On January 14, after more than seven years of preparation and attempts, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made a final, 19-day push to complete the much-touted first free ascent of Yosemite’s most difficult route: the Dawn Wall (5.14d, 3,000′).
The climb has received international media attention from agencies including CBS News, NBC News and The Guardian. The New York Times dubbed it “El Cap’s Most Unwelcoming Route,” and “world’s toughest.” Despite 30- to 40-degree temperatures on the Valley floor, crowds gathered in quantities commonly seen only in the summer months. San Jose Mercury News posted a live video stream of the final four pitches.
“It’s a circus,” Alex Honnold says over the phone. “It’s outrageous. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in the Valley. It’s the middle of January, and I pulled up to the Meadow and couldn’t find parking.” Honnold is one of several people to visit the climbers on the wall these past few weeks.
Caldwell’s free version of the Dawn Wall has 12 pitches of 5.13 and six of 5.14, including back-to-back 5.14ds–now Yosemite’s two hardest pitches. In addition to standard cams and nuts, the duo protected moves with aid gear: copperheads, beaks and other pitons. They also used Warren Harding’s aging rivets from the first ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light, which parallels much of the Dawn Wall line.
The Dawn Wall ascends the tallest section of El Cap and has few obvious holds. “It’s surprisingly glassy in a lot of areas. It doesn’t feel rough,” says videographer Kyle Berkompas, who spent a total of 10 days on the wall capturing footage. “It has the tiniest holds imaginable. They’re using a lot of thumbs.”
“On Pitch 17, Kevin had two thunder-clings [underclings using thumbs only] on a near-vertical slab and then dynoed what looked four to five feet left,” Berkompas says.
Yosemite Bigwalls co-author Erik Sloan, who’s also visited the team several times on the wall, describes the terrain as “face [climbing] with crack holds. You see all these chalked holds and you say, ‘Oh I wonder if that’s a foot, but it’s a [hand] hold.'”
Caldwell has been freeing El Cap routes since climbing the Salathe Wall in 1999. He established the first free ascents of Lurking Fear (VI 5.14a), Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a), West Buttress (VI 5.13c) and Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a) and began work on the 32-pitch Dawn Wall route in 2007. Jorgeson was an accomplished highball boulderer, but had never climbed El Cap. He joined Caldwell on the route in 2009.
Throughout the years, the project has been stalled by both weather and injuries. In 2011, Jorgeson fell from the famous dyno, tearing ligaments in his ankle. Caldwell was injured during an attempt in 2013 when a 30-pound haulbag popped off a bolt and directly onto his harness, separating a rib from his sternum.
[Photo] Tom Evans
Warren Harding’s ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light (VI 5.9 A3) with Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy), in 1970, also received heavy media attention. They carried with them more than 300 pounds of supplies, including wine and brandy. Partway up the cliff, they ran dangerously low on provisions, refused support and rejected the offer of a rescue. Their climb required 27 days–twice the time anyone had previously spent on the wall at one time–and 328 drilled holes to complete. More than 100 reporters and friends greeted them on the summit. Royal Robbins chopped the first two pitches of bolts before recognizing the beauty of the line, recanting his outrage and continuing to the summit. Regardless, “the climb caused a rupture in the friendship of the two protagonists and resulted in much breast-beating from pundits and peripheral observers,” states Steve Roper in Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber.
The Dawn Wall project has stirred some controversy of its own, for the surrounding media coverage and for Caldwell and Jorgeson’s manner of ascent. “The style is a throwback to the ’50s siege climbing [and] some locals are unhappy about this circus,” El Cap Report photographer and blogger Tom Evans says. Caldwell placed several bolts on rappel, pre-examined pitches extensively, fixed crucial gear placements and scraped broad strokes of chalk on the wall (which wash off in the rain) to outline hard-to-see holds. His ascent has been aided, at times, by a support crew, from both the ground and summit. The team shared the wall with videographers and photographers who documented their ascent.
Over the course of this winter’s attempt to finish the climb, Sloan and his partner have Jumared up to the climbers’ camp five times with supply loads weighing in at 120 to 150 pounds. “Tommy and Kevin put a huge amount of work in. We just do the supplies. I take trash and poop away. It’s glamorous.”
Even with extensive assistance, Caldwell had doubts they would succeed. “The Dawn Wall looks harder than any other big-wall free climbing I’ve done,” he said in a video outtake from Valley Uprising. He wondered aloud, “Can I do this? Will I ever be able to do this?”
The first of El Cap’s 100-plus routes to be freed was the Salathe Wall (VI 5.13b), completed by Paul Piana and Todd Skinner over 30 days in 1988. Five years later, Lynn Hill freed the Nose (VI 5.14a) in four days after a rehearsal of the route. Hill returned a year later for the one-day ascent. This autumn, Honnold climbed the the Muir Wall (VI 5.13c/d) in merely 12 hours. The Dawn Wall marks the 14th free route on El Cap.
Though free climbing El Cap has gained popularity, annual aid ascents still outnumber successful free climbs of the wall. Large blank sections, overcome by aid climbers using pendulums, hook moves and bolt ladders, severely limit all-free ascents. The hardest pitches of the Dawn Wall route climb through several such blank spots, showing that more of this kind of hyper-difficult free climb might be possible elsewhere Yosemite Valley and beyond–perhaps only through years of work by the world’s free-climbing elite.
“It would almost certainly be a multi-year project for me as well,” says Honnold, who has no plans to attempt the route.
After two decades spent in the Meadow looking through his telephoto lens at climbers on the wall, Evans knows this ascent is different. In one report, he admitted to being overcome with emotion after watching Jorgeson succeed on a crux pitch that had stymied him for several days. “It was a geniune emotion. It was so wonderful. I know how hard he worked for that,” he says.
[Photo] Kevin Jorgeson
In the last week of the ascent, Jorgeson balked at Pitch 15’s 5.14d moves on the smallest, sharpest hold of the route–while Caldwell climbed on. Three days later, Jorgeson joined him at Wino Tower nine pitches below the top.
“[That] night on Wino was really emotional,” Berkompas told Alpinist two days before the team topped out. “I think these guys are ready to get off the wall. Everyone smells like urine. They’re dirty, they’re smelly, they want to walk again.”
[Video] Kevin Jorgeson/Adidas Outdoor
[Alpinist.com staff has reached out to both Caldwell and Jorgeson for comment, and wish them well in their recovery–Ed.]