Despite hardship, falls, injuries, Yosemite climbers stuck together


When climber Kevin Jorgeson was stalled for days about halfway up Dawn Wall of El Capitan, he suggested that his partner Tommy Caldwell go on without him to finish an historic 900-meter free-climb of the granite monolith.

But Caldwell recalled, “The idea of topping out without Kevin wasn’t something I thought about. Everything is best when it’s shared.”

In tackling what had been considered the world’s most difficult rock climb, the two shared their experience on the sheer granite wall — bloodied fingertips, bruising falls and, at the end of the day, a few comforts sent up from Yosemite Valley below: coffee, Indian food, chocolate and an occasional nip of whiskey.

The effort took 19 days, but on Wednesday Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first to free-climb the Dawn Wall. Unlike climbers who need more elaborate equipment, the pair relied entirely on their hands and feet and physical strength, using ropes and harnesses only for safety in case of a fall.

Speaking Thursday to reporters, both men said they had been touched by the number of people who drew inspiration from their journey up a half-mile of pale, smooth stone.

Jorgeson said the climb should show the value of teamwork and teach people not to give up on their dreams.

In an interview, he said the experience “recalibrates your perception of what you can do and what’s possible.”

After the trek began Dec. 27, the two lived on the wall itself, eating and sleeping in tents fastened to the rock thousands of feet (meters) above the ground and battling painful cuts to their fingers.

They also took punishment whenever their grip slipped, pitching them into swinging falls that bounced them off the rock face. The tumbles, which they called “taking a whipper,” ended with startling jolts from their safety ropes.

Caldwell described how support climbers provided them with fresh fruit and vegetables every five days.

“We like to say you can’t put a price on morale,” Caldwell said, speaking in a whisper because he had lost his voice from shouting so much during the climb.

There was not much downtime, Caldwell said, but in spare moments he read from the autobiography of legendary climber Barry Blanchard.

Asked why the achievement resonated with so many people, Jorgeson said the Dawn Wall “personifies dreaming big and making it happen. It’s just a super-concrete example and an iconic, beautiful place with amazing images and a great story of perseverance and teamwork and making it.”

Caldwell, 36, of Colorado, and Jorgeson, 30, of California, trained for years to get ready.

Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, noted past milestones on El Capitan, starting with the first people to make the climb in 1958, followed decades later by the first one-day ascent and the duo who set a speed record in 2012 at 2 hours, 23 minutes.

Caldwell and Jorgeson “proved that there’s still a golden age in Yosemite’s climbing,” Yager said.

Jorgeson said Caldwell first envisioned the climb in 2007. After seeing a short film about Caldwell’s ambition to free climb the Dawn Wall, Jorgeson called to ask if he needed a partner.

They started their plans in 2009.

“I never thought rock climbing could garner so much attention from the world,” Jorgeson told reporters.

There are about 100 routes up the rock known among climbers as “El Cap.” Even the Dawn Wall had been scaled. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) made it up in 1970, using climbing ropes and countless rivets over 27 days.

No one, however, had ever made it to the summit in one continuous free-climb — until now.

The pioneering ascent comes after failed attempts by both men. They only got about a third of the way up in 2010 when a storm turned them back. A year later, Jorgeson fell and broke an ankle in another attempt.

This time, as the world watched and followed on Facebook and Twitter, Jorgeson got stalled in a lower section that took 11 attempts over seven days.

“I didn’t want to accept any other outcome but getting up that route,” Jorgeson told Good Morning America. “I tried to push all the negative thoughts of not being able to do it out and picture getting across that traverse, and that’s eventually what happened.”