UKC

The Dawn Wall Project: History in the Making

The Dawn Wall Project is a Project no more. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's feat of free climbing the Dawn Wall was a vision which Tommy had dreamed of for years, but the gravity of finally achieving this goal could never have been imagined. It's hard to escape the clichés - talk of legends, conquests, epics, sagas and so forth - which attempt to boil down years of commitment and dedication into a single word or phrase. Yet the hardest big wall free route in the world has been climbed, and with an honorable mix of stubborn determination and self-effacement.

Tommy and Kevin immediately after topping out on Dawn Wall, 144 kb
Tommy and Kevin immediately after topping out on Dawn Wall
© Chris Burkard

Undeniably, the worldwide excitement surrounding the activity of two climbers in Yosemite Valley, thousands of feet above the ground, isolated in the intensity of their ambition but at once remarkably intimate with the outside world - is a stark indication of the scale of this achievement.

Kevin, 30 kb

Never before has a piece of climbing history made such headway into the mainstream media around the world, with both climbers and non-climbers captivated by their story. Through a myriad of Facebook posts, Tweets, video updates, articles in the New York Times, The Telegraph and TV reports on the BBC to name but a few, Tommy and Kevin's assault on the Dawn Wall was fed to the masses in astonishing detail, with live question and answer sessions (#AskDawnWall) and mini documentary-style snippets of video footage. Even Barack Obama sent his congratulations from the White House:

"So proud of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson for conquering El Capitan. You remind us that anything is possible." - Barack Obama

In their attempt to free climb "the steepest, blankest big wall maybe in the world" (Tommy's description), Tommy and Kevin pushed the boundaries of big wall climbing - with 32 incredibly hard pitches, 2,500ft of climbing, almost 20 days on the wall, ripped skin - and all in the eyes of the media.

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The Dawn wall/Mescalito project
© Kevin Jorgeson

History

In 1970, Yosemite climber Warren Harding spent 28 days on the Dawn Wall, fixing ropes and aiding the route. He endured horrific storms and denied rescue, stubbornly making his way up the 2,500ft cliff.

The Dawn Wall was the last big wall in Yosemite yet to be freeclimbed and Tommy - a Yosemite climber almost since birth - was certainly a prime and worthy candidate for the first free ascent. He started working the route in 2008 and tried to free the Dawn Wall in 2010 with Kevin, but sustained a broken ankle in a fall and was stumped by the crux 14th pitch. In 2013, Chris Sharma and Jonathan Siegrist joined in on the assault but to no avail.

"What makes the Dawn Wall so special is that it's almost not possible" - Alex Honnold

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Dawn Wall Topo

A full topo of the route is available here.

This bonus sequence from the acclaimed film Valley Uprising below tells a short history of the Dawn Wall.

A New Dawn...

After 7 years of working the Dawn Wall and learning its intricacies, Tommy finally freed the crux 14th pitch at the grade of 9a last November (UKC News Report), a turning point which rendered freeing the route in its entirety a possibility. Beginning on 27th December, Tommy and Kevin embarked on their "push" to finally realise their dream.

Food and water supplies were brought up to the climbers in relay runs by a support crew - including a guest appearance of Alex Honnold who delivered "moral boosting treats." Documenting their time on the wall was a small band of cameramen filming their ascent and carrying out interviews with the climbers to create short video clips for the Dawn Wall Push series on rockandice.com, aiding up the wall to film and returning to the ground with media for the video edits.

Watch a video from last year below, as Tommy and Kevin started making progress towards freeing individual pitches:

Timeline

  • Pitches 1 to 10

    Kevin and Tommy climbed the first ten pitches in three days from 27th-30th December - in chunks of the first 5 pitches, then 6-9 and then the 10th pitch, at the following grades and not always in the best of conditions:

    P1: 7b
    P2: 7c+
    P3: 8a+
    P4: 7b
    P5: 7c (wet)
    P6: 8a+
    P7: 8b+
    P8: 8b
    P9: 8a
    P10: 8b+ (wet)

  • Pitches 11 and 12

    After the 10th pitch, the pair were faced with stormy weather and were forced to rest before completing pitches 11 and 12 on New Year's Eve.

  • Crux Pitch 14

    The big news came when both climbers completed the crux 14th pitch at 9a

  • Pitch 15

    Tommy sent pitch 15 at 9a, the 8b+ Loop Pitch as a variation to the 9a Dyno Pitch.

    This marked the beginning of Kevin's struggle, as he came unstuck on pitch 15, battling with skin issues on a razor sharp crimp.

  • Pitches 16 to 20

    Kevin Jorgeson on the razors of pitch 15, Dawn Wall, Yosemite, 126 kb

    By 11th January, Tommy had climbed the first 20 pitches and reached the Wino Tower.

    A breakthrough occurred as Kevin finally climbed pitch 15:

    "Today Kevin managed to climb pitch 15 in the most inspired climbing moment of his life. It was such an intense and incredible thing to witness. It's not over yet, but things are looking good."

    Tommy

    "Pure joy. Pitch 15 finally went down after 11 attempts over 7 days. Riding high, I stuck the dyno on Pitch 16, but fell in the corner right above the no hands stance. Back to finish that tomorrow."

    Kevin
  • By January 13th, Kevin caught up with Tommy and made it to the top of pitch 20. The team were now back on track and working through the final pitches together.

  • Final Pitch

    On 14th January, Tommy climbed the final pitch and Kevin seconded up behind him to be met with family and friends waiting on top of the cliff.

#AskDawnWall: In the Social Media twilight...

With almost daily interactions with social media, Tommy and Kevin helped to spread interest in their climb by posting Tweets, photos and pitch updates direct from their portaledge, 2000ft above civilisation. The pair even held a Question and Answer session using the hastag #AskDawnWall, to which they received hundreds of responses regarding their plan for the pitches, dinner arrangements and a particularly nosey question asking who was big spoon and who was little spoon at night.

The duo were even honoured with LAD status by The LADBible - a website for manly men between the ages of 16-30 - and a spoof Twitter account was set up under the name of "Yosemite's Dawn Wall," humorously and light-heartedly antagonising the efforts of Tommy and Kevin.

Top Lad status for Tommy and Kevin..., 133 kb
Top Lad status for Tommy and Kevin...

Tommy's wife Becca updated their joint blog with her thoughts on the challenge, enabling us to view their ambitious undertaking from another perspective.

On 14th January, a Live Stream was set up enabling viewers from all over the world to watch as Tommy and Kevin completed the route. In the aftermath of the climb, numerous TV interviews and news reports flooded the media with Dawn Wall mania.

Questions have been raised as to whether the connectivity to the outside world reduced the sense of adventure for the pair, but all things considered, the primarily positive publicity towards climbing as a pursuit/sport/hobby has undoubtedly inspired hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and the intensity of the feat remains undeniable.

Below are some examples of Kevin's Twitter posts, offset with some abuse from the Dawn Wall's own profile:

Kevin Jorgeson battling the Dawn Wall, 17 kb Ask Dawn Wall, 27 kb

Real Dawn Wall, 39 kb Real Dawn Wall, 31 kb

Real Dawn Wall, 25 kb

and the Mainstream Media spotlight...

Such was the magnitude of Tommy and Kevin's endeavour that the mainstream media latched onto their story, depicting elaborate and at times amusing portraits of the climbers' and their goal.

A screenshot of one of the New York Times articles featuring the Dawn Wall ascent, 109 kb
A screenshot of one of the New York Times articles featuring the Dawn Wall ascent

Filled with non-climber mountaineering cliché; "Seizing a dream, not a rope", distorted explanations of the meaning of free climbing; "free climbing means no help, and no feet on the ground" and misfitting analogies; "as smooth as alabaster, as steep as the bedroom wall" the press certainly latched on to the "daredevils' " feat with gusto, albeit with a sprinkling of sensationalism.

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Not the usual exclamation when grasping "a razor-sharp hold...

The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The BBC all joined in on the Dawn Wall mania. Some of the best quotes are summarized in this article. An impressive interactive 3D model of the Dawn Wall was also featured on the New York Times website, pictured below.

3D Model of the Dawn Wall featured on the New York Times website, 217 kb
3D Model of the Dawn Wall featured on the New York Times website

We've experienced the blood, sweat and tears of two climbers realising their dream. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have certainly entered their names into the history books with this ascent. Who knows what the future holds for the next generation seeking to push the boundaries of big wall climbing, but the Dawn Wall is certainly a new benchmark across the board - in difficulty, scale and commitment - for those with the vision to do so.

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The Dawn Wall accepts defeat...



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