Editor's note: After 19 days of climbing, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top of Dawn Wall successfully at 3:25 p.m. Pacific on January 14.
Climber Tommy Caldwell has been called the greatest living athlete most people have never heard of. Now, he's attempting what has long been thought impossible. Within the next few days, he and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson expect to become the first people to free climb the 3,000-foot-high Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a sheer granite face that is the first in the area to catch the morning light. The pair are allowed to use ropes, but only to catch themselves if they fall. Otherwise, to succeed, they must make the climb unaided.
While free climbing may appear to be a solitary endeavor--man versus rock--Caldwell's saga is surprisingly interwoven with those of his various climbing partners. The history of how he came to be more than two-thirds of the way up El Capitan and well past what are thought to be the most challenging aspects of the climb offers insights for anyone attempting a task that seems slightly crazy--entrepreneurship included.
Preparation is crucial.
Caldwell and Jorgeson's route up the Dawn Wall is divided into 32 pitches. These are shorter segments that, when linked together, should hypothetically take a climber to the summit. According to the rules of free climbing, a climber must complete each of the pitches in order. If climbers fall and are caught by their ropes, they have to go back to the beginning of the pitch to try again.
For two years, Caldwell concentrated on simply finding a route up the Dawn Wall. He did this by rappelling down the face and looking for enough consecutive handholds and footholds to support a free climb; some of these are the depth of the edge of a credit card, many sharp enough to shred a climber's fingertips.
Then Caldwell and Jorgeson practiced every single pitch, repeatedly. Caldwell has been at it for seven years; Jorgeson joined him in 2009, spending months in the fall and winter learning the route and practicing the hardest parts of it. The team has never successfully climbed the whole thing in sequence, but they know every detail.
Persistence is everything.
This is not the pair's first attempt at a full-scale assault on the rock face. They tried the climb in 2010, but had to turn back because of bad weather. Jorgeson broke an ankle on the 2011 climb. Caldwell once got stalled on the 14th pitch and went back down. This year, it took Jorgeson a full 10 days to complete the 15th pitch--but on January 9, he succeeded.
There are other near-legendary tales of Caldwell's persistence. In 2001, in the midst of a home renovation, Caldwell sliced off a finger with a table saw. Doctors reattached the finger but said he wouldn't be able to use it to climb. This was a total bummer--until Caldwell decided to have the digit removed, so it couldn't get in his way while climbing. Five months later, he free-climbed another route up El Capitan.
Rationality is overrated.
Caldwell is not pretending that his obsession with free climbing the Dawn Wall makes sense, really. Here's how he described the climb in an interview with The New York Times: "This is my Moby-Dick, for sure."
Captain Ahab was not exactly a model of mental health, but Caldwell doesn't seem to care. He's thinking in grander terms. "For me, it's just a fascination with the epic journey," he says. "I've always been a fan of stories of big journeys. And it's a question of curiosity. I love to play with my physical and mental limits and see how far I can push them, and I just love to dream big. And this project fulfills all those things."
Pick the right partners...
Caldwell is widely considered the best all-around climber in the U.S., and one of the best in the world. Yet he's terribly complimentary toward his climbing partners, even when he's clearly the more experienced of the duo. In 2014, Caldwell and Alex Honnold, a free- and solo-climber, climbed Patagonia's Fitz Traverse. Honnold was essentially an Alpine novice, but Caldwell describes working with someone new to these particular conditions as a joy--and takes a moment to credit one of his own mentors. "He just adapted to that terrain so gracefully," Caldwell said of Honnold, speaking to National Geographic. "My first trip to Patagonia, I was in the same boat. Topher Donahue showed me the ropes. It was cool to have the roles reversed. On this climb, Alex was so psyched. His eyes were bright. He kept saying, 'This is such a rad adventure.' That was cool for me to see."
...And stand by them.
Jorgeson probably wasn't the obvious partner for Caldwell on their current adventure. Jorgeson has never before climbed El Capitan. And for 10 days, he got stalled out on the 15th pitch. After Caldwell made it through the 20th pitch, he came back down the face to provide moral support to Jorgeson, even though that delayed the remainder of his own climb and increased the chances that a freak storm would force the pair to cancel. "More than anything, I want to top out together," Caldwell said. "We gotta make that happen. It would be such a bummer to finish this thing alone. I can't imagine anything worse, really."
Caldwell knows from worse. In 2000, while climbing in Kyrgyzstan, Caldwell and his climbing team were taken hostage by armed rebels. They only escaped because they were briefly left alone with a single armed guard, whom Caldwell pushed off a cliff. (The guard survived the fall.)
Optimism is not optional.
As Jorgeson was struggling with the 15th pitch, Caldwell was asked when he expected to finish. Note his worst-case scenario--at first, it doesn't even occur to him that he could fail. "Best case is seven days," Caldwell said. "Worst case is mid-February. Or not at all, I suppose."
The seven days have since passed. But "not at all" looks increasingly unlikely.