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Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are this close to finishing their Yosemite mega-project climb on the Dawn Wall, a 30-pitch route up the steepest, blankest section of El Capitan. It is now such a big deal that the New York Times has covered it, much to the apparent confusion of many New York Times commenters.

If you’re not a climber, you might be wondering, why is it such a big deal? Don’t people do hard climbs all the time? Well, yes, but nothing this long and continuously difficult. Most people who focus on pure hard climbing usually set their sights on a route that’s around 100-150 feet long. The Dawn Wall is more than 3,000 feet long, with several long sections of very technically demanding climbing. Tommy Caldwell first envisioned, and has been working on sections of the climb, since 2007. He wasn’t even sure he could climb the hardest pitch of the climb until last November. Kevin Jorgeson joined Caldwell in 2009, and the two have been steadily working on the project since.

The route contains the hardest free climbing pitch in Yosemite-5.14d-as well as four other pitches 5.14 or harder. Although there’s a 99.9 percent chance most of us will never climb something as hard as the Dawn Wall, lots of people are inspired by the dedication, and the vision, these two guys have in trying to finish the climb. Maybe we see our own (much smaller) goals, and our battle to achieve them, in these two guys’ struggle to climb the route.

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Caldwell scoping the finale.

Caldwell scoping the finale.

Why is everyone so excited?
Right now, Jorgeson and Caldwell have fought their way up most of the hardest pitches of the climb. With a couple more key pitches out of the way, the rest of the climb will theoretically be smooth sailing-much easier climbing to the top. Also, the two are sending daily updates via Instagram and Facebook, and a film crew has been sending out daily footage of the climbing.

What’s free climbing?
Free climbing is climbing using only your hands and feet to pull you up the rock. You have a rope tied to your harness in case you fall.

Don’t people free climb El Capitan?
Yes, some do, but not often. Most of the routes on El Capitan are a mix of free climbing and aid climbing. Most El Cap routes are aid climbing routes, but some have been free climbed.

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Jorgeson.

Jorgeson.

Doesn’t that guy Alex Honnold free climb?
Yes, he does, but he’s more famous for free soloing, or climbing without a rope. If you fall while free soloing, you fall all the way to the ground. In free climbing, the rope catches you.

These guys are falling a lot on their way up. Don’t they want to climb the whole thing without falling?
Well, that would be nice, but in this case, it’s okay for them to fall. They’re trying to “redpoint” the route, which means each climber has to climb each pitch without falling. So, if Caldwell is climbing pitch #11, and he falls 40 feet from the start of the pitch, he lowers down to the start of the pitch and starts over until he finishes the pitch cleanly. Then that pitch is considered free climbed, and he moves onto the next pitch. Since each pitch can take a half hour to an hour to climb, you can imagine how ridiculous it would be to climb all the way up to, say, Pitch #17, and if you fell, lowering 1,700 feet to the ground and starting over.

Why are they doing it in the winter?
El Capitan sits in the sun. Warm granite can be hard to climb, especially when holds are small. In the winter, the air temperature is colder, maximizing the friction between skin and those tiny handholds, and shoe rubber and tiny footholds.

What is 5.14?
Think of really small handholds and footholds-like the thickness of a dime, or a wooden matchstick. Now think of hanging onto them by your fingertips and by the very edges of your shoe soles. Now think about trying to move up to the next dime-thick handhold you see, and making a very intricately balanced move up to it.

Or, if you go to a climbing gym, look around. The stronger climbers at your gym might be climbing routes in the upper 5.12 range (5.12c or 5.12d), or 5.13a or 5.13b. There’s a good chance your gym doesn’t have a route rated 5.14 or higher, and a very good chance it doesn’t have a route rated 5.14d.

Here’s a list of how hard all the pitches on the Dawn Wall are:
Pitch 1: 5.12b
Pitch 2: 5.13a
Pitch 3: 5.13c
Pitch 4: 5.12b
Pitch 5: 5.12d
Pitch 6: 5.13c
Pitch 7: 5.14a
Pitch 8: 5.13d
Pitch 9: 5.13c
Pitch 10: 5.14a
Pitch 11: 5.13c
Pitch 12: 5.14b
Pitch 13: 5.12d
Pitch 14: 5.14d
Pitch 15: 5.14d
Pitch 16: 5.13c
Pitch 17: 5.13c
Pitch 18: 5.13d
Pitches 19-30: 5.11-5.12, with one move of 5.13


Photos courtesy Tommy Caldwell


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Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.