The quest to conquer Yosemite’s El Capitan: Friends hope to the finish in world’s toughest climb
Daredevil climber Tommy Caldwell has finished the most difficult section of the epic 3,000 ft rock formation in Yosemite national park – but his partner Kevin Jorgeson is struggling with split fingertips. Can they make it all the way?
One of a pair of American climbers attempting what has been called the world’s hardest rock climb – a free climb of a half-mile section of exposed granite in California’s Yosemite national park – has now finished all of the most difficult climbing, according to his wife.
Tommy Caldwell reached one of the rare ledges on the 3,000ft rock formation known as El Capitan on Thursday night. He will now descend to support his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson, who is still struggling on the latest of the very hard sections with split fingertips.
As Caldwell stepped onto the ledge – known as “Wino Tower” – it was with tears in his eyes. Below him were 20-rope lengths of some of the world’s hardest continuous climbing.
To finish his new route up the Dawn Wall – a climb that has captured media attention around the world – will require a few more days of effort on the sections above. But, in theory at least, they should be relatively easy for a climber of his talent.
Caldwell’s wife Becca relayed the news on the blog she shares with her husband on Thursday night. “Hearing from Tommy that he finished pitches [rope lengths] 19 & 20 tonight and stepped onto Wino Tower … This journey isn’t over yet, but we can start to see what it might look like standing on top of this route. And it’s beautiful.”
Each of the sections below has been free-climbed, using only natural rock holds for hands and feet and with the rope only used to arrest falls, and ascended one after another in a continuous push – though not always on the first attempt.
But clouding Caldwell’s success was the fact that his long-time climbing partner – Kevin Jorgeson – has been struggling on the last of the very hardest sections, splitting his fingertips from the effort of pulling on a tiny, razor-sharp edge.
Jorgeson’s frustration and determination have been palpable. The move that he has been struggling with requires him to grip to two finger-slicing holds just big enough for the purchase of two fingers on each hand.
“On my fourth attempt,” he wrote earlier this week, “around 11pm, the razor-sharp holds ripped the tape and the skin right off my fingers. As disappointing as this is, I’m learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire. I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”
It is this determination in large part that explains why the Dawn Wall has captured the world’s imagination in a way rock climbing has not done for years.But it has also been fuelled by El Capitan’s location and the new technology that has allowed the climb to be followed in real time.
The two men eat, stretch and sleep in hanging tents suspended to El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. They do not have the creature comforts of home, but they have kept in touch with the outside world thanks to social media –tweeting, posting on Facebook, feeding information for blogs and keeping in touch with supporters on the ground.
A short drive from San Francisco, Yosemite has always been a testing ground for climbers’ ambitions – a place that has long acted as a magnet for their dreams and ambitions. In a sport that treasures its history, Yosemite’s milestone ascents have long been pointers to where climbing is heading.
The Dawn Wall, with its extraordinary levels of continuous free-climbing difficulty, has been a continuation of that fascination.
Even in the best of conditions big wall climbing is physically and psychologically demanding – a law of diminishing returns.
The sharp granite is hard on the skin: worn fingertips become painful and prone to splitting. But paradoxically – as the two climbers have experienced – Yosemite’s granite can also be very smooth and slippery for the feet when obvious edges disappear. All of which requires a combination of balance and timing as much as the ability to pull on almost non-existent holds.
Which has meant that the skin on the fingertips – what climbers call ‘good skin’ – has become a crucial and limiting factor.
Posting a picture on Facebook of the hardest moves last week, Caldwell was prompted to comment: “Some of the smallest and sharpest holds I have have ever attempted to hold on to. Is crazy to think that the skin on our fingertips could be the limiting fact towards success or failure.” Caldwell said that he had resorted to setting an alarm to wake himself every four hours to reapply a beeswax cream to his fingers.
There are other problems too: not least the weather. Even during the main spring and autumn climbing seasons – let alone winter – Yosemite walls can be hit by frightening storm systems blown in from the Pacific.
Caldwell first visted Yosemite Valley with his parents when he was four years old.
“I was so young,” Caldwell told Climbing magazine in an interview a few years ago. “My heroes were my dad and the ‘dirtbags’ [impoverished full-time climbers]. They were the people around me, not so much the people I read about or heard stories about. I was the little kid running around in the parking lot goofing off and stuff all the time.”
Even in that period, El Capitan was a grand canvas for climbers’ imaginations.
The first routes, starting with a prominent buttress called The Nose had been ascended using “aid climbing” techniques where the chocks and pitons placed in the cracks were pulled on directly by climbers to ascend.
As the decades went on, climbers sought to remove those points of artificial aid and climb it free, pulling only on the rock holds nature had provided.
The Nose went free first and to a woman – the superlative climber Lynn Hill. Then climbers turned their attention to other routes that without aid climbing seemed ever more blank and improbable.
Caldwell’s wife Becca wrote that her husband had started his attempt to climb the Dawn Walls as a way to escape the painful fallout of his failed first marriage.
“The Dawn Walls 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 Dawn Wall just might be possible.”
For Caldwell, too, the effort marked a recovery a painful episode, although in his case the injury was physical, not emotion: an index finger which severed accidentally with a saw and reattached.
Quite how hard the climb would be Caldwell soon discovered. Two key sections high on the route – horizontal sideways traverses – combined the dual challenge of minimal and very slippery footholds on the smooth grained granite with a sequence of tiny and often razor sharp finger holds, requiring a combination of both balance and strength.
Complicating the issue is the fact that this part of the cliff is also south-facing which means that as it warms up, the crucial friction required to stick the feet to the holds – holds that are often no more than slight variations in the angle of the rock – worsens.
Because of this, the current successful effort was undertaken in the midst of winter when most climbers abandon the Yosemite Valley.
Kevin Jorgeson was recruited by Caldwell two years into his efforts. His specialism in climbing was at the opposite end of the scale from huge towering faces like Yosemite’s.
He had made his name in bouldering, very short unroped problems – no longer than 30ft – where the emphasis is on climbing the hardest sequences of moves, unencumbered by ropes and climbing gear.
Season after season the pair would live on the wall in Portaledges – fold-out nylon and aluminium structures suspended from the wall that serve for sleeping, eating, shelter and belaying – while they practised and memorised the moves in a stop-start effort punctuated by storms and injuries.
One early effort was brought to a halt when Jorgeson took a swinging fall, smashing an ankle and tearing his ligaments. Another came to an end when Caldwell dropped a huge bag of climbing equipment 200 feet. The bag was clipped to his rope, and when it reached the end the shock of impact separated one of his ribs.
Caldwell explained the benefit of climbing on the route in winter two years ago to Rock and Ice magazine, as well as some of the set backs they had encountered.
“One of the biggest challenges with free-climbing the Dawn Wall has been that the southern aspect of the climb makes it boiling hot up there much of the time.
“But because of the setbacks [including the closure of the park during the Federal shutdown] we climbed a lot in December, which actually gave us good conditions and helped us realize that it is best done as a winter free-climb.
“When I injured myself it looked as though the cards were stacked against me. It would have been really easy to throw in the towel for the year. But I learned to trust my instincts and push forward.”
Some coverage of the climb has prompted accusations that the epic climb is an exercise in irresponsibility. Caldwell has previously conceded that “climbing, just like being filthy rich, tends to spoil people. Many of us become self-absorbed and this selfishness makes both climbing and relationships hard.”
But he rejected the description of climbing as an “extreme sport”.
“Extreme,” he once told Climbing. “I don’t like that word so much, because I think that brings to mind like adrenaline junkies and people that are a little bit crazy. For me it’s deeper than that. Like a religion or a passion. The moments that I feel like it’s out of control are the moment when I feel that I’ve taken too far and things are going wrong. And I think that by that word extreme people think of out of control. I like to be in an environment that is intense, but then I feel like I have a handle on. It’s like a learning process, a way to to gain understanding not just be crazy.”
Caldwell and Jorgeson’s climb isn’t over. Jorgeson – who has been resting his fingers – will try the 15th pitch again on Saturday evening.
Weather may yet intervene, with an increasing chance of rain forecast. But what was dubbed impossible – and by Caldwell himself at first – has now entered the realms of the very possible.
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