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Santa Rosa climber's El Capitan success came down to battered fingers and a single, tortuous move (w/video)

1/16/2015:A1: AT GROUND LEVEL: Kevin Jorgeson of Santa Rosa, left, and Tommy Caldwell of Estes Park, Colo., on Thursday describe their experience completing the first free climb of the Dawn Wall route up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park a day earlier to media representatives assembled in El Capitan Meadow. JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat PC:Kevin Jorgenson, of Santa Rosa, and Tommy Caldwell, right, talked to the press after completing the first free climb of the Dawn Wall route of El Capitan yesterday. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

PHIL BARBER , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The Dawn Wall climbers were seen in a new light Thursday — the dappled sunlight of El Capitan Meadow, rather than the blinding glare and dark shadows of the 3,000-foot granite rock on which they had lived for nearly three weeks.

Assembling for a final news conference in the meadow the morning after they achieved the first free climb of the famously formidable route up El Cap, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell seemed no worse for wear, other than rubbed-raw fingertips and the dry rasp that had replaced Caldwell’s voice.

“Honestly, the thing that hurts most right now is our legs from hiking down, because we haven’t used them in 19 days,” said Jorgeson, 30, a Santa Rosa native. “And aside from the skin on my hands, body feels fine.”

Gaelena Jorgeson, Kevin’s mom, had dined with him the night before. He had tucked into a good-sized steak, his reward after cooking on a small camp stove for 19 days.

“Look at them, they’re like movie stars,” said Gaelena Jorgeson, who lives in Santa Rosa, nodding toward the climbers as they walked down the road toward the meadow, surrounded by a swarm of cameras. They were up before dawn Thursday to tape spots for the national morning shows, though Caldwell could barely manage a whisper at that hour.

Yosemite National Park chief of staff Mike Gauthier addressed the media at the press conference, as did Yosemite Climbing Association founder and president Ken Yager, who offered a brief outline of other pioneering ascents in the valley before adding: “Tommy and Kevin’s climb has proved that there is still a Golden Age in Yosemite climbing, and we’re in the midst of it.”

And yet they nearly didn’t make it to the summit. Five days before achieving their moment of glory and worldwide celebrity, Jorgeson was stuck halfway up El Capitan, unable to get through Pitch 15. A pitch is a segment of a climb that can be protected by one rope length; there are 32 along the Dawn Wall route.

Jorgeson previously has discussed his struggles on Pitch 15, but he and others added detail in interviews Thursday.

Jorgeson’s troubles actually began before he got to 15. He split open the tip of his right index finger on Dec. 28, the second day of the climb, and did the same to his right middle finger on Dec. 29. This was a concern, considering the cold, dry weather in Yosemite this winter.

Those conditions are perfect for big-wall climbing, and good for protecting fingers, which harden up in the cold. Once they do tear, however, they heal more slowly.

Still, Jorgeson taped his fingertips and managed to overcome the pain over several days of climbing — until he hit Pitch 15, an 80-foot lateral that runs right to left across the face of El Cap. Bridging that traverse requires a climber of average height, like Jorgeson, to fully extend his arms outward from the shoulder while balancing on a precarious foothold. One of the handholds in that position places heavy weight on two fingers — the index and middle fingers of the right hand, precisely the ones that Jorgeson had ripped open. Those fingers squeeze downward on a knife edge of granite. The rock ripped the tape off Jorgeson’s fingers, then cut through the skin, time after time.

Caldwell sent the pitch efficiently, but Jorgeson fell off 10 times in a seven-day period. Twice he took days off for rest — long days in which negative thoughts would begin to creep into his mind.

“It really did feel like a matter of time, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my doubts and frustrations going through that process,” Jorgeson admitted.

He fought the doubt by staying busy. While Caldwell worked ahead on the route, Jorgeson used a jumar, a mechanical system that climbers use to ascend a rope, to get a better look at footholds, his nose 6 inches from the rock. He’d bring a climbing shoe and step on the hold at different angles. Jorgeson tried new ways of stretching to maximize his flexibility, and pampered his battered fingers by filing down shavings of skin with sanding blocks and applying various kinds of salves. He obsessively studied weather reports. He took a lot of ibuprofen.

He also spent hours visualizing a successful run on Pitch 15.

“Every single move. I probably climbed the pitch a hundred times in my head over those rest days,” Jorgeson said.

On the ground, hundreds of miles away, loved ones fretted. They knew the climbers had worked together on this route for seven years, and were determined to finish together. If Jorgeson couldn’t get through 15, Caldwell would have to go on without him, or both would be forced to give up for the season.

“It was heartbreaking, hearing that he fell again,” said Eric Jorgeson, Kevin’s father, who lives in Nampa, Idaho. “Those days when he’s attempting and failing, for a parent, it’s a natural feeling of you want your kids to succeed. And when they’re not, and you know, you worry about them.”

Of course, it was hard for Caldwell, too. He didn’t want to abandon his friend. He also didn’t want to miss his opportunity to climb the Dawn Wall, and he was on a roll.

The two climbers never had “the talk.”

“I asked him at one point, I was like, ‘Do you know, is there gonna be a point? Are you guys gonna have that discussion?’ ” said Rebecca Caldwell, Tommy’s wife. “And he’s just like, ‘I’m not even going there.’ It wasn’t a thought in his mind. And I’m just assuming if any inkling of it came up, he just suppressed it down right away.”

Anyway, there wasn’t much to talk about. Both climbers knew the hour of reckoning was approaching. Caldwell remained patient and supportive. Just the same, he privately spoke to elite climber and friend Alex Honnold about the possibility of supporting him should Jorgeson have to drop out.

Jorgeson’s breakthrough came in video form. He asked action-sports videographer Kyle Berkompas to put together clips of Jorgeson’s eight slips (to that point) on Pitch 15. Jorgeson logged onto the site Vimeo and viewed the unedited footage while suspended on the wall in a portaledge.

“Which was probably not a good idea to watch, because it kind of reinforces it,” Jorgeson said of his troubles on the crux move. “But I took it from an academic point of view.”

Watching each of those eight failures, Jorgeson noted that the position of his right foot had altered ever so slightly on the rock, and it wasn’t getting purchase. “I knew that I had to change that foot angle, and once I figured out the sequence that would allow me to do that, I was confident I would make it happen,” he said.

Jorgeson gave Pitch 15 another shot last Saturday, and fell two more times. On his final attempt of the day, he cut his index finger in five places in a desperate push from the rock. Blood exploded from the digit in several directions. Had he fallen, he would have entered another cycle of rest days. But he stuck the move. He had finished the toughest pitch along the route.

Eric Jorgeson learned the news in a text from Jacqui Becker, Kevin’s girlfriend.

“I started crying,” said Eric, a man who looks like he doesn’t spend a lot of time weeping. “I’m tearing up just thinking about it right now.”

Ultimate success was far from guaranteed, but those closest to the climbers knew in their hearts nothing would stop them.

“Not after that,” Gaelena Jorgeson said. “Once they got past the crux, I knew it was done.”

Buoyed in spirit, Jorgeson completed two more sections Saturday. Soon he would catch up to Caldwell, and they would again team up in an attempt to free climb the route. They would struggle in places along the way, but eventually would scramble onto the rim of El Capitan on Thursday, greeted by well-wishers that included Becker, Eric Jorgeson and Rebecca Caldwell.

Tommy Caldwell won’t rest long. He intends to take on some serious climbing in Patagonia, Argentina, next month. Jorgeson planned to rest up a bit and then do some simple bouldering.

“I’m looking forward to some Type 1 fun,” Jorgeson said. “You know the fun scale? Type 1 is fun when you’re doing it, and fun when you look back. Type 2 is not fun when you do it, but fun when you look back. Type 3 is not fun no matter how much time has passed. The Dawn Wall is so emotional, so intense — a lot of Type 2.

“I’m really looking forward to having some Type 1 fun climbing experiences.”

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