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Free climbers on Yosemite's El Capitan.

Instants: Dispatches From the Dawn Wall

Every photographer has their comfort zone—the place they feel most at home when they’re shooting. For Corey Rich, that place is thousands of feet above the ground. Rich accompanied climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgesen throughout the majority of their ascent of the Dawn Wall of Yosemite’s El Capitan over the course of 19 days. Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first climbers to free climb the 3,000-foot vertical wall, realizing a dream seven years in the making. And Rich was right alongside them.

“I’m not just photographing strangers; these are very close friends,” said Rich. “To see someone who’s so close succeed and really push themselves, push the envelope and change climbing history, to be part of that as a documentarian is very satisfying.”

In addition to the obstacles the climbers face are those faced by the photographer: Shooting an ascent like this takes its own unique skill set, requiring a highly proficient climber who’s also aware of composition and light when being in a fixed position.

Rich spent hours fixed to one location on the wall, waiting for the climbers to get within view of making photos. Completing various pitches, as climbers call a rope-length of climbing, would often take several attempts for the climbers. “The wind is blowing, it’s uncomfortable, your legs are falling asleep, you’re cold. And I just start putting myself in a pleasant space or I start thinking about other things in life. And then, of course, you need to be able to toggle back into, OK, it’s go time, it’s time to actually be creative, it’s time to focus on making moments.”

Rich chronicled the triumphs and difficulties throughout the climb on Instagram, where non-climbers and climbers alike followed closely, waiting for updates on the progress of Caldwell and Jorgeson and eventually cheering for them when they reached the final summit on Wednesday.

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson rely on a network of rigged ropes to move up and down the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in order to access the hardest pitches. They leave their portaledge camp each afternoon as the sun dips around the corner and use mechanical ascenders to climb the ropes and go to work on the day’s climbing adventure. Not a bad commute at all. —Corey Rich

Tommy Caldwell stands up in his portaledge to soak in the early morning light. It’s day ten for climbers Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. We enjoyed a really pleasant, sunny rest day. We ate food, drank coffee brewed from hanging stoves, updated our social media accounts, planned logistics, had more food delivered up the wall, and spoke to journalists on the phone who are all hungry to hear details about the biggest climb of the century as it unfolds. Very cool to see society at large take an interest in our tiny sport, even if it’s just for the next week or so. Anyway, psyche is high, skin is healing up, and tomorrow brings another day of work as these two stud athletes do the impossible and work to free the Dawn Wall! Stoked to be here with my friends, helping to document history!

As of Thursday night, day 13 on the wall for the team of climbers trying to free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Tommy Caldwell has successfully reached the high point called Wino Tower, a large ledge 2,000 feet up El Cap. There’s still a thousand feet of climbing left, and anything can happen. Today Caldwell is returning to pitch 15 to belay and support his partner Kevin Jorgeson, who continues his awe-inspiring effort to succeed on this crux section.

After a full day of rest yesterday, both Kevin and Tommy are jonesing to climb. Skin has healed, motivation is swelling, and here we wait, at our camp in the sky, for the best January climbing conditions this evening. Kevin’s goal is to breakthrough on pitch 15 and Tommy is hoping to tackle the second half of pitch 16.

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

All eyes are on El Cap this week as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt the hardest, longest free climb in the world: the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. Today is their 12th day of living on the wall, and they’re just over halfway up the 3,000-foot granite cliff. What makes the Dawn Wall so difficult is that you have to grab edges of rock as thin and sharp as razor blades. In general, climbers find colder rock much more conducive to success. Fingertips sweat less. Shoe rubber has more friction. This explains why they have chosen winter to complete their ascent. Yet even in the dead of winter, it’s still too hot to climb in the direct sun. The climbers have been waiting until dark, when the temperature drops to 30 degrees, to attempt the hardest moves. Here, Jorgeson fights to support his entire body on the tiniest, most painful edges of rock imaginable. You can just see the emotion of the experience in his face.

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

After a day of climbing, Tommy Caldwell applies Climb On salve—a blend of beeswax and oils—to his fingers. Caldwell lost his left index finger to a table saw in 2001. Doctors tried to reattach the finger, but ultimately Caldwell opted for amputation. It hasn’t slowed him down.

Another big breakthrough last night for Tommy Caldwell on the Dawn Wall. Pitch 16 went down! At 5.13+ or 5.14, this “loop pitch” is probably the hardest down climb on El Cap. It’s crazy that even in the first week of January, you still need nighttime conditions to complete these hard pitches. Today is a rest day, and hopefully both Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson can use it to grow back some skin on their fingers!

A photo posted by National Geographic (@natgeo) on

After 19 days of battling the hardest, longest free climb in the world, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson embrace at the end of the difficulties of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.

Follow Corey Rich on Instagram and read more about his experience documenting this climb on National Geographic News.