Rock climbing in an unprecedented dimension


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2015)

Just a tiny ledge, the thinnest groove or a small shelf no wider than a couple of millimetres is enough to find a grip and pull yourself up another half a metre. The ascent is torturously slow, your fingers hurt and your leg muscles begin to shake. Kevin Jorgeson knows that he has to manage the 15 rope lengths in order to join up with his friend Tommy Caldwell, who is already waiting for him 5 rope lengths further up.

Both American free climbers are holding onto a rock face of a 1,000 metre monolith, ‘El Capitan’ in the Californian Yosemite National Park. Here, six days before, on 27 December 2014, they began their unbelievable project and wanted to achieve the, until now unachievable, first free climb of the ‘Dawn Wall’ climbing route on the east side of the El Capitan. This route, which on the basis of it’s consistently high grade and its length, is considered the most difficult alpine rock climbing route worldwide and has never been climbed without artificial aids.

El Capitan is a magnet for top athletes from all over the world due to its unique climbing routes. It’s not for nothing that the Yosemite National Park is known as the big wall Mekka of international climbing at its highest level. Although the ‘Dawn Wall’ stretch was first climbed by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation of Tommy Caldwell) in 1970, they climbed the route with artificial aids, hammered countless hooks into the rock face and fastened ropes. Tommy and Kevin however, want to free climb all 32 rope lengths of the wall. This means they work with their hands and feet only. Merely a rope serves as protection against falling. They are not allowed to pull themselves up on it, nor on the hooks in the wall. If one falls, the partner catches him with his safety rope. But the climber then has to tackle the complete distance again.

Kevin Jorgeson finds himself in this situation. He is frustrated, as while Tommy Caldwell has completed the wall’s most difficult rope lengths 14 to 20, Kevin has fallen for the tenth day in a row and has to keep starting his rope lengths from the beginning again. The pressure on the less experienced climber is enormous, as he knows the time is ticking and he is holding his partner up. The longer the climbers stay on the wall, the greater the danger is that an approaching bad weather front could force them to descend and therefore give up. The success almost threatens once again to slip through Kevin’s bloody fingers, wrapped with finger tape for climbing. The physical strain is enormous, the entire body weight is held only by hands and feet. If Kevin doesn’t soon manage the 15th rope length, Tommy Caldwell will have to climb on alone. Caldwell said on day 13: “I want more than anything that we manage it together. That has to happen. It would be such a shame if I finished it without Kevin. I can’t imagine anything worse, honestly!”

Both Americans have been climbing together since 2009 and had previously completed each of their total of five attempts to climb the Dawn Wall together. The wall is unbelievably challenging due to its many extremely difficult sections or consecutive rope lengths, whereby the lengths 14 and 15 belong to the hardest grade in climbing. The idea that someone could be capable of climbing at this level day after day and to camp in a tiny tent hanging on the wall was previously seen as being beyond the realms of possibility.

Tommy Caldwell climbed his first route on El Capitan in 1999 and has since come back every year to find new challenges. He grew up in Estes Park, Colorado and already began climbing at the age of three. At 16 he was already national climbing champion and since then he has spent most of his time studying the nuances of the many routes on the granite flank of El Capitan. The first idea of tackling the Dawn Wall was shaped in Caldwell’s head in autumn 2007. He began to purposely work towards it. In 2008 a film crew accompanied him to the wall in Yosemite in order to film a documentary. A climber from Santa Rosa in California saw this film and was so excited that he wanted to accompany Caldwell on his project – Kevin Jorgeson.

Jorgeson had never before climbed El Capitan. His passion began with indoor climbing at the age of eleven and he specialised in bouldering at the climbing wall, going to heights of six metres, and soon to the area of ‘highball bouldering’ to heights of 18 metres. On his 16th birthday he was in Yosemite for the first time and then it became tradition to go to the park bouldering on his birthday every year. “The granite here defined my style and what I strive for in climbing” said Kevin. “It has influenced me extraordinarily and led to me doing what I am now doing on the Dawn Wall.”

On 9 January 2015, Kevin Jorgeson finally overcame his block and he completed the 15th rope length without falling. This success spurred not only the team on, but the whole world too – the climb had long since become a media spectacle. The internet community followed the pioneer achievement live, as although Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell felt connected with the spirit of the great Yosemite pioneers from the 50s and 60s, they regularly posted the social networks with tweets, texts, pictures and videos and shared their thoughts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Even Google Street View had already measured and recorded El Capitan – thanks to the help of Tommy Caldwell and other climbers. As a result, the whole world could follow the two hanging on the wall for 19 days. Because of the warm weather, climbing mostly took place at night. During the day they were provided with food, which had been lowered down on a rope, in their tents, dangling on the rock face.

When they finally reached the peak on 14 January 2015 at 3.25 p.m. local time, the climbers had made history. They were excitedly awaited by their families, friends and a few reporters who had hiked up to the peak on the back side of El Capitan. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to complete something which you have devoted body and soul to for years”, Kevin Jorgeson describes his success to the New York Times. “I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall and to master it one day.” The two men had been preparing to master the free climb on their dream route for more than seven years. “Many people think that we are constantly searching for adrenaline rushes and kicks out there. But we’re not like that”, said Caldwell. “I just like to dream in a big style and love to find ways to be an explorer myself.”


Picture credit © Brett Cowell/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published