Until yesterday Adam Ondra was better known for his sport climbing and competition prowess–the 23-year-old Czech climber was the first person to send 5.15c (he has done more than thirty 5.15 climbs, more than anyone else by a long shot); he boulders V16, and he’s won three World Cup gold medals and two World Championships. And now he will go down in history as the third person to free climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d), and the first to do it leading every pitch. And in less than eight days.
Ondra told National Geographic: “In the end it was just as hard as I expected, but it took more time than I expected, because I was a total beginner to this style of climbing in Yosemite. There’s no doubt this is the hardest big-wall rock climb in the world.”
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall in January 2015 after a final push from the ground that lasted nineteen days. Caldwell had invested seven years of effort to piece the free route together. He and Jorgeson ended up doing the route in a hybrid style that included team-free and redpoint tactics, meaning they swapped leads on the majority of the route, each free climbing some of pitches on toprope, but then each man led the crux pitches. They received international attention and a congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama when they finished.
“Hats off to Tommy and Kevin, who believed that the whole climb was possible before they free climbed. Without having the beta, some of the sections look just impossible,” Ondra said in an interview with his sponsor, Black Diamond Equipment, October 30. “I have the advantage that I know that the climb is possible and that helps me to keep the faith that I might be able to do it as well. I am humbled and impressed by what Tommy and Kevin did!” He later added, “These pitches are not only bold, but freaking hard too! Definitely no easy grades for these ones–Tommy and Kevin are tough guys!”
Ondra himself had never even been to Yosemite until he arrived in late October. Then, after less than a month of practice on the Valley’s glacier-polished slabs–very different from the bolted, overhanging limestone and granite that he’s best known for climbing–he set off to redpoint the most daunting big-wall free route in existence.
“It’s hugely impressive,” Caldwell told National Geographic. “It was pretty surprising to see how quickly he adapted to El Cap…. One thing that’s pretty shocking to me is that he fell a lot throughout the route. He had to re-climb pitches over and over and over again, and his [finger] skin somehow held up to that. He fell way more than I did, and I took three times as long, and my skin barely held up. And Kevin’s didn’t.”
Ondra arrived in the Valley announcing big plans: onsight The Nose (VI 5.14a) and/or The Salathe (VI 5.13b or 5.13d), and then tick The Dawn Wall, all free. People familiar with the nuances of Yosemite climbing were eager to see what might happen: How does a person who primarily climbs bolted sport routes translate his skills to polished granite slabs that are protected by marginal gear in shallow seams? Ondra ended up not trying The Salathe, and he didn’t send The Nose–though he did make a worthy attempt, topping out in fewer than 24 hours with his father, only failing to free the two crux pitches, “The Great Roof” and “Changing Corners.” Ondra told Black Diamond: “[It was the] full alpine experience, as we did not find the descent route in the pissing rain, and had a wet and cold bivy in the little cave before we finally got to the car at 9 a.m.”
Even before he tried The Nose, the rainy weather encouraged Ondra to start his Dawn Wall reconnaissance sooner than he’d originally planned. He started leading from the ground, free climbing as much as possible without any prior inspection. On October 17, he told Black Diamond: “First day on the big wall in Yosemite, and straight onto the Dawn Wall! Foolishness, lack of respect or boldness? Well, not necessarily any of it. The Dawn Wall just dries up quickly after the huge rain on Sunday. And it went all right. Definitely scary and adventurous. Tiny footholds and insecure climbing, smearing my feet onto glassy footholds of Yosemite granite and all that with poor protection by copperheads, peckers, tiny cams and occasional bolts. I ripped some copperheads, took some falls but made it to the top of Pitch 7 and fixed our ropes. Leading the pitches with all the fear definitely felt super hard, but once I had the rope from above, the moves felt OK. But grades on the Dawn Wall are definitely not overrated…. The fact that we are very inexperienced was obvious right from the beginning. I’ve done a lot of jugging up in my life, but only sport climbing and always using one Grigri and one ascender. Bad technique resulted in being super slow and tired after having jugged up the first seven pitches. It was 3:30 p.m. by that time, so I managed to get to the top of Pitch 10 until it got dark.”
Ondra began to rehearse the free climbing on toprope after climbing each pitch from the bottom to the top with free and aid tactics. Conversely, Caldwell and Jorgeson rappelled the wall first to find the most likely free route and subsequently practiced many of the moves on toprope before starting from the ground.
Jorgeson told Rock and Ice: “For Tommy and I, the question was whether it was even possible. We left lots of room to improve the style and Adam did just that! Super impressive that he was able to adapt to the [Dawn Wall’s] unique style and sort out so many complex sequences so quickly.”
Ondra ended up climbing the route in thirty-one pitches, which stack up in the following order: 5.12b, 5.13a, 5.13c, 5.12b, 5.12d, 5.13c, 5.14a, 5.13d, 5.13c, 5.14a, 5.13c, 5.14b, 5.13b, 5.14d, 5.14d, 5.14a, 5.14a, 5.13c, 5.13b, 5.13c/d, 5.13d, 5.10, 5.11, 5.11, 5.11d, 5.11c, 5.12c, 5.12b, 5.13a, 5.12b. A topo from the first free ascent can be found here.
After spending multiple days rehearsing the cruxes and occasionally returning to the ground for a break, he felt it was time. Ondra began his final push November 14 and blazed up the first part of the wall. He sent the first nine pitches on Day 1, then Pitches 10 through 13 on Day 2, followed by a rest day below the first pitch of 5.14d, Pitch 14. It appeared that he was going to hike the wall with nary a pause. It ultimately took him nine tries to send Pitch 14. On Day 4 he made eight attempts before calling it a day. Day 5 saw Ondra fire Pitch 14 first try and he went on to send Pitch 15, the second 5.14d section, on his second attempt.
On Day 6 he sent “The Loop” pitch, which avoids the famous horizontal dyno by down climbing and traversing into the corner system lower down. Ondra told Black Diamond: “Pitch 16 can be climbed via the dyno or the loop. If I am not wrong, the dyno was given 5.14c (8c+), and the loop is probably easier–I heard something about 5.14a– but due to the crazy character of the climbing, the grade is not relevant. The dyno might be more logical as a line, but the loop pitch climbs the easiest way up the wall, so I consider both equally logical. I tried the dyno a few times in the last weeks, but I thought I would have to invest considerable effort into the dyno with insecure results, and that is why I decided to climb the loop pitch.” So far Jorgeson is the only person to send the route using the dyno. After doing The Loop pitch, Ondra sent the next five pitches to Wino Tower. From there only one pitch of 5.13a and a handful of 5.12 and 5.11 sections remained, but Ondra took a rest on Day 7 because of rain, finishing on Day 8, November 21.
“It feels amazing right now,” Ondra told National Geographic when he arrived on the summit. “This is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in climbing. Wow, so good. I think it’ll be a long-lasting happiness and joy due to the length and effort of the route.”
At the time of this writing Ondra was unavailable for an interview. Alpinist hopes to update this story with direct comments from him and others in the near future.–Ed.