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Five Reasons Why the Dawn Wall First Free Ascent Has Pushed Climbing Forward

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Tommy Caldwell on January 7, 2015, on the Dawn Wall route of Yosemite's El Capitan. He and Kevin Jorgeson completed the historic first free ascent of the route today; Photograph by Brett Lowell, BigUp Productions

To take climbing to the next level, you have to innovate, which is just what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson did to complete one of the most significant ascents in climbing history. The achievement represents the realization of Caldwell’s vision to find a way to free climb the Dawn Wall—widely considered too steep and too difficult for free climbing.

Here are five reasons why the Dawn Wall has been cutting-edge from the beginning and has pushed the sport of climbing to the next level.

It’s Not a Crack Climb

Climbers call the vertical cracks in any cliff “lines of weakness” due to the fact that they are relatively easier to climb than a seemingly featureless vertical rock face that appears as smooth as glass to an untrained eye.

The glacier-polished granite of Yosemite is blessed with thousands of vertical cracks on all its major formations, which is how it became the rock climbing crucible that it is today. With good climbing technique, cracks are relatively straightforward to climb. You simply jam your hands and feet into the crack and follow it upward.

Cracks also have the benefit of being visible from the ground. A climber, using a pair of binoculars, can inspect the wall and easily see the route from the ground—just follow that vertical crack line from the bottom to the top.

Until now, all 13 of the free climbs on El Cap have been mostly crack climbs. The southwest face of El Capitan contains the most prominent collection of vertical cracks.

The Dawn Wall is the first El Cap free climb to really depart from this tradition of following the “lines of weakness” to the summit. You might say that the Dawn Wall is a “line of strength.”

It took a lot of vision on Caldwell’s part to find a stretch of free-climbable rock, which isn’t a crack climb, and on this scale. He spent two years drilling dozens of bolts by hand, a process that takes 45 minutes per bolt, in order to add protection points on a rock face devoid of cracks. He had to scrub dirt off the tiny hand- and footholds and remember their sequences perfectly in order to link the moves.

Thanks to Caldwell and Jorgeson, and their vision for what a free climb on El Capitan could look like, future climbers looking for a good challenge will certainly be turning their attention to the seemingly blank faces located between the cracks.

Coldest Winter Nights

Yosemite is America’s most crowded National Park, with a busy tourist season during the summer months. Even climbers tend to flock to Yosemite in greater numbers during the warmest months of the year. Prime climbing months in Yosemite are typically believed to be in May and October.

When Caldwell and Jorgeson first started working on the Dawn Wall together about six years ago, they would typically try to climb in November. Soon they realized that this wall was simply just too hot for the high-end free climbing. Because the route is not a crack climb, the style of climbing involved grabbing some of the tiniest, most frictionless holds imaginable.

Climbers prefer cold conditions because they believe friction is better between their skin and the rock. Hands sweat less and the rock feels “stickier.” On the southeast-facing Dawn Wall, which collects sunlight for most of the day, Caldwell and Jorgeson discovered that in order to use these holds they needed to climb in January at night.

What Caldwell and Jorgeson have inadvertently done over these past two weeks is pioneer an entirely new season (and time of day) for free climbing on El Capitan. Climbing in January at night by headlamp is an out-of-the-box idea for free climbers, but Caldwell and Jorgeson have shown that this is what it takes to succeed in free climbing at the upper limit of the climbing scale.

Redefining “Team Free”

Over the years, big-wall free climbers on El Cap have debated over the various “styles” of ascent. The method employed by Caldwell and Jorgeson over the past 19 days has left many in the climbing community scratching their heads about what to make of their style.

The goal for Caldwell and Jorgeson was simply for both climbers to free climb every pitch. At least one person had to lead every pitch, and once that pitch was led, then it was OK for the second person to free climb that pitch on top-rope.

It became confusing because, once the two climbers hit the block of really hard pitches, from pitch 14 through 20, they each free-climbed these pitches out of order from each other. Jorgeson battled to complete pitch 15, while Caldwell continued leading every pitch up to pitch 20. After Jorgeson led pitch 15, and pitch 16, then he top-roped pitches 17-20 while catching up to Caldwell.

This style really stretches the definition of “team free” to its limit due to the fact that both climbers ascended each pitch of the Dawn Wall in succession to their own high point, but out of order in relation to each other.

Regardless of what you call their style of ascent, the fact remains that for Caldwell and Jorgeson, this was a hard-won effort and the result of seven years of work and dedication.

Tweeting El Cap

The Dawn Wall has stood right at the cutting edge of adventure media since Caldwell and Jorgeson first set foot onto this 3,000-foot rock climb. The fact that El Cap gets perfect cell-phone coverage has allowed the climbers to communicate the details of their ascent to an engaged audience. They’ve posted daily Instagrams and Facebook updates. Jorgeson has held live Q&A sessions on Twitter using the #askdawnwall hashtag.

Unlike all major sporting events, which have stadiums that are designed as much as television studios as they are playing fields for athletes, big-wall climbing areas present numerous challenges for capturing the media assets that depict the incredible performances take place on the side of the wall.

Jorgeson and Caldwell were originally criticized for maintaining such a strong social media presence during their climbing days due to the fact that being on Facebook seemed to be at odds with having a true climbing adventure. What’s so fascinating is how this perspective now seems incredibly outdated by today’s standards. It speaks to the fact that cameras, cell phones and being constantly interconnected on social media have grown to become so much a part of all our lives, that it would seem odd without it.

“I almost feel obligated at this point to continue posting,” said Caldwell on day 10. “It’s been a tough balance. It was something I was uncomfortable with at first. But I feel such overwhelming support and such feedback that I feel obligated to continue posting to Instagram and Facebook. It’s become such an integral part of this climb.”

So Much Hard Climbing

The bottom line is that the Dawn Wall is significant because it contains more hard pitches of rock climbing than any other big-wall free climb yet established. There are 17 pitches—half the route—rated 5.13 or harder. The fact that Yosemite’s two hardest pitches, pitches 14 and 15, are located right in the middle of the Dawn Wall is what makes this route so challenging.

It’s safe to say that it’ll be a long time before anyone repeats this rock climb.

Caldwell is one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year. Vote for the People’s Choice daily until January 31.