Subscribe

'Pasted like a freckle against the granite'

Kevin Jorgeson (at left) and Tommy Caldwell live in a "portaledge" 1,500 feet above the valley for up to two weeks when working on a route. From the May 2011 issue of National Geographic (JIMMY CHIN/ NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/yosemite-climbing/chin-photography)

BOB PADECKY,

THE PRES DEMOCRAT

Kevin Jorgeson points to the video on his computer screen. In it, he's on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite, the valley 300 feet below. His right foot is moving to a foothold.

"See it?" said Kevin Jorgeson of the foothold.

No.

"That's why you really have to concentrate," the 2003 graduate of Santa Rosa's Maria Carrillo High School said in one of the great understatements. "That foothold is not unique. These footholds are all over El Cap. No bigger than a dime. You step on it with your big toe."

Only your big toe?

ONLY a big toe," said Jorgeson, as if it would be madness to consider otherwise.

Sometime this fall, Jorgeson and buddy Tommy Caldwell from Colorado will attempt the first free climb of Dawn Wall, a 3,000-foot ascent of El Capitan judged to be the most dangerous rock climb in the world because of the steepness and smoothness of the granite.

Free climbers have a safety rope but do not use pulleys or devices to stand on as they ascend, relying on their hands and feet.

It has taken Jorgeson and Caldwell two years to map the route, working sections or "pitches" at a time. They expect they will spend two to three weeks on the face before reaching the top.

The May issue of National Geographic magazine features Jorgeson, Caldwell and other climbers on El Cap. The pictures are breathtaking.

So is Jorgeson's account of his evolution into a professional climber. It began when he was 2. Jorgeson's dad, Eric, was helping his wife's aunt build a house in Santa Rosa. A ladder from ground-level to the rooftop gave Eric a nice view of the city, and he turned around and saw his 2-year-old son next to him.

"I had climbed up the ladder," Jorgeson said.

Which, of course, set his father to yelling, "Honeeeeeeeey! I thought you were watching Kevin!"

They all laugh about it now.

Jorgeson said that as a teenager he climbed about a dozen structures in downtown Santa Rosa, including the AT&T building on Third Street. He did it late at night, shielded by darkness and the tendency for police to look for lawbreakers on the ground, not above it.

"I would climb the outside of elevators, a lot of parking garages," said Jorgeson, who is 5-foot-9, 145 pounds.

His transition to world-class rock jock can be traced to the start of his love affair with Yosemite, the Mecca of his trade. At the age of 16, he began going at least once a year, and he considers it his home base.

Jorgeson's skills and reputation grew quickly, as did his commitment. He found the time to earn an associate's degree in kinesiology from Santa Rosa Junior College, but his singular pursuit of the world's toughest rock faces dominates much of his life.

The Sebastopol resident is 26, single and ekes out a modest living as a professional.

"You are not going to make $100,000 as a climber, or even $50,000," he said.

His climbing partner, Caldwell, often sleeps in his van before attacking Yosemite's rocks.

Conventional sports never interested him because they didn't satisfy his independent nature. Or, as he liked to say, "Someone would complain in basketball that they weren't getting the ball passed to them enough." Waaaa. Rock climbers don't whine. Rock climbers are action figures. Rock climbers take peace of mind to new heights, like 3,000 feet above Yosemite Valley.

"Everything goes quiet when you are in the zone," said Jorgeson. "You are pasted like a freckle against the granite but all the moves are working. You're moving smoothly, precisely, focused. I'm my happiest when I'm up there climbing."

But he is not oblivious to the danger. He has felt frozen to a rock face. It is a reasonable response to being on a handhold that's called "a razor" — for it's thickness and sharpness — and having to cross his right foot across in front of his body to a foothold the size of a dime while 2,000 feet above ground.

"A lot of times it comes when you are aware of your situation and position," said Jorgeson, who also has rock climbed Half Dome at Yosemite. "So you're there and you think to yourself, &‘What am I doing here? . . . Either I keep my focus or I fall. So what am I going to do about this? Huh? Huh? I'm going to have to double-down on my focus.'Jorgeson snaps out of it because his body remembers the countless hours of rock climbing, at Vertex Climbing Center in Santa Rosa, at the big boulders or walls in the United States, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Africa, France, England, Canada and Japan. Jorgeson channels his knowledge and fitness and, especially, his preparation.

Jorgeson prepares his feet: He wears a size 10? street shoe but a size 8 for rock climbing.

"Once your foot is in the shoe," Jorgeson said, "you lose all sensation. You have a precision footwork machine instead of a regular foot with toes. It's a lot like ballet shoes from what I've heard.

"Tommy and I have had toenails fall off after climbing portions of the Dawn Wall in a season. All the blood leaves your toes. When you take off your shoe, the front of your foot is white. Slowly, the blood returns."

Jorgeson prepares his fingers: He will develop calluses on his finger tips. "See the side of that cell phone? That's an especially wide surface to grip."

Jorgeson prepares for what he'll see on Dawn Wall: "There are only two ledges in the climb that are the size of surfboards. The rest are cracks. There are 30 pitches (sections). Each pitch, on the average, and this is an educated guess, has about 250 moves on it. That's about 7,500 moves. And they all have to be precise because one move leads to another. If it doesn't, you're in trouble."

Jorgeson prepares for what he'll see when he looks away from Dawn Wall: "Tommy and I will climb mostly at night, between 9 p.m. and 1 to 2 a.m., with our miner lights. Can't do it during the day because the rock is too hot. So we'll camp out in our portaledge (tent) and watch Yosemite in the day. Peregrine falcons fly around us all the time. They are so cool to watch and to hear their whooshing."

Jorgeson prepares for the inevitable struggle: Dawn Wall has seven highly rated pitches based on steepness and slickness. That's more than all of the other Yosemite rock faces combined.

Jorgeson admitted what he does is so outside the vision of most people that they simply and politely nod their heads when he tells them what he does. It is not only different from their day-to-day activity, it is so spectacularly different that it leads to a disconnect.

"It's done so far from the public eye," said Jorgeson. "You're in a forest by yourself. It's hard for people to visualize."

Until they see the pictures such as those in National Geographic. Human dots on a sheer wall with not an escalator in sight. When Jorgeson first studied Dawn Wall, he just shook his head. Improbable at the least, probably impossible.

Jorgeson had made his chops in the rock climbing community as a first-rate boulderer, going up 200-foot and 300-foot boulders in the Eastern Sierra, but this was a whole other animal.

"The thing about granite, especially this granite, it's blank," said Jorgeson, using the term for smooth with no pock marks. "And blank granite is so slick, it's polished."

And scaling it as a free climber, that just amplifies the challenge, the danger, he saidShowing off might be the uneducated layman's view of someone willing to hang by a fingernail at 2,000 feet. It also would be inaccurate. "There's no point in that," he said. "Can't be. Cuz the rock puts you in your place."