Let’s be clear, the Dawn Wall is hard. Really hard. Like super-insanely-absurdly-you’ve got to be kidding me hard. Of the 32 pitches on the route, seven are 5.14 (including two 5.14+), seven are 5.13, and the rest are 5.12 or 5.11. It is universally acclaimed as the hardest big wall free climb in the world.
Freeing the Dawn Wall took Tommy Caldwell seven years. Seven years! Tommy Caldwell! The guy has spent half his life on the side of El Cap. He’s widely regarded as one of the best rock climbers in the world. And Kevin Jorgeson, of course, is no slouch.
Ever since the Dawn Wall went down nearly two years ago, it became the measuring stick for all climbs, and climbers. Any time a young phenom would make quick work of 5.14 or 5.15, reporters seemed poised with the question: “so, are you going to try the Dawn Wall?” As if the Dawn Wall was Disneyland, and what else would the climber be planning to do…
Of course, most of the people they were asking the question to were basically child phenoms – sport climbers, boulderers, or gym rats – who would giggle out an “I don’t know, maybe ONE day.” And the rest of the world would giggle back, because, we knew that of course they wouldn’t be trying the Dawn Wall. You’d have to be crazy to try the Dawn Wall. Who cares if you can climb overhanging 5.15 limestone, we thought. Put that sport climber on a 5.13 offwidth, or 5.14 runout slab above sketchy gear, and watch them pee their pants before running home to mommy. That’s what we thought.
Then Adam Ondra graduated from college. This allowed him to visit Yosemite during the cooler months, which are preferable to climbers who plan to climb the hardest rock climb on the planet. So what’s the first thing the 23 year old Czech did when he got to the Valley? He got on the Dawn Wall.
Now, we all know Ondra’s a solid climber. I mean, the guy has onsighted (climbed free on his first attempt with no information about the route) climbs rated the same as the Dawn Wall. Ondra has, at various times, been the world champion in indoor bouldering and sport climbing in the same season (unprecedented), he climbed the world’s first 5.15c (usurping the crown of best sport climber in the world from Chris Sharma), and he’s climbed most of the world’s hardest boulder problems.
But in spite of all that, I don’t think anyone really expected him to succeed. Climbing bolt-protected, granite roofs in Norway is one thing. But climbing the vertical, glacier-polished El Capitan is another beast. First of all, the stone is completely different from anything Ondra has climbed on before (excepting, perhaps, a few boulders). Second of all, the angle is far lower than most climbs he has done of the same difficulty. Third, the scale is incomparable to almost anything else he’s done, with 1000 meters of climbing instead of the 35 or 40 he’s used to. Finally, and perhaps most notably, freeing the Dawn Wall means trad climbing on small, questionable, and difficult to place protection. Pulling 50 foot runout 5.13+ slab boulder problems above fixed beaks and heads is something that most of the world’s best “sport climbers” can’t even grasp, much less aspire to. Comparing his climb of The Dawn Wall to his ascent of, for example, Change (the world’s 5.15c) is like comparing sprinting the 100 meter dash on an indoor track to running a marathon through the Serengeti. In other words, there is no comparison.
Ondra started strong, stronger than most of us expected. After climbing the route ground-up (Jorgeson and Caldwell initially rehearsed the wall top-down), fixing his ropes, and spending about a week working out the moves of the crux pitches on toprope, Ondra took off like a rocket. On November 14, he blazed up the first nine pitches. On the 16th, he persevered on 10-13 (including multiple 5.14s). He rested on the 17th, and on the 18th he finally fell.
It seemed as if the climbing world breathed a collective sigh of relief when, on the two crux pitches, Ondra got shut down. Our skepticism was vindicated. Who did the young Czech think he was, coming to America and trying to climb the hardest climb in the world on his very first time in Yosemite? “Adam Ondra Expected a Short, Hard Climb. Now He’ll Be Happy Just to Finish,” read one snarky and pompous NY Times headline. Many of us, certainly the author of that article, figured that Ondra had put up a good fight, but would be returning home empty-handed.
Then, on November 19 (one day after he wrote it was “hard to find some optimism”), Ondra sent the route’s two crux pitches in style. “As Day 4 was a complete disaster, I still felt a lot of pressure,” he wrote via social media. “I knew that sending pitch 14 is almost a must… I was lucky enough to be precise and send pitch 14 (5.14d) on my first go after a little warm up.” Pitch 15 didn’t take him much longer.
Just like that (after a single day of despair), Ondra was back in the game. Or, more precisely, the game was over. In the following three days, Ondra set a blistering pace up the remainder of the wall, reaching the summit on November 21. “The style of climbing on the Dawn Wall is so much about belief—belief that your feet are going to stick to the wall,” Caldwell said, in an article for National Geographic. “When you lose that, everything unravels. The extraordinary thing to me is that Adam was able to get it back pretty quickly.”
Anyone who has spent a long time climbing knows that it is hard switching mediums. If you are a boulderer, sport climbing seems super challenging. If you climb sport, trad makes you shake in your boots. Alpine climbing is scarier still. The various manifestations of climbing are not just different physically, but they are incredibly different psychologically. The same can be said of rock types. Switching from limestone to granite typically requires a break-in period. So does going from overhangs with good holds to slabs with microscopic ones.
Following the climb, Ondra expressed that “what Tommy and Kevin did was even much more impressive… I arrived with all the information, they told me the beta, and all I had to do was climb.” Meanwhile, Jorgeson noted that “impossible to possible is one style. But we left a lot of room to improve.”
Personally, I think the two climbs are monumental in different ways. For Tommy and Kevin, they faced the burden of not even knowing if the thing could actually be done. Ondra faced a different burden: that of knowing it could. For Ondra, who many considered to be the best climber in the world (even before he dispatched the Dawn Wall), the thought that he could fail where other climbers had succeeded had to have been psychologically intimidating.
What the two momentous ascents share in common is the massive amount of doubt (both external and internal) that the climbers needed to convert through some sort of mysterious alchemy into confidence, and eventual perseverance.
And while, from the outside, it may feel like the torch has been passed a little too quickly (poor Tommy and Kevin only got to be the best climbers in the world for a paltry two years – Adam seems poised to wear the crown much longer), Tommy doesn’t seem hung up on it. There’s still room to improve on Adam’s style. Most notably, the route could be freed in a single day.
“It would be really difficult,” Caldwell said, “but if anyone could do it, Adam would be the one.”