Duo Completes First Free Climb of Yosemite's Dawn Wall, Making History

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson finish their quest to be the first to free climb the Dawn Wall.

Nineteen days after they set out to achieve one of climbing's most difficult challenges, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of the 3,000-foot rock known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, marking the first free ascent of a notoriously difficult section called the Dawn Wall.

Caldwell and Jorgeson reached the summit just after 6:00 p.m. EST, where a contingent of 40 friends and family members, plus a group of reporters, stood ready to greet them, having arrived via an eight-mile (13-kilometer) hike around the backside of the mountain. The crowd had already begun toasting the duo's accomplishment with champagne. (See pictures from the photographer who is documenting Caldwell's and Jorgeson's attempt to make history.)

The ascent represents the realization of Caldwell's vision to find a way to free climb the Dawn Wall—widely considered too steep and too difficult for free climbing—a dream that began seven years ago, when Caldwell began exploring this historic granite face.

"This is not an effort to 'conquer,'" Jorgeson said Tuesday on Twitter, from 2,000 feet (610 meters) up the side of El Capitan. "It's about realizing a dream." (Read why Caldwell and Jorgeson are sanding and Super Gluing their fingers for the climb.)

From the start, two and a half weeks ago, the climbing world has been charting their progress. But as the pair moved up the wall and first Caldwell and then Jorgeson successfully made it past the most difficult sections, a much broader, global audience became captivated by the imagery of two men clinging to the most improbable-looking surface of rock by the very tips of their fingers, thousands of feet above the ground.

Free climbing means using one's hands and feet to ascend a rock's natural features, employing ropes and other gear only to stop a fall. At roughly 3,000 feet (915 meters) tall, the Dawn Wall comprises 32 "pitches"—or 32 rope-lengths—of climbing.

Caldwell's and Jorgeson's goal was to free climb all 32 pitches—without falling and without returning to the ground in between. If one of them fell while attempting a pitch, he would have to try that individual pitch from its beginning again. (Read about Jorgeson's attempts to catch up to Caldwell.)

They began their ascent on December 27, and committed to living up on the side of El Cap for as long as it took each of them to free climb every pitch in succession. Their base camp consisted of three portaledges—each one a six-foot by four-foot (2-meter by 1-meter) platform with tent fly, suspended by nylon straps and hanging from bolts in the sheer granite wall. For breakfast they ate whole-wheat bagels topped with cream cheese, red bell pepper, cucumber, and salami or salmon. At night, they sipped whiskey. Every few days, one of the friends waiting on the ground ascended 1,200 feet (366 meters) of rope to bring the team a new cache of supplies and water.  

Over the first six days, they made quick work of the initial 14 pitches—some of the hardest pitches of all. During their five previous attempts at the Dawn Wall, spread out over as many years, they had never even made it past pitch 12. When they both accomplished pitch 14 on January 1, it seemed as though the duo stood a real chance of success. (Read National Geographic's adventure blog, Beyond the Edge.)

Breaking Through

After pitch 14, Caldwell, 36, the more experienced climber of the two, kicked into high gear. He continued to complete grueling pitch after grueling pitch over the next seven days. After two weeks on the wall, Caldwell had free climbed the first 20 pitches, beyond which only easier sections remained.

Jorgeson, 30, meanwhile, stalled out on pitch 15. For ten days in a row, he continued to fall during each of his attempts. Time was a factor—the longer the climbers were on the wall, the greater chance of a weather front moving through and forcing the climbers to descend. The chance for success was literally slipping through Jorgeson's bandaged and bloody fingertips, and he was painfully aware that he was holding his partner back. If he didn't do pitch 15 soon, Caldwell would have to decide whether to move on alone.

"More than anything, I want to top out together," Caldwell said on day 13. "We gotta make that happen. It would be such a bummer to finish this thing without Kevin. I can't imagine anything worse, really."

On January 9, Jorgeson finally broke through and completed pitch 15 without falling. The success reenergized the team in a major way, as Jorgeson caught a second wind. He describes experiencing a profound "resolve" to match his partner's high point, at the top of pitch 20. He started to climb as if a fire had been lit within.

"After 11 attempts spread across 7 days, my battle with Pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall is complete," Jorgeson wrote on Instagram. "Hard to put the feeling into words. There's a lot of hard climbing above, but I'm more resolved than ever to free the remaining pitches."

By Monday, both Caldwell and Jorgeson had reached a ledge dubbed Wino Tower. Below them was 2,000 feet (610 meters) of the hardest free climbing ever completed on El Capitan. Over the the next two days, the climbers continued the remainder of their ascent—a stroll compared to what they had already been through.

El Cap: America's Biggest Rock

The Dawn Wall is the steepest, tallest, blankest section of El Cap—and one of the monolith's most storied sectors.

Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) aid climbed the "Wall of the Early Morning Light," aka the Dawn Wall, for the first time in 1970. Aid climbing involves standing on nylon ladders that are clipped to pieces of gear attached to the wall.

Harding's and Caldwell's ascent became the subject of national news when, after 22 days of living on the wall—sleeping in hammocks and drinking numerous bottles of wine—a four-day storm blew in, and the two climbers famously turned down the National Park Service's attempt to rescue them.

In 1970, simply trying to reach the summit of El Capitan, by any means, was considered a worthy goal. Climbing techniques, equipment, and levels of skill were still quite rudimentary compared to today. In 1970, for example, no one would've ever believed that El Capitan could be free climbed.

Now, in a strange twist, the Dawn Wall has returned to the spotlight under very different circumstances. For Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the adventure lies not in just getting to the top of the great granite monolith. The challenge is seeing if they can do it all free.

Logistics of Going Free

In every way the performance of these two climbers has been a giant production. An intricate web of rigged ropes allowed the climbers to move from pitch to pitch, as they worked on free climbing each one in succession. The ropes also provided a way for a small camera crew to document their efforts. A line to the ground allowed friends to provide the climbers with supplies, water, and food.

Free climbing is much more athletic than aid climbing. Free climbing does not mean climbing with no ropes—that's free soloing, a highly risky style of climbing practiced only on occasion by relatively few in the climbing world.

Still, it's 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 each tied to one end of a 200-foot-long rope (61 meters), which is clipped, via carabiners, to various types of climbing gear, from camming units that fit in cracks to expansion bolts that have been pre-drilled into the rock. They only rely on this equipment to catch them if they fall.

Free climbs are puzzles. On any given pitch, a climber faces a series of holds that vary in size, shape, and distance from each other. The goal is figuring out how to move between this unique combination of holds. The harder the movements get—twisting, stretching, lunging, swinging, dangling—the more painstaking the process of solving the puzzle becomes.

Ballet on the Rock

Climbers fall, hang, and rehearse each and every move, over and over. They memorize sequences. They scrub the rock with toothbrushes to remove any dust or dirt and improve the texture and friction on the hold. They place "tick marks," white chalk marks, to indicate the location of hard-to-see hand- and footholds.

Another important aspect of free climbing is for climbers to manage the lactic acid building up in their forearms—by holding on with no more than the precise minimum amount of energy needed to keep attached to the wall.

Distributing body weight among hands and feet, and maintaining a perfect balance among these constantly moving appendages, is yet another crucial element.

Of course, it helps to have fingers as strong as vice grips, iron core muscles, the flexibility of a yoga master, and virtually no body fat.

When a climber falls, his 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. The climber simply tries again until successful.

With the hardest routes in the world, however, that success sometimes takes weeks, months, or even years of practice and training. Even with all that work, skin conditions, humidity, air temperature, a calm and unattached state of mind, and a well-rested body also all need to align.

About the troublesome pitch 15, for example, Jorgeson said, "The conditions were just magic. It was the one moment over the last ten days when it was actually cloudy and cold enough to climb during daylight. It all lined up to create this one moment in which my skin was good enough and the conditions were perfect."

What makes the Dawn Wall so significant is that it contains so many hard free-climbing pitches in a row. There are about 13 other free climbs on El Cap, and none of them are even close to being as challenging. Those other routes might have one or two extremely difficult pitches total. The Dawn Wall has about 17. Two of them, pitches 14 and 15, are the most difficult in Yosemite and at the upper limit of what has been achieved in rock climbing anywhere.

The idea that anyone would be able to free climb at such a high level, day after day, while living out of a tiny portaledge the size of a twin mattress, seemed far-fetched if not downright impossible. Even for Tommy Caldwell.

"Clumsy Kid With Bad Hand-Eye Coordination"

If anyone was to pull off this unlikely challenge, Tommy Caldwell, of Estes Park, Colorado, was a good bet.

He started climbing at just three years old and became a national climbing champion at 16 when, on a whim, he entered a sport climbing competition and won, beating some of the nation's top pro climbers. Since then, he has dedicated most of his professional climbing career to exploring the nuances of the many climbing routes crisscrossing El Capitan's towering granite flanks.

"I grew up a clumsy kid with bad hand-eye coordination," wrote Caldwell in Ascent magazine. "Yet here on El Cap I felt as though I had stumbled into a world where I thrived. Being up on those steep walls demanded the right amount of climbing skill, pain tolerance, and sheer bull-headedness that came naturally to me."

Caldwell free climbed his first El Cap route in 1999, and he has returned to the monolith every year since to find new challenges. He is routinely described as an "all-around" climber due to the fact that he consistently performs at world-class levels in each of climbing's various genres, from bouldering to sport climbing to mountaineering—distinct 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 hundred-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, who was then Caldwell's girlfriend and later became his wife. 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 fighter, and Caldwell shoved the gunman off a cliff. They escaped, hiking 18 miles (29 kilometers) to freedom.

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

Beginning the Dawn Wall

About 100 climbs zig-zag up the face of El Capitan, but only 13 of those routes have been free climbed. In 1988, Todd Skinner and Paul Piana became the first to free climb El Cap via one of its major routes: the Salathé Wall. Over the years, it has always taken a significant effort from a world-class climber or pair of climbers to establish a new free climb.

Few have ever made free climbing El Capitan look easy.

Tommy Caldwell, however, might be the one exception. He has free climbed 11 of those 13 routes—an unmatched record. For training purposes, Caldwell once free climbed two routes on El Capitan in a 24-hour period. In other words, he free climbed 3,000 feet of difficult rock, hiked five miles (eight kilometers) back down to the base of the wall, and then climbed a different route, all within a single day, and all in the name of training for the Dawn Wall.

In 2007 Caldwell underwent a painful divorce from Beth Rodden, another well-known professional climber. "I was amid the darkest period of my life," Caldwell wrote in Ascent. "The Dawn Wall became an excellent distraction."

Despite the fact that free climbing the Dawn Wall appeared to be impossible, Caldwell threw himself into the project. Simply finding the route took him a full year of exploration. This process involved rappelling down the face and swinging around to identify enough consecutive hand- and footholds to allow for continuous upward passage. Also time-consuming was installing the dozens of protection bolts needed to climb these crackless sections of rock.

To hand drill a single hole three inches deep—the size needed for a standard expansion bolt—takes about 45 minutes. Adhering to the code of free climbing, Caldwell placed the minimum needed to avoid a fatal fall.

In the spring of 2008, he was joined on the wall by a documentary film crew, all friends who provided some much-needed company and support. The resulting cult classic climbing film, Progression, showed Caldwell working out the movements and wondering if the route would ever be done by him—or anyone.

"I thought that the film would at least show the climbing world what this line was all about," said Caldwell. "If I couldn't do it, then maybe someone else could."

Caldwell says he received an e-mail from Jorgeson "almost immediately" after Progression was released. Jorgeson said he was inspired by the film and wanted to join Caldwell for the adventure, "even if it's just a way to learn the ways of big-wall free climbing," he wrote.

In the fall of 2009, Jorgeson, having never climbed El Cap before, joined forces with Caldwell. By all accounts, they made an unlikely team.

Style Defined by Granite

Jorgeson grew up in Santa Rosa, California, a few hours west of Yosemite and an hour north of San Francisco. He started climbing in a gym at age 11 and by 16 was competing in indoor climbing competitions.

He garnered a reputation for being a powerful climber. He specialized in bouldering, which is climbing boulders up to about 20 feet (six meters) tall via the most difficult sequence of moves known. His expertise expanded to include the much riskier "highball bouldering," which means climbing really tall boulders up to 60 feet (18 meters).

In the Buttermilks, a bouldering area outside of Bishop, California, Jorgeson established the first ascent of a boulder called Ambrosia, which features intricately difficult moves along its entire length. His climb of the 60-foot-tall boulder in 2009 was considered one of the boldest climbing achievements of the year.

Jorgeson first visited Yosemite for bouldering on his 16th birthday. He's made a tradition of returning to the valley for his birthday every year since. "The granite here has defined my style and what I like to seek out," Jorgeson said. "It's been hugely influential in leading up to what I'm doing right now on the Dawn Wall."

Highs and Lows

In the spring of 2008, six months after starting the Dawn Wall project partly to take his mind off his recent divorce, Caldwell met Rebecca Pietsch, a woman who seemed "way out of my league," says Caldwell.

Pietsch had just started climbing and approached Caldwell, asking if he knew anything about the sport. Within a year after they met, the two were married. Their son, Fitz, is now nearly 21 months old—about a year younger than when Tommy first started climbing.

"The Dawn Wall has been the only constant in my life for the past seven years,” he said last week by phone from his portaledge. “Everything else changed, but the Dawn Wall has still been there."

He added jokingly, "I'm not going to know how to live if we send this thing. I'm totally going to go through a midlife crisis for sure."

Posting on her blog, Rebecca wrote, "The Dawn Wall started out as a little bit of an escape from a deep pain Tommy felt from the sadness of splitting up with his former wife. He deemed the wall impossible to free climb. He came back to it a year later, and with the excitement of a budding relationship between us decided that the Dawn Wall just might be possible. Our relationship began with this route, and the Dawn Wall has weaved its way through our lives together over the past six years."

The Dawn Wall has also been an opportunity for Caldwell to be a mentor to Jorgeson.

"For so many years, I could never do the moves on pitch 16," said Jorgeson. "Then, this week, I never fell on that section. A lot of that comes from spending so much time with Tommy over the last five years. Through him, I've learned how to approach this type of climbing."

Caldwell and Jorgeson have made five attempts over the past half decade to free climb the Dawn Wall from bottom to top. Over the years, highs and lows have abounded. In 2011, Jorgeson took a fall on pitch 16 and pulled ligaments in his ankle, sidelining him for the rest of the year.

In 2013, Caldwell fractured a rib when he dropped a hundred-pound haul bag that was attached to his harness via a hundred-foot rope; the force of the bag hitting the end of the line pulled the rib out of place. Also that year, the government shutdown closed all national parks, including Yosemite, stealing away valuable time for the climbers to spend on the route.

Over the years, some of the strongest free climbers in the world have joined Caldwell and Jorgeson to work on unlocking the free-climbing "puzzle" of the hardest pitches. Some of the biggest names in American rock climbing have tried their hands at the Dawn Wall, including Jonathan Siegrist, Alex Honnold, and Chris Sharma.

Jorgeson has been Caldwell's most consistent partner, and since 2009 he has joined Caldwell on every attempt. He started out having never free climbed even one route on El Cap. Today, after five years of work, he has finally completed his first, the most difficult of them all.

"Tommy and I have very different attitudes and personalities," Jorgeson said. "But I think they balance each other out really well. Tommy's optimism is, in a lot of ways, why this route is coming together. It would be really easy to write off the Dawn Wall as impossible over the last six years. I've benefited from having that optimistic attitude in my life for this project."

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 alongside a picture of him hugging his son. "Optimism, perseverance, dedication and the importance of dreaming big."

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

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