Yosemite Climbers Attempt Historic First Free Ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall

This week all eyes are on climbing’s center stage, El Capitan, the 3,000-foot monolith in Yosemite National Park, as professional climbers Tommy Caldwell, one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year, and Kevin Jorgeson vie to make history and complete the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. Should they be successful in free climbing the Dawn Wall, it will be one of the most significant climbing achievements of all time. For Tommy, who first envisioned this route, success this week will represent the culmination of over seven years of focused efforts to establish the Dawn Wall as a new free climb (“free,” as in, “free of aid”). See more photos from this historic Yosemite climb.

After a week of living on the wall in portaledges—dodging falling blocks of ice each morning and sustaining frigid winter conditions with nighttime temperatures plummeting below freezing—Kevin and Tommy are more than halfway there. As of Friday, January 2, both climbers have freed each of the route’s first 14 pitches, which constitute the bulk of the hardest climbing.

A long “multi-pitch” rock climb, such as the Dawn Wall, is broken down by the belays—the places on the wall that provide good stances on ledges where climbers can stop and belay each other. The individual pitches are the paths that link these points of belay, and this is where the actual rock climbing takes place. On this ascent of the Dawn Wall, Tommy and Kevin have the goal to climb each pitch, in succession, without falling and without returning to the ground in between. If a climber does fall, he must return to the previous belay, pull the rope down with him, and try again to complete the pitch without falling.

“It’s going great up here! Spirits are good and we’re feeling optimistic. It’s been a rad adventure, for sure,” said Tommy, speaking to me on a cell phone from his portaledge camp 1,500-feet up the side of El Capitan on January 2, a well-deserved rest day for the team. “But we still have a lot left to do.”

The rock climbing on this particular route is defined by grabbing edges of rock as thin and sharp as razor blades, and balancing across the most friction-dependent smears of blank, glacier-polished granite. Hence, the climbing is extremely “conditions dependent,” meaning that colder rock is much more conducive to success. Fingertips sweat less. Shoe rubber has more friction. This explains why they have chosen winter to complete their ascent; To complete the hardest, longest rock climb in the world, they will need every advantage possible.

“It’s the most chapping environment in the world up here,” said Tommy. “Windy. Cold. Super dry. We’re grabbing razor blades. I wake up twice a night and reapply lotion to my hands. We sand our fingertips to keep them smooth. We sand our shoe rubber. … I’m not usually a very anal person, but I’ve gotten really dialed in on this route and analyzed everything. Skin care is part of it.”

Even in the dead of winter, it’s still too hot to free climb 5.14 moves in direct California sun. For these harder pitches, Tommy and Kevin typically wait till the pitch goes into the shade, meaning the temps are between 30 and 40 degrees.

“We haven’t had too many problems with numb fingers,” Tommy said. “There are a lot of opportunities to find stances to warm your fingers up. It’s amazing how much better these holds feel when the conditions are good.”

Keeping food fresh, however, hasn’t been a problem. “One of the nice things about climbing in the winter is it’s like a refrigerator up here. We brought a giant tupperware with bell peppers, avocados, cucumbers, salami sandwiches. We have three double portaledges set up. It’s like a five-star hotel up here!”

Roughly 16 pitches remain, with the next four being the toughest. If they can complete this next set of pitches, it’s likely that the Dawn Wall will be in the bag. The final 12 pitches are all relatively easier with “mostly 5.11, some 5.12 and one move of 5.13 climbing,” according to Tommy. If all goes according to plan, Tommy and Kevin will top out on January 9, 14 days after beginning the grandest adventure of their lives.

“I’m not too nervous,” said Tommy. “When I used to comp climb, or sport climb at Rifle, I would get really nervous. But big walls are, like, my zone. I know this mental space. I can just get there. I have just the right amount of nervousness right now. And I think Kevin is figuring that out, too. He’s striking that balance really well on this push.

“I will say this: It’s intense right now. It’s really, really intense.”

The Dawn Wall of El Capitan is the steepest, tallest, blankest section of El Cap—and one of the monolith’s most storied sectors. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) first aid climbed the “Wall of Early Morning Light,” aka the Dawn Wall, in 1970 (learn more about Yosemite’s climbing history). Their ascent became the subject of national news when, after 22 days of living on the wall and one particularly bad 4-day storm, the two climbers infamously turned down the National Park Services’ attempt to rescue them. Instead, they offered the rescuers some wine.

Tommy Caldwell, who has free climbed more routes on El Capitan than anyone else, first turned his attention to exploring the southeast face of El Cap (an expanse just loosely referred to as the Dawn Wall, as multiple aid climbing routes exist here) for free climbing potential around 2007. Simply “finding the route” took Tommy two years of exploration. This undertaking involved swinging around on ropes and figuring out where there were enough hand- and footholds to allow for continuous upward passage; drilling (by hand) the bolts needed to protect the climbing on the blankest faces, which is an arduous 40-minute task to place just one bolt; and also establishing all the points of belay.

After that came the really hard part—working to free climb each individual pitch. When Tommy realized just how hard these moves and pitches were, he put out a select invitation to the strongest boulderers and sport climbers in the world to join him in working to figure out if these moves were even humanly possible. Some of the biggest names in American rock climbing have joined Tommy over the years, including Jonathan Siegrist, Alex Honnold, and Chris Sharma.

Kevin Jorgeson joined in 2009 and has been Tommy’s most consistent partner throughout this process.

Pitches 14, 15, and 16 are the three hardest pitches. Pitch 16 is the infamous “Dyno Pitch,” in which the climber has to make a jump (dyno) six feet horizontally, and latch onto a downward sloping edge of rock and hold on while controlling the swinging momentum. Thus far Kevin has had the most success in sticking this rowdy move; Tommy, however, has had less success. On this push, Kevin plans to do the dyno.

Tommy, however, plans to circumnavigate the dyno with a 5.14a variation. He will climb in a “loop”—reversing 20 feet of the last pitch, down-climbing 50 feet from the belay, and then coming back up to join a point above the dyno.

Pitches 14 and 15 are the two “traversing pitches”—both are rated 5.14d and both took the longest to free. Tommy first freed pitch 15 in 2013; at that point only one pitch hadn’t been freed: pitch 14.

Last November Tommy freed pitch 14. He called it the hardest pitch of the entire route.

So by last November, every pitch on the Dawn Wall had been free climbed by either Tommy or Kevin. But for a route to be considered complete, in the best style, the climbers would need to start on the ground and climb up in a single, continuous push—free climbing every pitch as they progress upward. They started their push on December 27, and now find themselves in the midst of it.

On New Year’s Day, Kevin and Tommy both successfully sent pitch 14. Their success on the hardest pitch has left the climbing world at large feeling optimistic that, after nearly seven years of efforts, this could be the season that the Dawn Wall is finally completed.

Stay tuned for more coverage on this ascent as it unfolds …

Tommy Caldwell is one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year. Vote for the People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year through January 31.