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Santa Rosa climber battling toughest section of historic Yosemite ascent (w/video)

In a handout photo, Tommy Caldwell, left, and Kevin Jorgeson climbing the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Jan. 1, 2015. The two climbers are attempting to climb more than half a mile up a section known as Dawn Wall without the benefit of ropes, a feat they have sought for several years with single-minded obsession. (Brett Lowell/Big UP Productions via The New York Times)

PHIL BARBER , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Halfway up the face of soaring El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Kevin Jorgeson remains optimistic. If only his bloodied fingers prove as resilient as his spirit, he may yet conquer the climb of his life.

“My battle with Pitch 15 continues,” Jorgeson posted on Instagram early Wednesday afternoon. “After 6 years of work, my #DawnWall quest comes down to sending this pitch. Last night, I experienced a lightness and calm like never before. Despite failing, it will always be one of my most memorable climbing experiences. On my 4th attempt, around 11pm, the razor sharp holds ripped both the tape and the skin right off my fingers. As disappointing as this is, I’m learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire. I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”

Jorgeson, a Santa Rosa native, and climbing partner Tommy Caldwell are attempting to ascend the entire route of the Dawn Wall, a vertical section of El Cap that appears as smooth as porcelain from a distance, and is only slightly more flawed at arm’s length.

This is the climbers’ sixth winter attacking the Dawn Wall Project and, they believe, the first in which they have a strong chance of “pushing” the route, or climbing it from bottom to top. Jorgeson told The Press Democrat on Wednesday that if they are successful, it will take them at least another week to reach the summit.

Caldwell and Jorgeson began their push on Dec. 27 and notched several successes in rapid order. Here at the midpoint, things get tricky.

A pitch is the segment of a climb that can safely be supported by one rope length, and the toughest pitches on the Dawn Wall are smack dab in the middle of the route. Pitches 14 and 15 are rated 5.14d on the Yosemite Decimal System, near the extreme upper end of the scale.

Caldwell, 36, successfully completed Pitch 15 — a right-to-left traverse with minuscule holds — on Monday, but Jorgeson, 30, has been unable to replicate the feat during at least two days of trying. Caldwell forged ahead Wednesday while Jorgeson cleared his mind and gave those fingertips a chance to heal a bit.

“Basically, I need to rest my skin again before trying Pitch 15 again,” Jorgeson said in an email. “Tommy is through the crux (a particularly difficult sequence). He is going to continue freeing pitches up to wino (Wino Tower, a small platform of rock a little higher on the cliff) and wait for me to catch up after that. … Fingers are pretty beat, which is a frustrating limiting factor, but a reality of this project.”

As Gaelena Jorgeson, Kevin’s mother, said: “You can only put your hands on razor blades for so long before they’re bloody and numb.”

Caldwell called his recent achievement “bittersweet” in light of Jorgeson’s struggles.

Posting a close-up photograph of Jorgeson attempting a hand hold, Caldwell wrote Wednesday: “These are the crux holds of Pitch 15. Some of the smallest and sharpest holds I have ever attempted to hold onto. Is crazy to think that the skin on our fingertips could be the limiting fact towards success or failure. I have resorted to setting my alarm to wake myself up every four hours to reapply @climbonproducts.”

Caldwell and Jorgeson have planned all along to finish this climb together. That may prove to be impossible.

The question is how long Jorgeson will chip away at Pitch 15 before giving up and sending Caldwell ahead without him.

Jeffrey Quigley, a Healdsburg-based rock climber who knows both Jorgeson and Caldwell, said their support team is so strong that one of them doesn’t necessarily need the other to advance.

“They’re in a very luxurious position now,” Quigley said. “Kevin is not holding Tommy back at this point. But they’ve worked on this for so many years, it’s hard on Tommy right now. They’re bros.”

Because even moderate warmth can make the climbers’ hands slippery and melt the rubber soles of their shoes on the exposed face of El Capitan, they climb at night and in the early morning. Jorgeson and Caldwell sleep along the rock face on a portaledge, a sort of hanging tent system, during the ascent. They have Internet access and plenty of food and coffee, though they are exposed to the elements. Fortunately, the weather has been cooperative.

No one has ever free climbed the length of the Dawn Wall. (“Free climbing” involves the use of ropes as a safety measure, but not to aid in climbing.) With a 3,000-foot granite monolith to scale and five pitches rated in the 5.14 category — requiring a level of expertise that only world-class climbers can hope to execute — the Dawn Wall is undoubtedly the hardest route in Yosemite. Some experienced alpinists are calling it the toughest in the world.

The final 12 pitches of the climb are relatively straightforward, making this middle section the key to Jorgeson’s and Caldwell’s chances.

Meanwhile, media coverage of the climb has exploded. When The Press Democrat reported on the imminent ascent Dec. 21, it felt like something of a secret. But since the New York Times featured Jorgeson and Caldwell on Sunday, their adventure has been profiled by the Associated Press, National Public Radio, Newsweek and the Huffington Post, plus numerous TV outlets. A film crew is following the climbers to document the experience.

“There’s a lot of media hype about this, like it went viral,” Gaelena Jorgeson said. “We’re all kind of astounded. I think it’s because there was not a lot of news going on. But it became, I think, distracting for him. It took his focus off of the moment.”

As Kevin Jorgeson regains his focus and applies regular coats of hand salve, the Dawn Wall Project has finally captivated the public. Serious climbers have followed its progress for several years.

“Every once in a while, something occurs that’s beyond where others have pushed it,” Quigley said. “This is a feat of mental prowess, a feat of planning, and it involves physical strength we haven’t seen before. Most would say it’s the greatest achievement if it goes down.”

First, of course, Jorgeson has to go up.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post