At Last, The Upper Hand

Climbers Summit El Capitan, the World’s Hardest Climb


Sports and Outdoors : Sports By Photo by Corey Rich
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It was supposed to be impossible to free climb. The monolithic Dawn Wall is 3,000 feet of sheer, uncaring granite that’s more blank slate—with very few cracks or seams in the rock to hold onto—than honest-to-god climbing route. Yet, yesterday (January 14), after 19 straight days of clinging to Yosemite’s El Capitan, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson successfully completed the first free ascent of the 5.14d Dawn Wall, widely considered the most difficult big wall rock climb in the world.

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The duo’s climb, which began on December 27, was the culmination of seven-plus years of dreaming, planning, training, obsessing, reaching and, until now, failing. Caldwell first scouted the route in 2007, and the two have tried and failed to free climb—which means climbing naturally, using ropes and protection only to stop a fall and not to bear weight—Dawn Wall five times in as many years.

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To be successful, they had to complete all 32 pitches in succession, without returning to the valley floor in between. That meant living for nearly three weeks on the side of El Cap, where the view is unbeatable but the service and amenities are decidedly lacking. When they weren’t climbing—which they usually did in the evening or at night, when the rock was cool enough that it didn’t make their fingers sweat—Caldwell and Jorgeson relaxed or slept in cramped six-foot-by-four-foot portaledges bolted 1,200 feet up the granite face. They ate simple bagel sandwiches, pasta and fresh fruit. At night, they sipped whiskey.

What makes the Dawn Wall so hard, even when compared to El Cap’s 13 previously established free climbs, is that it doesn’t follow vertical cracks up the big wall. Rather, it relies more readily on tiny, razor-sharp handholds that are quite nearly invisible, and extremely punishing on climbers’ hands and fingers, which are super-glued, taped, balmed, salved and filed to compensate for split fingertips and other injuries. Just one day, or even one pitch, of such climbing can hobble a veteran climber, and 32 straight pitches of it is nearly unthinkable. But the two climbers have done their homework, memorizing every move sequence on the granite face, and put in the training to develop vice grip-like fingers. And, just as important, weather conditions were perfect for the climb.

After topping out last night, Caldwell and Jorgeson briefly embraced before gathering up their gear and meeting family and friends at the summit for a celebratory champagne toast. Next up is a well-deserved shower and, perhaps for Caldwell, an existential crisis of sorts now that he’s finally hunted down his white whale. “I’m not going to know how to live if we send this thing,” he joked with National Geographic Adventure last week. “I’m totally going to go through a midlife crisis for sure.”