Yosemite Climbers Finish Greatest Free Climb in History

Jorgeson and Caldwell (Ben Margot / AP)
Ben Margot / Associated Press

The climax of the greatest free climb in mountain climbing history came in the late afternoon Wednesday, when two rock climbers reached the peak of Yosemite’s El Capitan after three weeks of climbing the sheer face of the granite Dawn Wall using only their hands and feet.

Tommy Caldwell, 36, and Kevin Jorgeson, 30, made the climb to the legendary 3,000 summit in Yosemite National Park, California in 17 days, defying the idea that the feat was impossible as an unaided climb. They only used safety ropes in case they fell.

The Dawn Wall, which earned its nickname because the first morning sun rising over the Sierra strikes it, was conquered first in 27 days in 1970 by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell, (no relation to Tommy) but that duo used bolts and pitons.

John Long, who was on the first team to climb El Capitan in a single day, told the Fresno Bee that the Dawn Wall climb is “pretty much world-class.” He was staggered at the duo’s insistence that every time they fell from one of the 32 sections (pitches) of the climb, they would start the pitch over again. Long pointed out that at one point, Jorgeson had to do five monstrously hard pitches in a row: “That’s like running five all-out 800 meter dashes. Those things are so strenuous you can do maybe two, but five? That’s some crazy amount of strength endurance, man.”

The duo began the ascent on December 27, and gained thousands of observers around the world during their climb. Every night, they would retreat to a base camp 1,200 feet above the valley floor, according to Mercury News.

Photographer Brett Lowell, who has filmed the duo for the last five years as they tried over and over again to ascend the summit–they failed in 2011 because of inclement weather and 2012 when Jorgeson broke his ankle–told the Fresno Bee the emotional climax for Caldwell was not reaching the summit, but a difficult pitch beneath that. He said, “The big moment for Tommy was when he reached Wino Tower (pitch 20 of 32 sections). I was just up there alone with him when he got up there, and that was like, in his mind, his big celebration because he knew he could make it to the top at that point. He was giving it everything and just barely holding on and he did it, and he sat on this ledge and that was when the real tears came….That was almost more of a moment than the top-out (summit).”

Caldwell, a life-long rock climber who spent his childhood near Rocky Mountain National Park, had faced far more frightening circumstances before the record climb; in 2000, Caldwell was climbing in Kyrgyzstan with three other climbers when they were captured by Uzbekistan militants and held for six days. The four climbers only escaped after Caldwell shoved an armed guard off a cliff. He later lost half a finger in a table saw accident.

Jorgeson, who is sponsored by Adidas, started his climbing career at an indoor climbing gym in Santa Rosa, and is famous for his bouldering ability. He had little experience climbing big walls before the Dawn Wall, which blew Long away. Long said, Jorgeson “went from the smallest stuff to the biggest, with no intermediate steps. That in itself is an interesting story.” Jorgeson wore a T-shirt adorned with a design drawn by his friend Brad Parker, who died climbing in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows last year.

Jorgeson told The New York Times, “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”