Climber on Historic Yosemite Attempt Faces Yet Another Fateful Choice

A brush with armed kidnappers and a table saw almost ended free climber Tommy Caldwell's climbing career years before his Dawn Wall moment.

Editor's Note: Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have completed their ascent of Yosemite's Dawn Wall. See photos of the moment they reached the top.

The era of heavily commercialized mountaineering, in which guided clients on Mount Everest step over dead and dying bodies as they plod forward to achieve their goals, has become an emblem of the current state of climbing's culture.

Yet this week Tommy Caldwell, one of the two climbers currently vying to complete the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, is proving that the sport of climbing is still an affirmation of the human spirit and the importance of teamwork.

It's not just getting to the top that matters. It's how you get there. For Caldwell, that means topping out with his partner, Kevin Jorgeson.

As of Thursday night, day 13 on the wall for the pair, Caldwell had successfully reached the high point called Wino Tower, a large ledge 2,000 feet (610 meters) up El Cap. There's still 1,000 feet of climbing left, but it's significantly easier going than many sections he's navigated so far. For Caldwell, 36, it's safe to say that his goal of free climbing the Dawn Wall, his dream now seven years in the making, is well within reach.

In fact, if he wanted to, Caldwell could probably continue climbing and reach the summit on Friday.

The problem is that Jorgeson's progress has momentarily come to a halt. He is now far behind Caldwell in terms of successfully "free climbing"—climbing from ledge to ledge using only the natural features in the rock, using ropes only for protection in case of a fall, and not relying on gear for upward progress—the hardest stretches.

The uncomfortable question looms: Will Caldwell at some point continue on without his partner? Or will he wait and give Jorgeson, 30, more time to catch up, spending as much time on the wall as Jorgeson needs, but in doing so, potentially risk his own summit glory should a freak storm roll in and force the climbers to bail?

For Caldwell, it was an easy answer.

"More than anything, I want to top out together," he said. "We gotta make that happen. It would be such a bummer to finish this thing without Kevin. I can't imagine anything worse, really."

Now that Caldwell has succeeded in reaching Wino Tower, his plan is to descend halfway down the wall and belay Jorgeson, for as much time as he wants or needs, so that Jorgeson can catch up. For those who know Caldwell, this is no surprise.

"It's no exaggeration to say that Tommy is the kind of guy who gets as much pleasure helping others succeed as he does in achieving his own successes," said Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great and a native of Boulder, Colorado. In 2007, Collins and Caldwell climbed El Capitan together—as an "aid climb" (using ropes and gear to help them advance), not a "free climb" (using ropes only for safety)—via the famous route the Nose.

To those like Collins who've watched Caldwell's development from teenage prodigy to one of the world's top climbers, his dogged pursuit of the seemingly impossible Dawn Wall is a reflection of Caldwell's eternal optimism and lifetime spent on the rocks.

A Severed Finger, an Escape from Kidnappers

Caldwell, of Estes Park, Colorado, started climbing at just three years old and became a national climbing champion at 16. On a whim, he entered a sport climbing competition and won, beating some of the nation's top pro climbers. Ever since then, he has dedicated a majority of his professional climbing career to exploring the nuances of the many climbing routes crisscrossing El Capitan's towering granite walls.

Caldwell is routinely described as an "all-around" climber because he consistently performs at world-class levels in each of climbing's various genres, from bouldering to sport climbing to mountaineering—all disparate disciplines that demand very specialized skill sets. To understand the breadth of Caldwell's athleticism, picture an Olympic runner who is as talented in the marathon as he is in the 100-meter dash.

It's worth noting that Caldwell has managed to achieve all this success despite missing a finger. In 2001 while working with a table saw, he accidentally cut off his left index finger-a debilitating loss when your life's passion involves hanging by your fingertips.

Doctors were able to reattach the finger, but told Caldwell that with its diminished mobility he'd never climb again. At first he was devastated, but then his determination kicked in, and he had the finger removed so as not to hinder him. Five months later, he free climbed the 3,000-foot (914-meter) Salathé Wall, another route on El Capitan, in less than 24 hours.

He faced another grave moment the following year during an expedition to Kyrgyzstan with fellow climbers John Dickey, Jason Smith, and Beth Rodden, then Caldwell's girlfriend. In the Aksu Valley, the four climbers were taken captive by militant rebels of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Over the next six days, they were held at gunpoint and marched at night through the mountains while their captors traded fire with the Kyrgyz army.

The defining moment of their kidnapping came when the four climbers found themselves alone with just one rebel soldier, and Caldwell shoved the gunman off a cliff. The climbers escaped, hiking 18 miles to freedom.

Caldwell was distraught over what he thought he'd done. Yet in a bizarre twist, a year later, word emerged from Kyrgyzstan that the guard Caldwell had shoved had actually survived, having only tumbled down a steep hill.

Pushing the Sport Forward

Now, Caldwell is facing what are likely the defining moments of his life, as he and Jorgeson attempt to become the first people to free climb the Dawn Wall. For Caldwell, the attempt has come to represent the culmination of all his years of climbing, and all that climbing has taught him about achieving impossible goals.

"Ever since I started climbing 18 years ago, I've looked up to Tommy," says Alex Honnold, renowned in his own right and a frequent climbing partner of Caldwell's. Last year they climbed the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia, Argentina, reaching all seven tough summits on the massif over five days. It was an accomplishment that helped earn Caldwell a nomination for National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.

"Tommy's been pushing the sport forward the entire time I've been climbing," says Honnold. "He's the best all-around climber in the U.S., and he's among the best in the world. He's been an inspiration to the whole climbing community for the last 20 years."

One of the climbers Caldwell has inspired is his partner of the moment, Kevin Jorgeson, of Santa Rosa, California.

Though a highly talented rock climber, Jorgeson has far less experience than Caldwell. To date, the Dawn Wall is the first (and only) route that he has attempted on El Capitan-impressive, considering that it's by far the hardest route on the granite monolith.

"I haven't been climbing on El Cap my entire climbing career," Jorgeson said, speaking by cell phone from his portaledge camp 1,200 feet (366 meters) up the wall. "I'm learning on the fly in a lot of ways."

Over the years, the two have faced several disappointments together. In 2011, Jorgeson took a fall and broke his ankle. In 2013, Caldwell fractured a rib. That same year, the government shutdown resulted in the closing of all national parks, including Yosemite, which kept the climbers off the wall.

On December 27, Caldwell and Jorgeson began their current ascent, and Friday marked their 14th day of eating, sleeping, and living on the wall. Yet over the past seven days, the different levels of experience between the two have become apparent as the climbing world looks on.

An Arduous Process

Free climbing is an arduous process, requiring a climber to use only the natural features of the rock to advance—cracks in which to wedge one's hands and edges to curl one's fingertips over.

The climbers wear harnesses and are attached to a rope that is connected to carabiners inserted into cracks in the rock, but they only rely on this equipment to catch them if they fall.

Free climbing is a much more athletic and demanding form of climbing than aid climbing, in which a climber uses equipment to complete an ascent. In some ways, it's a more pure form of climbing. Free climbing does not mean climbing with no ropes—that's free soloing, a very risky style of climbing practiced only on occasion by relatively few in the climbing world.

When free climbing long routes with ropes as a team of two, each climber takes turns leading up the wall, while his partner belays him on their single 200-foot-long rope (61 meters). Their goals is to reach the next ledge—or point of belay—without falling.

If one falls, the partner catches the fall using a belay device, which acts like a brake and stops the rope. As long as no one is injured, it's no big deal. They simply try again until one of them is successful. But to claim to have free climbed that stretch of rock—or "pitch"—the climber has to make it without falling.

When the lead climber succeeds in reaching the next ledge, he secures the rope to the wall and then belays the second climber (still down below) during his attempt to climb that pitch without falling.

And so it goes, the climbers slowly ascending the wall like a great 200-foot-long inchworm, moving one at a time from ledge to ledge, climbing pitch by pitch, always connected to each other via the sacred and literal link formed by the rope.

Beginning the Dawn Wall

In 2006 Caldwell first turned his attention to the expanse of El Capitan's granite that receives the first light each morning—the Dawn Wall.

Simply finding the free climb route took Tommy two years of exploration. This involved rappelling down the face and swinging around to identify enough consecutive hand- and footholds to allow for continuous upward passage. He found the holds—strung over 32 pitches—but he wasn't sure he would ever be strong enough, or good enough, to link them into one continuous ascent.

That was the really hard part, and what has occupied most of his time over the past seven years. He has been rehearsing each of the pitches separately, trying to climb them without falling, sometimes successfully but often not.

In 2009, Jorgeson, known in the climbing world for his strong fingers and cool head, joined Caldwell on the Dawn Wall. And he has remained Caldwell's consistent partner for this project ever since.

It wasn't until November that Caldwell and Jorgeson successfully climbed all the pitches—an important first step in realizing that the route is possible. Currently, their goal is to free climb each pitch in succession, without returning to the ground—however many days that takes.

For Caldwell, this achievement has come to represent the culmination of all his years of climbing and all that climbing has taught him about achieving big goals in life.

"For me the Dawn Wall is the perfect venue for some of the most important values I want to show [my son] Fitz," Caldwell wrote on Instagram, next to a picture of him hugging his three-year-old just before leaving his home in Estes Park for Yosemite Valley. "Optimism, perseverance, dedication and the importance of dreaming big."

Jorgeson's progress came to a halt more than a week ago on January 1, at the top of pitch 14. Since then, he has spent the past week, with many valiant efforts, trying to succeed in climbing pitch 15. He's very close, but continues to be denied by two tiny, sharp holds. Tears in the skin of two fingertips—the battle wounds resulting from two weeks of so much climbing and effort—have been most problematic for Jorgeson. He has tried wrapping his fingers in athletic tape, to no avail.

"For Kevin, this whole route is coming down to just two holds. They are as tiny and sharp as razor blades," says Caldwell. "They are the smallest, sharpest holds on the entire route."

Tonight is Jorgeson's "moment of truth," as he described it in a Facebook status update (the climbers have 4G coverage on the wall, and have been keeping the world abreast of their efforts through social media).

"Sincerely looking forward to my moment of truth tomorrow," he wrote. "No matter the outcome."

And his partner, Tommy Caldwell, will be there on belay, urging him on.

Andrew Bisharat is a climber and a writer for National Geographic's adventure blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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