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California

Jun 26, 2018

The Dawn Wall Project: Revisited.

This story originally featured in The Outdoor Journal Summer 2015 edition. Subscribe here. The article refers to the 14th January 2015, when at 3:30 pm Pacific Time, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson free climbed the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park.

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The Outdoor Journal

Preparing for the fight of their life, over a nineteen day push, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson free climbed the Dawn Wall, the hardest big wall free route in the world.

Kevin’s fingers opened on the small granite holds. Tommy pulled in the rope. Exhausted, the two men were a mere three hundred feet from the summit of El Capitan. Then Kevin fell.

“You can do it!” I shouted from a rigging rope a hundred feet above. A hundred reporters, friends and family members shouted across the wall with me.  We all had a vested interest in seeing the men succeed.

On January 24th, the two tired men were poised to climb to the top of Yosemite’s El Capitan and into climbing history. Over a nineteen-day push, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson attempted to free climb the 32 pitch Dawn Wall, the hardest big wall free route in the world. The pair had worked on the route for seven years, piecing together miniscule hand and footholds to create a barely possible path up the 3,000-foot face.

Tommy reaches for a rope on the wall.
Tommy reaches for a rope on the wall.

This past November, I dried their shoes in front of the fire in Yosemite Village. They’d left a haul bag of gear and rock shoes at the base of the wall. Kevin forgot to grab it before a storm and I’d hooked them up by drying their gear. They picked up the haul bag a few days later. They’d been stoked, calling me the “Mayor of Yosemite.” Every season, they came to the Valley. Kevin and I sat in the Mountain Room Bar the winter before. Tommy had parked his Sprinter van in the meadow for years. They recounted their successes and failures every time I saw them.

The Dawn Wall became one of the biggest climbs in Yosemite history not only because it was one of the hardest but also because of new technology. In the past few years, cell phone coverage and data has reached the Sierra. 3G networks allow climbers to email, update social media, and connect instantly. Over the past few years, not only had Yosemite locals followed the Dawn Wall progress but also Brett from Big Up Productions filmed Tommy working on the route. The slow release of the climbing excited the media. From the wall, Tommy and Kevin updated the status of their ascent on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Photographer, Cory Rich photographed the two on the wall. Yosemite photographer, Tom Evans followed the exploits from El Capitan meadow with a high-powered camera. The momentum spread as the men progressed up the wall. The Dawn Wall had a history.

Kevin traverses along steep granite on his penultimate day on the wall.
Kevin traverses along steep granite on his penultimate day on the wall.

Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell first climbed the Dawn Wall’s steep, nearly blank section of granite in 1970. The pair’s ascent became national news after they spent twenty-seven days on the wall, refusing a rescue. They summated to throngs of reporters. The pair aid climbed the route, using pitons and nylon ladders to hammer their way up the wall. In 1970, making an ascent of El Capitan was monumental. The idea of free climbing the monolith, of ascending the rock using only your hands and feet with a rope for protection in case of a fall, was light years away.

The Dawn Wall returned to the spotlight in 2008, when Caldwell began finding tiny wrinkles on the rock. Caldwell has pioneered many of the hardest free lines on the formation, piecing together long series of cracks, corners, and difficult faces. He established Lurking Fear, The Shaft, and Magic Mushroom, all 5.13 nearly impossible routes up North America’s largest granite cliff. Following his divorce, Caldwell sought refuge in Yosemite and an impossible line. The Dawn Wall was the next step.

The first few seasons of work, the pair ran across the wall attempting to connect the discontinuous features. They worked the route in the spring and fall.  When they were able to connect the thin cracks through a large traversing like feature, they began climbing the route in the early and late seasons. Weather quickly became an issue. Spring storms created wet weather and the fall days were still too hot. For the men to hold onto the tiny grips, they needed extreme cold weather, which allows for greater friction between fingertips and hands as well as climbing shoe rubber and granite. The southeast facing Dawn Wall receives sun from early morning until late evening. The pair discovered that if they wanted to free climb the most difficult sections, they would need to tackle the difficulties on winter nights. Falling ice from the summit of El Cap threatened to crush them. To climb the route, they would need not only winter conditions but clear weather as well.

Tommy Caldwell stretches after a long night on the wall
Tommy Caldwell stretches after a long night on the wall

Just after the holidays, the men began up the wall. The initial 1,200 feet of climbing moved smoothly and they established a portaledge base camp. They hauled hundreds of pounds of gear, water and food to the three cot-tents hanging on the side of the route. From there, they began the onslaught of the hardest climbing in Yosemite. The pair climbed easily into a dike feature that connected two corner systems but then they hit a major hurdle. Caldwell managed to dispatch the difficult climbing but Kevin could not.

I loaded three packs of sour Skittles, a litter of bourbon and a half-dozen eggs into my pack as Kevin Jorgeson had requested, and hiked to the Dawn Wall. I wanted to get some exercise and support my friends on the wall.

I walked past Tommy Caldwell’s van, in El Capitan meadow and my phone erupted with a text. It was Tommy. He had a favor to ask.

Six hours later, I arrived at their portaledge camp, 1,200 feet up the Dawn Wall. I clipped a forty-pound haul bag and a 1200-foot photographers line into the anchor. Kevin climbed up the technical arch of pitch 12. Tommy belayed from a ledge, a hundred feet to the right while Brett filmed from above.

The razor blade holds cut into the men’s fingers. Low on the route, Kevin had split his fingertip. The lack of skin kept him from grasping the rock perfectly. On these huge granite walls with thousands of feet of climbing, ascents come down to the minutiae. They filed the rubber on their shoes to clear off any irregularities. Kevin spent hours super gluing the tears in his skin and then wrapping his digits with athletic tape.

“I grab the left hand,” Kevin said from the portaledge. His hands mimicked the sequence, describing every move in exact detail. I’d brought food to the climbers on the wall. Tommy was relaxed. Kevin fixated on the moves of the route and then stared at his fingertips.

While Kevin struggled with skin and the 15th pitch, Tommy continued climbing higher on the route. After a hard traverse on the dike, where Kevin failed, came an enormous jump. Tommy set a replica of the move on the side of his barn in Estes Park. The sequence involves grabbing two credit card holds and making an eight and a half foot sideways jump. Tommy fell on the move. He fell again. For years, this small section had thwarted him. Despite all the preparation he had put in he could not make the move. And the world was watching.

While Kevin rested, Tommy continued to attempt the huge jump. Unable to stick the hold, he found a variation. Tommy climbed down for a hundred feet, traversed left and continued back into the crack. Tommy managed to bypass the jump and finish off the rest of the hard climbing.

Things were not so easy for Kevin. Kevin’s climbing history involves some of the hardest boulder problems, difficult moves on small rocks. While Tommy had climbed hundreds of big wall routes, The Dawn Wall would be Kevin’s first El Capitan route. The El Cap underdog had one more try in good conditions. Semi-trucks with enormous satellites parked in the meadow below El Capitan. The major news networks began tracking the stories. Tommy waited for Kevin higher on the route.

“More than anything, I want to top out together,” Caldwell said on day 13. “We got to make that happen. It would be such a bummer to finish this thing without Kevin. I can’t imagine anything worse, really.” The pressure was on.

Kevin grabbed the small holds for the last time. His fingers curled. He placed his feet and lunged. A hundred times, he had fallen. But this time was different. He stuck the hold. He finished off the difficult section. He reached the eight-foot jump move. Where Tommy had climbed an enormous loop, Kevin used his bouldering prowess to throw his body across the wall. Again, he stuck the hold. The momentum continued.

The pair cast off from their basecamp, taking a few light bags of food and water. I rappelled in to help them haul their gear.  “Oh man,” Kevin said when he slumped onto the Ship’s Bow, the last ledge they would sleep on. “How far is the summit? I can’t wait to get to the top.”

Tommy coils ropes during the clean up of the Dawn Wall.
Tommy coils ropes during the clean up of the Dawn Wall.

Tommy laughed. I helped them lug their bags onto the ledge and headed for the top on the ropes I had fixed down.

Only a few pitches, six hundred feet, separated them from the top. In the morning, Tommy managed a difficult crack section. Then Kevin fell. Again.

“Come on Kevin!” Kevin’s friends and family yelled from a vantage point near the summit. I hung a few feet away, with the other cameramen.

Where Tommy had used his extensive crack climbing ability, Kevin found a different way to climb the hard crack, lay backing and under clinging the feature. Kevin pulled it off. “I think you just replaced Tommy as my trad climbing hero,” I told Kevin when he reached the belay.

“Hey!” Tommy said. “What the heck.”

A few hundred more feet and a few hours later, the two tired men walked to the summit of El Capitan.

Friends opened bottles of champagne. Rebecca Caldwell, Tommy’s wife, kissed him. Kevin’s girlfriend, Jacqui joined him at the top. Reporters with satellites attached to their laptops transmitted live feed. The media clamored for interviews. Kevin could barely speak, overcome with emotion and exhaustion. Tommy’s voice had escaped him. He had been yelling encouragement across the wall and now could only manage a whisper.

The news of the men’s ascent flashed across the nation. The President tweeted congratulations. The men were flown to the Ellen DeGeneres show. They were featured in Vanity Fair. They were interviewed by a hundred publications and put on all of the nightly news programs.

A few months after the Dawn Wall, Kevin was busy dealing with the remaining media of the ascent, helping with the movie production, promoting interviews and sifting through the adventure. Tommy Caldwell traveled to France, where he was climbing in the boulders of Fontainebleau.

Editors Note: A movie has now been released that covers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson’s achievement, more information can be found here, and a trailer can be found below:

 

Follow Tommy on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Follow Kevin on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Story and Images: James Lucas

_DS_9464James Lucas began climbing in Yosemite 13 years ago and has spent nearly half his life in between the granite walls. His obsession with rock led him to a nomadic life. When he’s not chasing rocks, he bakes pies does stand-up comedy and writes. He dreams of free-climbing El Capitan in a day. He created our climbing Foldout on “Yosemite Valley” (photo by Jimmy Chin) in Issue#6 and wrote the Guidebook Feature on his experiences and the climbing culture of the area- “The Big Stone”. 

Follow James on Instagram

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Events

Sep 21, 2018

Suru Fest: India’s Growing Climbing Festival

Two weeks of sending in the remote Suru Valley: From 300 boulder problems to alpine rock climbing in the uncharted Himalayan giants.

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I don’t usually attend festivals, but the Suru Fest had been on my list for as long as I had heard of it. So in late August this year, I spent a week and a half in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, climbing and bouldering with some of India’s best climbers, as well as a host of international adventurers. This year’s event was the third, and possibly most successful instalment since its inception in 2016.

The festival is the brainchild of Suhail Kakpori and Jamyang “Jammy” Tenzing, ‘Indian Climbing’s Exploring Boulderer’ previously covered by The Outdoor Journal. Jammy organized the first Suru Fest with a small crew of dedicated and passionate Ladakh-based rock climbers, which has now grown into a sustainable, sponsored event attracting climbers from all over the world.

While the idea is to unite the climbers from all across the globe, it is a festival premised on celebrating the power of youth and adventure. It’s held annually from late August until the first week of September and is a force that brings both athletes and creatives together to create inspiring content.

This year’s festival was sponsored by Tata Motors, an Indian multinational conglomerate with hundreds of well-known brands and properties, including Jaguar Land Rover. Eight 2018 Tata Hexa SUVs were made available to move climbers around from place to place, in this remote and wild part of the world. One of the Hexas also waited for us in Leh, but we were waiting for our dog Maurice – we’d flown in, but Maurice was being driven up to Leh from Delhi (about 48 hours by road). We had to wait for him and delay our early morning departure, and eventually get one of the many shared cabs that ply these mountain roads – pretty much the de facto method of getting around in Ladakh.

It was late in the day by the time Maurice arrived in Leh, and Tenzing got us a shared cab for Suru, near Kargil, several hours west of Leh. We then drove through one of the most picturesque landscapes in India. The road is very well paved for the most part of the journey, which isn’t usually the case in and around the Himalayas. The thought of being at the Suru Fest hadn’t quite settled in yet – perhaps I simply didn’t know what to expect. This was my first climbing festival and all I knew was that I was going to spend a week climbing and exploring the valley.

Unlike Leh and its location on the trans-Himalayan plateau, which comprises of high altitude arid desert, Suru is green, with agricultural activity. We reached Barsoo, a small village in Suru close to midnight. Upon entering the campsite, I was shown my way to a 3-man GIPFEL tent – a new, Indian outdoor gear make and the 2018 Suru Fest’s climbing equipment partner. In the morning I woke up to a sweeping view of the scenic valley that surrounded our campground. We had a pre-bouldering yoga session scheduled first thing in the morning, before breakfast… Talk about a flying start to the adventure! Following the session, we had breakfast and went exploring the climbing areas. “Most of the rocks here have been climbed, graded and documented. The topography to this area is also well underway” Jamyang told us. There are about 6 dedicated climbing areas in Suru and 300 problems with grades varying from 5C to 8A+.  The Suru tribe has and is fully invested in expanding the scope of climbing in Ladakh and also across India.

Amongst the few known Indian athletes and some elite climbers, Suru also hosted three IFMGA guides, two of which were from Georgia and one from the United States. The Georgians rigged their first sports route on a highball near the shore of the boulder-choked Suru river; their first in the himalayas. Sunny Jamshedji was another important addition to the festival whose tryst with trad-climbing has taken him across 20 US states over 22 years. I had heard of him through Prerna, who went climbing with him in Dhauj. The festival certainly couldn’t have asked for more experienced company.

Meanwhile, I lucked out when Luke Smithwick, an IFMGA guide and a prolific American climber with over 50 unclimbed Himalayan six-thousanders to his name, lead me up on my first multi-pitch trad climb. We did three pitches and an FA of a 5.6 route we named, “The Windy Novice”. As an inexperienced climber who is just getting started, I couldn’t have been more stoked. There are inherent risks involved in trad; you often expect your partner to have some kind of real rock experience before taking him out on a big Himalayan slab climb. Nonetheless, this was something I had been looking forward to for some time and I am glad to have made the experience with Luke, who mentored and lead me up the wall.

Luke on top of the Windy Novice. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

“Alpine rock climbing (no snow/ice) in the Himalayas is like climbing alpine rock anywhere in the world with just one caveat. Everything is much bigger than you think! The approaches are longer. The areas are mostly virgins, so there is very little to no information on the approach, route or descent. One has to figure things out themselves on the go. Places like Suru and Miyar have thousands of feet of alpine granite to explore, so if you are willing to do this sort of climbing, then this is an alpine paradise…”,  said Sunny when I asked about his thoughts on climbing in Suru.

Suru Fest is the first of its kind in India. While it constitutes of a demographic representing only a fraction of the population, it is a catalyst in that it suggests a much-needed deviation from the norm. We have long awaited the arrival of a culture that collectively underlines individualism and vigorously captures the spirit of the times. Suru does just that and does it with grace.

“I was particularly happy to send two projects which I was not able to execute last time even though I tried really hard. This is a great measure of progress which one doesn’t get in the gym because the routes there are reset frequently. I was also content to push my personal limits on a 7m highball. Besides the superb quality of the rock and the lines as well as the great weather I love that Suru Fest brings together an amazing crowd of people who share the passion for the outdoors and climbing. Honestly, I first and foremost came to see my friends in India.”, said Svenja Von Jan, a climber and a friend from Germany who also attended the festival last year in 2016.

Svenja Von Jan. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Svenja and I had met a few years ago in Himachal Pradesh in this quiet little village called, Kalga. Back then, I was exploring Parvati Valley in the Kullu district and had become obsessed with this particular mountain, which I hope to climb some day. It was also in Kalga, where I had my first hands-on experience while climbing a highball. We had found this high mossy boulder and were able to put up a few lines. She was strong back then and has undeniably grown stronger since then. So watching her try some hard moves in Suru was inspiring to say the least.

The mountain range that I aspire to climb in Parvati Valley. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

When you’re surrounded with experienced climbers you will only improve. The novelty of Suru is that it exposed me to some fine climbing along with some fine climbers. I was particularly drawn to this rock with some interesting looking features, referred to as the Green Mamba, a 7C+ problem. It took Adarsh Singh, a professional athlete, two to three attempts before topping out. I also saw Viraj Sose, who’d climbed Ecstasy Tree, a sick bulging 7C highball in Hampi: a boulder high enough to send chills down your spine.

The Slab. Photo: Siddhartha Chattopadhyay

Looking back on that slab, I still remember the ease with which Luke loosened me up for the climb. “You know what this is?”, he asked me, while holding out a nut tool. “Mhm, I have used it once or twice”, I said with every ounce of confidence I could gather. On our first pitch, while sitting on a ledge, I heard him say “Off Belay”. “Belay off,” I said and started paying out the rope. I had well familiarized myself with the jargon before we started off. On the second pitch, we stood leaning back on the rope with the weight of our bodies distributed equally over a three point anchor system. It took me a while to register that. “This can hold the weight of a big truck”, said Luke reassuringly. Now, closer than ever to the last pitch, the wind had picked up a bit and I felt a wave of euphoria sweeping over me. I then turned to look in the other direction and immediately spotted the Georgians glued to a big vertical wall, it was cinematic! Shortly after topping out, I calmed myself down and caught hold of my breath. “So much to celebrate discomfort,” I sighed.

Now, as I write this from the flat, smoggy and hot environs of Delhi, having returned sooner than I had wanted, I’m looking forward to returning to the high mountains, attending the festival next year and further honing my skills.

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