in 1988. In 1993, Lynn Hill broke a huge barrier by free-climbing The Nose
American climbers haven’t monopolised pioneering here, however: the Bavarian brothers, Thomas and Alexander Huber, were extremely prolific between 1995 and 2007. UK climbers have made an impact, too, notably Leo Houlding, whose route, The Prophet, is still one of the most serious big-wall climbs in the world. El Cap is a vertical stage that continues to allow the elite to search out the limits of possibility.
Climbers like Houlding and the Hubers have applied their Yosemite skills in more remote big walls in the Himalayas, Baffin Island and Antarctica. The extra complications of difficult access, altitude, glaciers, and little chance of rescue mean that the stakes are much higher than for a climb in Yosemite.
While climbers have been surprised by the media storm surrounding Caldwell and Jorgenson’s ascent, El Cap has always been in the public space. Tourists spend hours watching climbers in action, in a similar way to people at Kleine Scheidegg, Switzerland, who point telescopes at alpinists on the Eiger.
The difference is that the adventurers themselves could drip-feed tweets, Facebook posts and video clips to a breathless audience, providing a blow-by-blow account of their progress.
People go climbing for many reasons: to escape the mundane pressures of work, to be close to nature, to be lost in the endeavour. Surely, spending hours on social media detracts from this? Critics will doubtless claim the duo have created a media circus.
But look closely at their messages; they are self-effacing. I am not sure US president Barack Obama quite understood that sentiment, however, passing on his congratulations in another tweet: “So proud of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson for conquering El Capitan. You remind us that anything is possible.”
Nevertheless, the spotlight on such a great achievement by two elite climbers is a positive step. The public needs to know what today’s pioneers are doing.
Yes, many of them are unheard-of outside of climbing circles, but the Dawn Wall story makes a welcome change from the usual fuss around quite ordinary climbers being guided up Everest, on a route first climbed 60 years ago, and rigged all the way by Sherpas.
Hopefully, the better-informed media pieces have educated the public in a new narrative that reveals elite climbers are not thrill-seeking ‘adrenaline junkies’, but extraordinarily talented individuals who have spent hours perfecting this vertical ballet.
AFTER THE CLIMB
You really need to be in the right mindset in order to climb these pitches and that requires you to be pretty quiet up there in your head and pretty calm and confident
IF HIS hands didn’t still hurt, Kevin Jorgeson might not believe he and fellow climber Tommy Caldwell had made it to the top of the Dawn Wall, Jorgeson wrote on Instagram.
But after nearly three weeks, the two climbers summited the El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park making history as the first to ever complete a free climb of its steep wall.
Scaling the Dawn Wall has been Caldwell and Jorgeson’s goal for years, but climbing has been a lifelong pursuit. Jorgeson, 30, can’t remember a time when he wasn’t climbing on something.
“My parents tell me I’ve been climbing since I was born, just scrambling all over couches and trees and fences. I definitely remember as a kid climbing on top of roofs and ladders,” he says. When a climbing gym opened in his hometown of Santa Rosa, California, when he was 11, he discovered rock climbing. “I went to the grand opening and I’ve been climbing ever since.”
Caldwell, 36, began climbing even before his buddy was born. “My dad was a mountain guide, and it’s just what we did as a family,” he says. His father convinced him to go on his first real climb when he was three-years-old by taking a kite to fly once they reached the top, he recalls. “It really is a lifestyle for me,” he explains, one that gives him a view of nature he wouldn’t get as a tourist and has helped build lifelong friendships.
“It’s a great way for me to explore sort of the limits of what I think is possible,” he says.
Many people, including Caldwell and Jorgeson at times, thought a free climb of the vertical, 3,000-feet-high Dawn Wall was impossible. They spent years mapping out routes on El Capitan and practicing individual manoeuvres to figure out how to ascend individual pitches, or segments of the wall. The sequence of movements required to reach the end of a pitch without falling — which would mean starting that section over again — is highly choreographed, Jorgeson says.
“You really need to be in the right mindset in order to climb these pitches and that requires you to be pretty quiet up there in your head and pretty calm and confident,” he says, calling the climb as much a mental battle as a physical one. “That whole stretch of 19 days was for me way more of an emotional roller coaster and stressful mental battle than purely physical.”
During their down time at “camp” — tents suspended from the face of the wall — Caldwall tried to keep a light attitude to counteract the intensity of difficult pitches. “If the whole thing gets too heavy, it kind of crushes me a bit,” he says.
The two climbers and a film crew that spent time on the wall with them joked around, listened to music, talked, huddled together during storms and made food. Despite their unorthodox dining circumstances, Caldwell and Jorgeson were well stocked to eat vegetables, sandwiches and even Indian food in addition to the more traditional camping staples of Clif bars and trail mix.
“I feel like food tastes better on the wall, every experience is just heightened a bit,” says Caldwell. “It’s one of the things I love about it,” he says. “We’re just on this vertical ocean of granite and we’re in the middle of Yosemite National Park … It’s a very very inspiring environment.”
Besides sharing the adventure with one another — Caldwell says having a partner in crime was key — they used social media to let others in on the experience. As they progressed from pitch to pitch, they posted updates, reflections and photos on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“This climb provided a pretty unique opportunity in that we got good mobile phone service on the side of the greatest granite wall in the world,” says Caldwell. “We had to share the experience for all the people that don’t get to experience it themselves.”
While Caldwell’s wife blogged from the ground and photographers and filmmakers documented their climb, the two protagonists tried to give a firsthand window into the process. At one point, about one third of the way through, Jorgeson held a live Q&A session on Twitter from 1,200 feet up El Capitan.
Part of the reason the story got so much traction, he guesses, is that people can relate to elements of the journey.
“It’s a big dream, it requires teamwork and determination and commitment,” says Jorgeson. “And those aren’t climbing specific attributes. Those are common to everybody, whether you’re trying to write a book or climb a rock.”
The specific objective is irrelevant, he says, but he and Caldwell hope their objective might inspire others to tackle their own, to ask themselves: “What’s my Dawn Wall?”
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