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The Dawn Wall has been Freed

posted by dpm on 01/15/2015

The world watched via live streaming video yesterday as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson pulled over the lip of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall for its first free ascent, a climbing accomplishment unparalleled in recent years.

Caldwell and Jorgeson embrace on top of the Dawn Wall. Photo: Aurora Photos/Corey Rich

It’s been eight years since Tommy Caldwell first envisioned the possibility of free climbing such a blank and daunting wall. Since then, he and his partner Kevin Jorgeson—who joined him in 2009—have spent countless days on the wall scouting pitches and slowly piecing together the 3000 foot rock climb. Seven pitches, or eight depending on how you break them down, are 5.14 with two back-to-back 5.14d traverse pitches marking the crux of the route. The rest of the climb consists of multiple pitches of 5.12 and 5.13.

In 2010, the pair made their first in-a-push effort but were sent down by storms. The following year, while working the dyno pitch, Jorgeson injured his ankle in a fall. Caldwell didn’t escape the mission unscathed either. Last year a haul bag unexpectedly cut loose and fell a rope length before shock loading his harness and bruising his ribs. But this year was different. They were in the best shape of their lives and their attempt coincided with a perfect winter weather window with cool temperatures and only minor storms.

They plugged along at the route slowly, 19 days in all, with the outcome uncertain until the very end. Caldwell seemed unstoppable, never being stalled by a pitch for very long throughout their effort. But Jorgeson—who referred to himself as the "underdog" in the New York Times—spent a full week stuck at the 2nd 5.14d traverse pitch with torn fingertips. He patiently watched his skin grow back and rallied for a send which gave him the momentum to quickly fire off the 5.14 dyno pitch and three pitches of 5.13+ to catch up to Caldwell’s high point at Wino Tower. With nothing but 11 pitches of mostly 5.12 above them their chances of success were high but not guaranteed.

Speaking with the New York Times, Jorgeson recounted a moment of doubt on the final morning of their climb when he was momentarily shut down. “Even this morning, the fourth-to-last pitch, the method that Tommy used was not going to work for me, and I didn’t know if there was another way,” he said. “I was like, I’m not going to climb the Dawn Wall because of a 5.12 flare. I started to lose it a little bit. But I found my own way and made it work. It wasn’t until the base of the last pitch that I really felt it was in the bag.”

When they pulled over the top, they were greeted by applause from reporters and friends that had gathered on the summit, dozens of onlookers in El Cap meadow, and innumerable viewers that had tuned in to watch the live feed of their final days on the route.

For climbers, the achievement is undeniably ground-breaking. No other wall of such sustained difficulty has ever been free climbed. The Dawn Wall has set a high benchmark for big wall free climbing that will likely stand long into the future. It also demonstrated what can be accomplished with a well-rounded approach to climbing.

Caldwell is likely the most well-rounded free climber alive today, equally adept on boulders, sport climbs (he claimed the first ascent of America’s first 5.15a, Flex Luthor, in 2003), mountaineering, and traditional climbing. Jorgeson was at first an unlikely partner with his roots in bouldering. But it was he that sent the dyno on pitch 16, a move that required Caldwell to pioneer a 5.14 work around called the loop pitch. Both climbers brought strengths to the team that were crucial to their success.

For the world at large, the mainstream media frenzy surrounding the climb may prove to be beneficial. No other climb over the past two decades or more has received such a spot light, though it’s worth remembering that Warren Harding and partner’s first ascents of El Cap's Nose in 1958 and The Wall of the Early Morning Light (AKA the Dawn Wall) in 1970 received similar levels of attention—just without the live feed on the internet.

Last week DPM poked fun at the mainstream media’s interpretation of the Dawn Wall climb and their overall misconceptions of rock climbing. Even more outlandish were the comments made under such articles by people that understood free climbing as free soloing and viewed climbers as thrill seekers with a death wish. After just one more week of media saturation, that perception by non-climbers has noticeably shifted. One commenter at the New York Times wrote, “The other day, I posted a rather cynical comment questioning the value of this climb and making a snide comment about whether, climbing jargon aside, it was truly a "free climb." I take it back wholeheartedly. After reading the story of the climbers and their climb, and seeing the photos, I'm in awe of this achievement. Bravo Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson.”

President Obama wrote: "Congratulations to Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson for conquering Yosemite National Park's El Capitan! You remind us that anything is possible." Photo: The White House Facebook

Even President Obama tweeted a congratulations from the White House which was followed by overwhelming notes of support from around the country. At a time when climbing is continually growing as a sport, crags are becoming more crowded, and National Parks face continuous budget cuts; watching the general population cheer on rock climbers has been overwhelmingly positive. Hopefully there will be a greater understanding of the value of our incredible sport.

Congratulations to Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson for showing the world what is possible.