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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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:
Story and Images: James Lucas
James 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”.
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