Meet the Climbers Who Made Yosemite's Hardest Ascent

Whatever public profile Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had before they free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, it certainly got a lift once they reached the top. One of their first encounters with an adoring fan took place directly in the aftermath of their ascent, in the Yosemite Lodge cafeteria where the two climbers were busy doing phone interviews with various journalists around the world.

“In between calls,” says Caldwell, “this lady, who was probably 65 years old and rather crippled, kind of walked over to us using her walker. She told us, ‘My doctor told me that I’m going to have to be in a wheelchair in a couple of months …. But then I saw your story, and I decided that I was not ever going to be in a wheelchair, and I determined to make that goal be my Dawn Wall.’

“And then she started crying. It was really quite surreal. But at the same time it was also an incredibly moving experience for Kevin and I to see how our climb had genuinely affected people.”

To the core rock climbing world, it was something of a shock that so many mainstream outlets around the world paid attention to Caldwell and Jorgeson’s historic ascent. It wasn’t that their extraordinary ascent wasn’t deserving of that attention, per se. It was just that, outside of the recurring mountaineering tragedies on Everest each year, climbing as a sport had never been given much public consideration, at least not in such a positive light.

Yet, for whatever reason, this climb and these two climbers were thrust into the mainstream spotlight in a way that no climbers, aside from perhaps Reinhold Messner or Edmund Hillary, had ever experienced before.

We caught up with Caldwell, one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year, twice: first in a video interview with his partner, Jorgeson, at the annual American Alpine Club dinner in New York City.

And also in this new Q&A to find out what he has been up to in the last month, as well as what’s next.

Really hard climbing projects often take years to complete. And it seems like many climbers can be so drained by that process that, after completing their goal, they need to take a long-term break from the sport. Are you still satisfied by your ascent of the Dawn Wall, or are you hungry to get back on El Cap for more?

Most people do like to sit back and enjoy, but that’s never really been my experience with climbing. Usually, my biggest successes only inspire me to want to go out and climb even more.

For example, many years ago, I free climbed the Muir Wall of El Capitan with my friend Nick Sagar. After we got to the top, instead of going down to the Valley, I made Nick belay me on the Salathé Headwall so I could climb more.

That said, I’m not going back to Yosemite this spring to start looking for more new free climbs on El Cap.

So, no more new free climbs on El Cap for you?

I wouldn’t say that. After the Dawn Wall, we rapped down to clean the wall of all our ropes and gear, etc., and I was looking over to my left, and I was like, ‘Man, there’s definitely a free route over there between the Nose and the Dawn Wall!’

I think that’s just kind of built into me. El Cap is totally part of who I am. But I think if I took on another seven-year project on El Cap, my wife would probably kill me.

Did you clean the Dawn Wall of all your ropes and gear directly after your 19-day ascent?

Immediately after the route, we did ten straight hours of interviews. That’s when I lost my voice. It was probably one of the worst days of my life. Well, not really—that’s overstating it. But it was a really bad day to lose your voice.

All this crazy media stuff was going on, and it was hard to know how to deal with it. But then I went back up on the wall to clean our ropes. I had gotten so used to just living on the wall, that it was like, ‘Oh, I’m home again!’

So then we cleaned the route, and that in itself was a really interesting process. We’d been up there for so long, and had fixed it with ropes and everything. But we cleaned everything. We cut all the old webbing left by other aid climbers over the years, and we cleaned a bunch of trash that was probably left there from the 1970s.

We made the wall completely pristine. Afterward I remember being on the ground and looking up at the Dawn Wall and thinking, ‘This thing has changed me completely, but the rock itself is completely unchanged. It’s exactly the same as we found it.’

Is that when you left Yosemite to go home?

No. Then, I got involved with another project for a major tech company. I can’t really disclose the details, but I got to spend three days climbing the Nose of El Cap with Alex Honnold and Lynn Hill, which was super rad.

[Editor’s note: Alex Honnold is probably the best free-solo climber in the world, and Lynn Hill is a legend well known for her first free ascent of the Nose of El Cap].

Even though I had just spent the last month living on El Cap, it was great to be back sleeping on El Cap in portaledges. I loved it! I no longer had the pressure of climbing the Dawn Wall in me, yet I was still in this environment that I love. It was also a good excuse to avoid all the media stuff, too.

Have you been recognized by non-climbers in everyday settings?

Yes, there’s been quite a bit of that, actually. It’s somewhat bizarre, but completely awesome at the same time.

Kevin and I did a corporate speaking gig for Chick-fil-A and it was almost like a celebrity appearance. Apparently, the CEO of Chick-fil-A—who is not a climber—had been doing all these sales meetings around the country, and he had built his entire presentation around the Dawn Wall.

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So unbeknown to him, his team called us in to surprise him during one of his presentations. We sat and watched as presented from these three giant screens with pictures of us that he had pulled off the internet, with corporate messages written on them. And I gotta say, he delivered a pretty moving speech, all with the Dawn Wall as the back drop.

Then after he finished his presentation, Kevin and I ran up on stage and surprised him. And he was, like, totally star struck and wanted to ask us all these questions. It was crazy, man. It was such a trip.

Why do you think people have responded to this rock climb? Do people actually understand what you achieved? And if not, what is it about this ascent that evoked such a response?

Really serious rock climbers understand the details of what we did, but nobody else does—not really. I think that the Dawn Wall became this amazing backdrop for all these really cliche ideas like “dreaming big” and “teamwork” and “dedication.” It was such an obvious testament to those ideas.

Also, I think those ideas were really reinforced by the fact that the photos were just shockingly beautiful. There was all this incredible imagery coming off the wall, and I think that’s what people really responded to.

What’s next?

I’m going to Europe to go climbing in France and Switzerland. It’s going to be kind of like a European family vacation.

I’ve also started to write a book. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and now it feels like it’s the right time to sit down and reflect on the Dawn Wall and all my years as a climber.

That said, writing is hard. I feel like I’m only ten feet up a 3,000-foot off-width.

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