For a few thousand years, human beings gazed up at El Capitan and reasonably concluded that it was impenetrable. We are, after all, talking about the largest granite monolith in the world, a column of stone that rises 3,000 feet off the floor of Yosemite Valley.
Then came the rock climbers, with their ropes and pitons and curious lack of fear. Dozens of people have free-climbed El Cap by now, mostly along 20 or so major routes that follow distinct systems of cracks and carry names like The Nose, The Prophet, El Niño and Lurking Fear.
But one vertical section of the chiseled stone behemoth remains unconquered. It is called the Dawn Wall, and from a distance it appears as smooth as a kitchen countertop.
“You look at it, and you’re like, that is porcelain,” Kevin Jorgeson said. “Day One, when Tommy and I met in the meadow to climb for the first time, I knew roughly what section of wall it was, but I literally couldn’t see a weakness in the wall.”
Where most would have taken the hint and moved on to other ascents, Jorgeson and his climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell, have allowed this chunk of El Capitan to become their obsession. They launched the Dawn Wall Project in 2009 and have returned to the scene every year since, gradually solving its mysteries and rehearsing for a final performance.
In rock climbing, an unbroken bottom-to-top ascent is called a push. Jorgeson and Caldwell might push the Dawn Wall this winter. Or they may never do it.
“What makes this route special is that it rides that line of impossible so frequently without being impossible,” Jorgeson said.
He noted that glacial granite climbs tend to be all or nothing: That is, reasonable for an accomplished climber, or entirely out of the question. The Dawn Wall route manages to straddle the two categories, repeatedly tantalizing its pursuers with barely executable holds.
A pitch is a portion of a climb that can be protected by one rope length, and Jorgeson said, “I can think of a ton of cases of certain pitches on that route where if one crimp that you’re grabbing onto wasn’t there, you literally couldn’t climb across the face, and there wouldn’t be a route. There would be no Dawn Wall. But it’s all there.”
His first sponsor at age of 16
Jorgeson grew up in Santa Rosa, and by the age of 11 he was a regular at Vertex Climbing Center on Coffey Lane. He lined up his first sponsor — Marmot apparel and equipment, founded in Santa Rosa and now based in Rohnert Park – at 16, while he was at Maria Carrillo High School, and was climbing more or less full time by 21.
As an adult, Jorgeson first made his mark in highball bouldering, which involves solving technically difficult problems on big boulders, usually with some risk of being injured in a fall. Among Jorgeson’s achievements, he was the first person to ascend Ambrosia, an unfriendly rock in the Buttermilk Country near Bishop.
From there he advanced to free climbing, a frequently misunderstood term that means “free of aid” but allows the climber to use ropes for protection. Jorgeson has climbed all over the world by now — Austria, Japan, Brazil, South Africa — and has attracted some renown in the sport.