On the afternoon of November 21, Adam Ondra, a 23-year-old world champion sport climber from Brno, Czech Republic, arrived on the summit of the 3,000-foot monolith in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan. In doing so, he achieved an audacious goal of completing the second free ascent of the Dawn Wall, called the hardest, longest free climb in the world.
“It feels amazing right now,” said Ondra, minutes after arriving on the summit. “This is one of the best feelings I've ever had in climbing. Wow, so good. I think it'll be a long-lasting happiness and joy due to the length and effort of the route.”
Ondra’s success is noteworthy for many reasons, but perhaps most impressive is the speed with which he dispatched the Dawn Wall’s 32 incredibly difficult pitches. (A pitch is a rope-length of climbing, usually around 100 feet long. The goal of a free ascent is to climb each pitch without falling or resorting to hanging on gear; ropes and gear are used in free climbing, however, as a safety net in case of a fall. Free climbing is different than free soloing, which is climbing without any ropes at all.)
Ondra began his ground-up push last Monday, November 14, at 1:30 a.m. Pacific time. Just under eight days later, he reached the top, victorious.
“In the end it was just as hard as I expected, but it took more time than I expected, because I was a total beginner to this style of climbing in Yosemite,” says Ondra. “There’s no doubt this is the hardest big-wall rock climb in the world.”
The first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, meanwhile, took American climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson 19 days. Their historic ascent, which they completed in January 2015, became a media spectacle that was covered by virtually every major newspaper and cable television news station in the world. Even President Obama reached out to the two instant celebrities with a note of congratulations.
For Caldwell and Jorgeson, free climbing the Dawn Wall was a grueling, multi-season process that took them at least seven years. Much of this time was spent swinging around on ropes on the flanks of El Capitan, trying to find a continuous 3,200-foot path upward. Located just to the east of the Nose, the Dawn Wall is the tallest, steepest, and perhaps “blankest” (i.e., most devoid of handholds and footholds) section of the entire mile-wide granite monolith.
Caldwell spearheaded this multi-year process with the heedful decision-making demanded by any first-ascent process, including how to best break up the route into pitches and the prudent placement of mechanical expansion bolts. According to National Park Service rules, those bolts must be drilled into the dense stone by hand, rather than by a cordless hammer drill.
Caldwell and Jorgeson also invested a lot of time working on the actual climbing maneuvers demanded by each of the 32 pitches. This process involved discovering the precise sequence of hand and foot movements, as well as the precise body positions and balance, that ultimately resulted in their ability to climb an entire pitch without falling. This also meant memorizing the exact locations of every handhold, some of which are the size of a credit-card edge, and every foothold, most of which are less perceptible than a dimple of a well-worn golf ball.
For Ondra, this process of rehearsal was greatly accelerated when compared to Caldwell and Jorgeson’s experience. Whereas Jorgeson and Caldwell spent seven years working on the Dawn Wall, Ondra needed less than a month.
“It’s hugely impressive,” says Caldwell, who is widely considered to be the most prolific free climber of El Capitan of all time. “It was pretty surprising to see how quickly he adapted to El Cap. It just goes to show that if you have that Central European grit, and you try hard, you can make anything happen.”
Another way in which Ondra’s ascent stands out is that he is now the first person to “lead” each and every one of the Dawn Wall’s 32 pitches, meaning that he climbed each pitch trailing the rope beneath him as he climbed, risking potentially large and scary falls. Pavel Blazek, also Czech, accompanied Ondra as his belayer; he was not there to free climb, only to belay.
Since Caldwell and Jorgeson were free climbing together as a team, they used a common style in which only one of the two ever needed to “lead” a pitch; once a pitch was led, the other climber could enjoy the benefit of scaling the rock with the rope overhead, which is safer and easier than lead climbing.
Ondra’s speed, in some ways, is to be expected. Second ascents are almost achieved quicker than first ascents in part due to the advantage of knowing a pitch is possible as a free climb. First ascensionists don’t have that mental crutch, and must instead rely on their own self-belief that they can do something that’s never before been done by anyone.
In addition, first ascensionists often share with ensuing suitors what’s known in climbing jargon as “beta,” which is information about the climbing movement, from which handholds and footholds are used, to how they used, and so on. All of that knowledge speeds up the process.
Before arriving in Yosemite, Ondra spoke to Caldwell over Skype. Once in Yosemite, the two climbers met in person, in Yosemite Valley, and Caldwell shared helpful information with Ondra.
“What Tommy and Kevin did was even much more impressive than what I did,” says Ondra. “I arrived with all the information, they told me the beta, and all I had to do was climb.”
“It's been fun to live vicariously through Adam’s adventure,” says Caldwell. “As far as I can tell, I think it's been a pretty real-deal experience for him. It's been neat to remember our experience up there. Watching him up there makes me want to go back and climb on El Cap.”
Still, despite those significant advantages, Ondra’s rapid free ascent is easily one of the most impressive accomplishments in climbing ever. And it almost certainly earns him the title of being the best all-around rock climber in the world.
Becoming the Best
Adam Ondra climbs fast.
He started climbing at six years old and became an internationally recognized prodigy by the time he was 10. He says climbing fast is a matter of efficiency. The less time he spends hanging out on a steep cliff, the less tired his forearms get. The faster he goes, the harder he can climb.
His forte is ascending the overhanging limestone and granite outcrops in Europe. On many of these 100-foot bluffs, some of them overhanging by 45 degrees, Ondra has achieved numerous records—including first ascents of the three most difficult sport routes in the world, each one rated 5.15c on the open-ended Yosemite Decimal System. (Open-ended means that there’s no cap to how difficult a free climb could get; one day the next hardest notch in the difficulty scale, 5.15d, will be achieved. It just hasn’t been yet.)
Only one other person in the world, Chris Sharma, has reached the level of 5.15c, and in his case, it was only once.
Ondra is 5’11” and a rangy 150 pounds. On the rock, he moves like a panther, all slinky and mesmerizing. There’s a certain feral quality to the way he attacks a sport climb. One of his gifts seems to be climbing very difficult sport routes “onsight”—without any “beta” or rehearsal—on his very first try. He has onsighted more difficult sport climbs than anyone else in the world. To see Ondra climbing onsight, you’d think he had rehearsed it a thousand times, but in reality, his split-second decisiveness, calm, and grace, all while hanging from impossible-looking holds, speaks to his preternatural intuition for moving in a vertical realm.
The ability to do hard sport routes, however, rarely lends itself to success on the big walls of Yosemite Valley, where the climbing style is extremely idiosyncratic, much more intimidating, and logistically complicated.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” says Caldwell. “Adam’s dominated every aspect of the sport.” But he had never been to Yosemite before this year’s trip.
Ondra’s inclination for speed, honed on the sport climbs of Europe, nearly ended up hindering his chances on the 90-degree vertical rock of El Capitan. The nature of the free climbing on El Capitan is rather unique, owing to the slippery geology of the glacier-polished granite cliff. Here, moving patiently, placing feet and grabbing holds precisely, and having extraordinary balance can be more conducive to success than trying to swing up the climb like monkey.
On November 17, Ondra had reached pitch 14 of the Dawn Wall, roughly 1,400 feet up the side of El Capitan. By all measures, he’d been charging up the wall. The first 13 pitches are brutal; some are downright dangerous in that Ondra faced the prospect of ankle-shattering falls of 30 or more feet. That Ondra free-climbed them all within two back-to-back days of climbing was incredible. Ondra appeared to be unstoppable.
Pitch 14, however, with a difficulty rating of 5.14d, is the toughest pitch of the entire route. After waiting in his portaledge camp till 3 p.m., when the sun finally ducked around the Nose of El Capitan, and the shady conditions began to cool the rock—cold rock is preferable for staving off excessive fingertip sweat, which reduces friction between the climber’s skin and the rock—Ondra charged into the opening difficulties of pitch 14.
He fell. He returned to the belay (the start of the pitch), pulled his rope, and tried again. Another fall. Frustrated, Ondra once again returned to the belay for another attempt.
“It was heartbreaking,” Ondra admitted later. “These moves, which never felt hard for me before, turned out to be really hard today.”
Six attempts later, Ondra still had not made it past that section of pitch 14. It appeared as if the Dawn Wall was finally putting up a fight for Ondra.
Caldwell had a similar experience on pitch 14—falling over and over again. “The style of climbing on the Dawn Wall is so much about belief—belief that your feet are going to stick to the wall,” says Caldwell. “When you lose that, everything unravels. The extraordinary thing to me is that Adam was able to get it back pretty quickly.”
“It’s really hard for me to get into this mindset,” a frustrated Ondra said. “Normally, it’s more efficient to climb fast. But here, you’re always on your feet, you’re not exerting full-body tension, and for me that’s when it gets hard to focus.”
The next day, Ondra returned with a fresh mindset. He’d go slow. He wouldn’t rush. He would match the pace of his climbing to the pace demanded by the rock.
On November 18, he succeeded on pitch 14. Then, he succeeded on pitch 15, which is the second most difficult pitch of the entire route. Pitches 14 and 15 are the two most difficult pitches not just on the Dawn Wall, but in all of Yosemite. That Ondra had succeeded on both of them, in one afternoon, on his fifth day of living on El Capitan, was a huge breakthrough.
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“One thing that's pretty shocking to me is that he fell a lot throughout the route,” says Caldwell. “He had to re-climb pitches over and over and over again, and his [finger] skin somehow held up to that. He fell way more than I did, and I took three times as long, and my skin barely held up. And Kevin's didn't.”
For Ondra, only five more really tough pitches remained, pitches 16 to 20. If Ondra could surpass these, he’d reach Wino Tower, a ledge of rock as big as a couch. After Wino Tower, 12 pitches remained, but the difficulties eased significantly. If Ondra could reach Wino Tower, barring some unfortunate or unforeseen circumstance, the second ascent would be in the bag.
On November 19, Ondra did just that, reaching Wino Tower just as the first drops of a rainstorm began to fall.
“Hard to find the words to describe how I feel,” Ondra reported that evening. “We made it up to the Wino Tower and no more hard pitches guard my way to the top. I could not have asked for a better day.”
Ondra and Blazek rappelled to the shelter of their portaledge camp to wait out the storm. After 24 hours later, around 11 a.m. on November 21, Ondra, encouraged by an optimistic weather forecast, began climbing up the final 12 pitches of the Dawn Wall.
Due to the storm, the rock ended up being quite wet. Along with a dense fog and a brisk wind, the experience felt “quite adventurous and alpine,” says Ondra. Still he persevered, reaching the summit at 3:29 p.m. PST.
Rock climbing is a sport of progression. Achieving incremental improvements on speed, difficulty, and style are the pistons of the engine that drive all rock climbers, not just the world’s best.
In 1993, Lynn Hill became the first person (not just first woman) to free-climb the 2,900-foot Nose of El Capitan, perhaps the most famous rock climb in the world. Her monumental ascent took four days to complete. In 1994, she returned to the Nose and free climbed its entirety in a single day—technically, 23 hours.
With this historical precedent, a sub 24-hour all-free ascent of the Dawn Wall is the obvious next step. The questions are: Can it be done, and will Ondra be the one to do it?
“It would be really difficult,” says Caldwell, envisioning a 24-hour Dawn Wall free ascent. “But if anyone could do it, Adam would be the one.”
“I think it's possible to climb the Dawn Wall in a single day,” says Ondra. “No matter what, it would be really, really hard. I would have to invest so much more time into working out the route, and also training specifically to be able to climb at a top level for 24 hours.
“I am happy with what I have done right now,” he says, laughing while looking out at Yosemite Valley from the summit of the Dawn Wall, the sun setting behind a parting rain cloud. “But maybe in a couple of years I would start thinking about how to climb this route faster. Why not?”