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Climbers on verge of finishing historic ascent up El Capitan (w/video)

Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell make their way up El Capitan's Dawn Wall on the final leg of their historic free climb up the Yosemite National Park landmark on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

PHIL BARBER AND MATT BROWN, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

2:45 p.m. UPDATE

Very little has come easy for the Dawn Wall climbers today. But by mid-afternoon they were tantalizingly close to the rim of El Capitan.

Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell took to the rock at 9 a.m. this morning, needing to climb the final four of the route’s 31 or 32 pitches (depending on how the map ends up being drawn). By 2:30 p.m., Santa Rosa’s Jorgeson had climbed three of them. Caldwell was working on the third.

All of those sections were rated in the 5.12 category. The final pitch is a 5.13. It won’t be easy for two climbers who are spending their 19th day perched hundreds, now thousands, of feet above the valley floor.

It took the climbers 2½ hours to complete their first section today. Jorgeson struggled in a wide diagonal crack moving left to right – a “slanting flare,” as one veteran mountaineer put it. When he finally knocked it off, a cheer went up in small crowd that has gathered once again in El Capitan Meadow. In fact, each achievement on the rock gets a hearty reaction from below.

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YOSEMITE VALLEY — There’s nowhere in the world quite like Yosemite National Park. Even the litter is distinct. Strewn in El Capitan Meadow on Tuesday, at the base of the world’s largest granite monolith, were a couple of forlorn business cards, one for an ABC News producer out of Los Angeles and the other a CBS correspondent from San Francisco.

For better or worse, the world — or at least its information purveyors — is coming to Yosemite.

Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell went to bed Tuesday night perched about 400 feet from the summit of 3,000-foot El Cap. On Wednesday they hope to complete their climb up the face of the Dawn Wall, a diabolical route that has never before been free climbed, meaning never climbed while using ropes and pins only for safety.

“This is a sea shift,” John Long, a renowned climber and author of mountaineering books, said in the gathering chill of the meadow just after sundown Tuesday. “There are a lot of unprecedented things happening in this. One, nobody’s spent 17 days trying to free climb. Or how about the eight years Tommy Caldwell (has worked on the Dawn Wall), and I think Kevin’s been up there six."

Since the climbers have been repeating sections of the route when they have fallen, they will likely have climbed a total of 10,000 feet of rock by the time they’re done, Long noted.

Wednesday will be the 19th day Jorgeson, a Santa Rosa native, and Caldwell have spent away from solid ground. They eat, sleep and tweet suspended above the earth in portaledges when they aren’t climbing. The two adventurers have good reason to believe Wednesday will be their last on the wall.

They climbed an ambitious seven pitches — sections of the route that can be supported by one rope length — on Tuesday. When they reached the ledge they were aiming for at 4:54 p.m., the small crowd watching from below burst into applause and the two climbers raised their arms in triumph. Of course, to the naked eye they were, at best, tiny pixels of color on the granite. A few chroniclers with strong telephoto lenses kept the rest of the gawkers apprised.

Caldwell and Jorgeson have four more pitches to complete to reach the top. All of the remaining segments are in the 5.12 range, difficult but not nearly as intense as the 5.14 pitches in the middle of the route.

Some of Jorgeson’s friends and family members were reported to be hiking up the steep Upper Yosemite Falls Trail late Tuesday afternoon. More planned to hike to the rim early Wednesday morning, said Jerry Dodrill, a climber from Sebastopol and friend of Jorgeson’s.

A buoyant feeling of expectancy filled the meadow below, and the champagne was chilling. Dodrill said Iron Horse Winery in Graton had donated several bottles of its Ocean Reserve sparkling wine for a celebration at the summit.

As the climb approaches its end game, those experienced in the sport are still shaking their heads at the level of attention Jorgeson and Caldwell have received. They climbed in relative obscurity until the New York Times wrote about their efforts on Jan. 4. From there it snowballed rapidly.

“We came in one day after the holiday, and it went crazy,” said Diane Kay, a representative of Adidas, Jorgeson’s primary sponsor.

Kay has had media requests from more than 50 different media outlets, including some in Britain, France, Spain and Germany. The National Park Service has been even more deluged. All the major television networks have satellite trucks in Yosemite by now. The Associated Press and National Geographic have covered the ascent, as has National Public Radio.

Has a rock climb ever garnered this much attention? Some nominated paraplegic Mark Wellman’s ascent of Half Dome in 1991 or the 27-day climb up the Wall of Early Morning Light (which shares portions of the Dawn Wall) by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell in 1970. But even those events seem outshone in the age of social media.

In effect, Jorgeson and Caldwell have gone from athletes highly regarded in their limited field to low-level national folk heroes in a little more than a week. No one is more surprised than they.

“We weren’t prepared for it. They surely were not prepared for it — and they’re still not prepared for it,” Kay said. “We’ve tried to tell Kevin about it. But this is life changing for them.”

While most everyone involved in rock climbing agree that attention on the Dawn Wall Project is good for the industry, there is a lot of eye rolling as mainstream media outlets attempt to explain the sport.

“We were just talking about the CBS News last week, how they were saying ‘on the iconic El Capitan’ and they showed a picture of Half Dome,” said Cathy Dressler, who drove up from Merced with husband Eric to watch Jorgeson and Caldwell.

The Dresslers weren’t the only ones attracted to Yosemite by the Dawn Wall climbers. As news of their exploits has spread, some have driven into the park to get a firsthand view and many others have altered their Yosemite stays to include a stop in El Capitan Meadow. And then more see the crowd and drop in to see what the fuss is about.

The meadow has long been a popular spot to watch rock climbers. But it rarely has looked like this, with several dozen puffy-jacketed spectators gathered in clusters on the grass and parked vehicles lining the road for a quarter mile.

Matt Jones, a young climber from Sacramento, has been following the Dawn Wall attempt through a telescope almost since it began Dec. 27. He has watched the meadow gradually fill with onlookers as interest has mounted.

“I have been watching them battle up there when there was no one out here,” Jones said. “It’s been fun to watch the evolution of the meadows.”

Even better is the view upward, where the dots of color turned to dots of light as the sun went down and Jorgeson and Caldwell turned on their lanterns a half-mile up the rock.

“You have to be a poet to try to convey some kind of idea what it’s like to stand down here and look up there,” said Long, the veteran climbing authority. “And then to try to be able to put in words what their experience is like. That’s a tall order.”

And then Long gave it a shot: “It’s like being a granite astronaut,” he said.

That will have to suffice until the boys reach the top of El Capitan, any hour now.

Staff Writer Phil Barber can be reached at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post. Staff Writer Matt Brown can be reached at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MattBrownPD.