Top Climber Attends the School of Hard Rocks in Yosemite

While preparing for his free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan—just the second ever attempt of this notoriously difficult feat—climber Adam Ondra reflects on his steep learning curve.

Adam Ondra, a 23-year-old rock climber from the Czech Republic, reached the summit of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park yesterday afternoon. The summit—reached via a partial ground-up aid ascent, i.e., not an entirely free ascent—came after more than 18 hours of through-the-night climbing, in which Ondra and his fellow Czech climbing partner, Pavel Blazek, blasted up the upper 1,800 feet of the 3,000-foot route.

In climbing, however, it’s not about just reaching the top; it’s how you get there that matters. Although Ondra—a past National Geographic Adventurer of the Year—hasn't yet achieved his ultimate goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall, he has taken the first step toward that objective by now having climbed his way up the entire route with the aid of gear.

The Dawn Wall is considered the longest, hardest free climb in the world. It was first free climbed by American climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson in 2015. Ondra is the first person to even attempt to repeat their achievement.

“I’m definitely getting my ass kicked,” Ondra says, laughing. “It's also pretty humbling to learn a different style of climbing.”

Ondra has been a World Cup champion for the past six years, and he’s the only person to have achieved both the difficulty levels of V16 in bouldering and 5.15c in sport climbing. For a guy who is widely recognized as the best, and strongest, sport climber in the world, the experience of learning how to free climb in Yosemite—on its unique, slippery, and cryptically smooth granite—leaves Ondra in awe.

His first day on El Capitan was October 17. Ondra reported that his impression of it was “definitely scary and adventurous. Tiny footholds and insecure climbing.”

During this initial recon of the Dawn Wall, Ondra has largely resorted to a style of climbing known as aid climbing, which involves hanging from gear to aid his upward progress.

The objective of a free climb is to avoid aid. (Free climbing literally means to be “free of aid.”) It also means neither falling nor relying on gear for upward progress; although gear, including a rope, is used as a back-up just in case. (Free climbing is different than free soloing, which means climbing without any rope or gear whatsoever.)

Especially as routes get more difficult, free climbing is achieved through a meticulous process of learning and memorizing the sequence of handholds and footholds, and then mastering the right body positions, balance, strength, and endurance that allow the climber to climb a full rope length, called a pitch, without ever falling or weighting the rope.

It’s a process that can take a very long time.

Over 19 continuous days in January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson became the first people to free climb the 32-pitch Dawn Wall. Their historic ascent was the result of more than seven years of hard work and effort. Much of that time involved discovering the sequence of holds, installing new fixed gear for protection, and rehearsing all the moves with the goal of one day doing them without falling.

Ondra says he is hoping to match Caldwell and Jorgeson’s performances on the Dawn Wall over the course of just one month.

If Ondra actually completes his goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall, “I would be super, super impressed,” says Jorgeson, “but also not surprised.”

“He’s really going for it, which is super rad,” says Caldwell. “I wouldn’t have expected anything different from him.”

Caldwell and his family road tripped from their home in Estes Park, Colorado, out to Yosemite just to watch Ondra start up the route.

“I think he’s so used to crushing everything that he didn’t realize he’d have to adjust a little bit. But it’s cool to see him go for it. He’s been adventuring up these pitches, taking big falls and ripping out gear. He was surprised that he was scared. But I wasn’t surprised that he was scared,” says Caldwell, laughing.

Over the past two weeks that he’s been in Yosemite, Ondra has already had an adventure-packed Yosemite experience.

Last week, he and his father climbed the Nose of El Capitan, considered by many to be the greatest rock climb in the world.

While the Nose has been speed-climbed in a record time of 2:23:46 (by Alex Honnold and Hans Florine), climbing the Nose “in a day”—simply meaning a single 24-hour period of time—is an achievable, if still very difficult, accomplishment that many climbers aspire to.

The father-son team reached the summit in just 17 hours, an impressive time for any first-timers in Yosemite.

It was dark and raining when they reached the top, and they shivered through the rest of the night in a little cove. It was a “full alpine experience,” Ondra reported, “We did not find the descent route in the pissing rain, and had a wet and cold bivvy in the little cave, before we finally got to the car at 9 a.m. … a big day out.”

The problem with being a world-famous climbing celebrity in a world-famous climbing area is that many climbers have huge expectations for what might be achieved. Based on discussions on social media and climbing websites, many in the climbing community seemed to be expecting Ondra to “onsight”—to free climb on the first try—the Nose.

Of the 29 pitches on the Nose, Ondra onsighted all but two, which were the two hardest. It would be a fantastic effort for just about anyone—anyone but the best rock climber in the world.

Yet Ondra appears to be taking it all in good stride. Just as he’s been open about his audacious goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall, he’s also been gracious and frank in describing his struggles.

Still, he’s already proven that he might just have what it takes. On November 1, he succeeded in free climbing the difficulties on pitch 15—which is rated 5.14d, and is one of the two hardest pitches on the entire route.

Yesterday, Ondra reportedly onsighted many pitches on the upper half of the Dawn Wall. Many of these pitches are considered not just difficult, but dangerous.

After all, he is Adam Ondra.

“The dude climbs 5.14d for breakfast,” says Kevin Jorgeson. “But … still, if Adam could do this route in just a few months of work, that would be insane.”

“I think he absolutely can do it,” says Caldwell.

National Geographic Adventure spoke to Ondra at his portaledge camp over the phone, prior to his all-night push, to hear more about his Yosemite experience and his plans for achieving his ultimate goal—the second ever free climb of the Dawn Wall—using the knowledge he's picked up so far.

Adventure: What have you found to be most challenging about the climbing in Yosemite?

Ondra: I’ve climbed a lot of granite around the world, but this is so much different than any granite I’ve climbed anywhere else. I'm getting my ass kicked, so it's also pretty humbling to learn a different style of climbing.

The hardest part for me are the layback cracks [a layback is a climbing maneuver in which you grab onto the side of a vertical crack with your hands, and press your feet onto the opposite side of the crack to create opposition]. I’ve done laybacks for a couple of moves at a time, but never for 40 meters in a row. It’s really difficult to climb effortlessly. Also the feet are just crazy. I’ve never used such small footholds!

What’s your game plan for free climbing the Dawn Wall?

I didn’t want to hike to the top of El Capitan and rappel down the route, and start fixing lines. For me it was really important to try to climb it from the ground up at first. I’m pretty glad that I decided to go for this style, too. It’s been quite adventurous!

Once we’ve climbed the whole route in this style, then I will return. I think I still need about one week to work on free climbing all the hard pitches. After that, hopefully I will be ready to try for a single push. [A single-push means he will try to successfully free climb each consecutive pitch, sleeping on the wall if necessary until he reaches the top.]

How long are you planning to be in Yosemite?

I’m supposed to fly back on November 30, but I can always extend my trip. I’m hoping for the good weather … by “good weather,” I mean cold weather, because that’s very important here on the Dawn Wall, as it turns out. [Colder rock often means less sweat and drier skin, which can increase friction between skin and rock.] So far the only good conditions have been at night, so it seems like I will have to resort to climbing at night for most of the hard pitches, which is OK with me as long as the pitches are safe. Some of the harder pitches that have dangerous gear—like pitch 7, pitch 10, and pitch 16—and it’s pretty intimidating to climb such a bold route at night. It’s been quite a hard lesson, for sure. It involves quite a bit of fear, too. It’s an adventure, and it’s a part of it that I like.

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Have you successfully free climbed any of the pitches?

So far, I haven’t. The other night, I kind of free climbed pitch 15. [Pitch 15 is rated 5.14d and is one of the “cruxes”—one of most difficult pitches on the Dawn Wall.] The first few meters of the pitch were wet, so I skipped that part and did the rest.

I tried pitch 14, which is the other crux pitch. There are three difficult sections on pitch 14. The first difficult section was the one that Tommy and Kevin thought was the hardest, but to me, it doesn’t feel too bad. However, I had a harder time with the third difficult section on this pitch. But I’m interested to see how it feels when I return with better conditions.

As for the rest of the pitches below, I have been working on some of them, but I still need to do a lot more work on them if I want to climb them quickly.

You’ve climbed more routes with a difficulty rating of 5.14d than anyone else in the world. What do you think of the grades on the Dawn Wall?

I think the grades are just perfectly correct. It’s the style of climbing that makes these pitches really hard. You just have to have every move really wired, even on 5.13c, which is a grade that I normally onsight. But some of the pitches graded 5.13c on the Dawn Wall would be, in my opinion, impossible to onsight!

How was the experience of climbing the Nose with your dad?

Climbing the Nose has always been my dad’s dream. It was great to share that with him. The Nose is a beautiful route. The best thing is that, in one day, you get to climb so much. You climb and climb and climb the whole day. I’ve never done such a long route. The rock is perfect, with various cracks, which I still don’t have a lot of experience with, although I thought I did quite well and maybe even climbed them efficiently. Still, it was nice to be on top, with a slight fatigue. Even though I didn’t free climb all of the pitches, I was still happy.

Have any Yosemite climbers showed you techniques or tricks?

Kevin Jorgeson taught me how to jug. [“Jug” is jargon for ascending a rope that’s fixed to an above anchor using mechanical devices; it’s a system that allows climbers to move up and down the wall for the convenience of accessing pitches.]

I thought I knew how to jug, but when you only jug 30 meters to the top of a sport climb, you don’t need good technique. But jugging 400 meters, that’s a big deal.

How are you liking your first trip to Yosemite?

Wow, it's incredible. I mean, the climbing is mind-blowing. It’s perfect. This is definitely not the last time I'll be here.

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