ATOP EL CAPITAN - For nearly three weeks, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson climbed and rested and climbed and fell and climbed and hauled up bags of gear. Finally, there was nowhere higher to go.
At about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, with shadows already creeping across the face of El Capitan, the wearied and elated rock climbers stepped atop the rim of the great monolith, becoming the first people in the history of the planet to free climb the Dawn Wall route, and the first climbers to monopolize the attention of a wide swath of mainstream America.
Yes, they did remember how to walk.
“This is my first time standing on solid ground in 19 days,” said Jorgeson, who grew up in Santa Rosa. “It’s a little weird.”
He and Caldwell had been in the air since Dec. 27, either clasped tightly to the granite of El Cap or suspended in a flimsy tent known as a portaledge. Their ascent is considered the most difficult sustained rock climb in history, with several pitches — a section of the climb that can be supported by one rope length — rated in the fearsome 5.14 category (including some at 5.14d, near the extreme edge of the Yosemite Decimal System).
Caldwell, who “lead climbed” the final pitch, reached a ledge just below the summit at about 3:05 p.m. He turned toward Yosemite Valley below him and raised his arms in triumph. Three thousand feet below, El Capitan Meadow erupted in whoops and cheers. About 15 minutes later, the scene played out again when Jorgeson reached the ledge.
From there, it was relatively easy to reach the true rim of the world’s largest granite rock.
“They both scrambled from that ledge, back into reality,” said Mike Caldwell, Tommy’s father and an experienced mountaineer in his own right. “They were both greeted at the same time, and essentially they both summited the same time. You couldn’t lay it out in a more fair or more dramatic way.”
At the top, Tommy Caldwell embraced his wife, Rebecca, and Jorgeson hugged his girlfriend, Jacqui Becker. The two significant others were among several dozen intrepid greeters who had hiked to the top of El Cap to be there when the duo arrived, a contingent that included friends, fellow climbers and members of the news media. Jorgeson and Caldwell shook up two bottles of sparkling wine, provided by Iron Horse Vineyards in Sebastopol, and sprayed them like World Series winners.
“It’s over,” said Jorgeson. “I can’t believe it.”
He called the climb “the most intense experience of my entire life.”
After getting their bearings and basking in the moment a bit, the climbers and their entourage began a two-plus-hour descent to the valley floor via the tricky climbers’ trail along El Capitan’s east ledges.
In the meadow below, the mood approached euphoria. The crowd that had been assembling at the foot of the rock for more than a week grew in size and became more attuned to the climbers’ efforts. At times, El Cap Meadow looked like the world’s most scenic sports bar. An NBC News photographer had rigged up a monitor to his telescopic viewfinder, giving those around him a view that resembled a TV close-up. By the time Caldwell, 36, of Estes Park, Colo., and Jorgeson, 30, reached the top, about 30 people were huddled in front of the monitor.
Members of both families were there, including three generations of Caldwells. They were, as you could imagine, ecstatic and perhaps a bit teary.
“It’s kind of surreal,” said Gaelena Jorgeson, Kevin’s mother, standing in the chilly meadow. “I’m having a hard time being present. I’m pretty numb right now physically — but maybe emotionally as well.”
“It is a fabulous moment,” Gaelena said. “I don’t have enough superlatives to tell you how wonderful this moment is.”
Even those with no shared bloodlines wound up feeling a connection.
“The rest of us who at first think they’re crazy and then come and watch them are so inspired, and they make us so happy. Even though we can’t do what they’re doing, they carry us with them,” said Claudia Stanger of Berkeley, who heard about the climbers in the news before deciding she had to see them for herself, though they were little more than specks to the naked eye.
Even President Barack Obama joined the party. “So proud of @TommyCaldwell1 and @KJorgeson for conquering El Capitan,” he tweeted. “You remind us that anything is possible.”
The final day was anything but easy for Jorgeson and Caldwell. They took to the wall about 9 a.m., and after Caldwell finished the first pitch of the day, Jorgeson immediately ran into trouble along a wide crack on an ascending diagonal. It took them 2½ hours to complete that first pitch, and about two more hours to nail the second, jeopardizing their goal of summiting Wednesday.
Considering the duration and intricacy of the overall undertaking — veteran climber and author John Long called it “a beatdown of Homeric proportions” — the Dawn Wallers might have been forgiven for pooping out. But they picked up steam in the afternoon. The final pitch, rated 5.12c, was supposed to be the hardest of the day. They knocked it out in about an hour.
A press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday. Appropriately, it will take place in El Capitan Meadow. Jorgeson and Caldwell can resume eating hot food and showering and enjoying the supreme comforts of mattresses while the rest of us sort out the significance of their accomplishment.
Tom Evans, who writes and takes photos for his El Cap Report blog and has been closely following climbs in Yosemite for decades, doubts anyone else will “push” the Dawn Wall for decades.
The feat took years of planning and preparation. Caldwell began by himself in 2007. Jorgeson joined him as a partner in 2009. They returned each winter, in the narrow window between too-hot and too-wet, to survey the route and practice specific pitches. Added up, each spent close to a year practicing on the Dawn Wall.
El Capitan, first climbed in 1958, has now been summited by many people, along about 100 established routes. However, none of them are as impenetrable as the porcelain-smooth Dawn Wall, which consistently straddles the line between climbable and unclimbable.
Even the Dawn Wall has been climbed, but only by people using ropes and pulley systems to help themselves up. Jorgeson and Caldwell “free climbed” the route, meaning they could use ropes only for safety, not for aid or leverage. When one of them slipped from the rock face, he would fall a short distance — painful sometimes but not fatal — and would then have to return to the start of that pitch. They lost hold so many times during the Dawn Wall ascent that they may have climbed close to 10,000 feet in total, Long estimates.
As impressive as the project was, part of the interest it generated certainly has something to do with new media. Jorgeson and Caldwell used their iPhones to tweet live updates on their progress, and a camera crew suspended by ropes documented their every move. The NBC News feed that drew interest in the meadow was simulcast on the Internet, where people around the world viewed the live footage.
With the global media attention showered upon Caldwell and Jorgeson, Long believes this became bigger than the sport.
“I look at this thing not as a rock climb,” Long said. “It’s another one of those things in a long history of explorers and adventurers and what-have-you, of people just ticking that bar a little higher. I mean, this thing has transcended climbing just like Columbus transcended ocean voyages.”
Those closest to the climbers may have been awed at what they’d witnessed. But their feelings were also tinged with relief.
“I don’t have any reference points to compare what this journey has been like,” said Becker, Jorgeson’s girlfriend. “It’s been this emotional stew, especially for Kevin and those who love him. His challenge has been put in perspective on a global stage.”
And so has his celebration.
Staff Writer Phil Barber can be reached at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post. Staff Writer Matt Brown can be reached at 521-5206 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MattBrownPD.