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.
He also teamed up with Rusty Klassen, a television producer and marketing director who happens to be a senior adviser to the Sonoma County Water Agency, to start a sports agency called Pro Climbers International in 2009. The agency develops and promotes athletes, and organizes events and instructional tours around the United States.
The same year that he launched PCI, Jorgeson approached Caldwell about the Dawn Wall.
Caldwell has a depth of experience in Yosemite, and especially on El Capitan, and it was he who first schemed in earnest about the Dawn Wall. He climbed with aid or rappelled down the length of the wall, and pieced together a route he thought was possible. Then he sort of gave up.
Maybe three narrow ledges
“I thought it was too much for me,” Caldwell said from his home in Colorado.
But a videographer friend convinced him to make a video depicting the climb, and that film grabbed Jorgeson’s attention. He and Caldwell had been “teammates” under Marmot, though Caldwell is about six years older and the two men had rarely climbed together.
Jorgeson asked Caldwell if he wanted a Dawn Wall partner, and was surprised to hear that he might.
“I knew Kevin was a strong boulderer, that he was really accomplished on short climbs, and this climb actually has some tough boulder sections,” Caldwell said. “And I knew he was a hard worker and a good guy. So when he expressed interest in the climb, I didn’t know for sure if he’d be a great partner, but thought I had nothing to lose. It turned out he quickly got pretty obsessed.”
Their goal was daunting, to say the least.
Serious free-climbing pitches are graded on the Yosemite Decimal System. Though the scale is imperfect, anything above 5.10 is considered advanced, and anything above 5.13 is the realm of elite climbers. Only a few in the world (including Caldwell) have sent a 5.15.
The Dawn Wall route is broken into 30-plus pitches, and includes, by Jorgeson’s quick count, nine rated 5.13 and six rated 5.14. Some of the latter are in the 5.14d subcategory; they are superbad. There are a very small number of easy hand holds, and maybe three narrow ledges to stand on.
The problem isn’t any one tricky move (or “crux”) along the way. It’s the cumulative effort, which is bound to leave even the best climber exhausted, raw-fingered and mentally depleted.
“To give you perspective, the most time I’d ever put into a single project was maybe two months, spread over a couple years,” Caldwell said. “This one, we’ve put in maybe 13 months over six years (before this fall). It’s a lot harder.”
Fingertips rubbed raw
Caldwell estimates they have spent more than 200 days on the wall.
Increasing the challenge is the small window in which he and Jorgeson can attack the task. The Dawn Wall is a fully exposed southeast face. If the ambient temperature reaches even 50 degrees, the heat bouncing off the rock will make a climber’s hands sweat and melt the rubber soles of his or her climbing shoes, making a push impossible.
So Jorgeson, 30, and Caldwell, 36, climb the Dawn Wall only in the colder months. This year they arrived in Yosemite on Oct. 16. They spent about a week schlepping hundreds of pounds of gear up hiking trails to the top of El Capitan, from where they lowered it to two temporary base camps. They began practicing specific portions of the route, climbing largely at night to avoid the heat.
Then the storms started to roll in, which is not uncommon. Jorgeson and Caldwell can’t climb in heavy rain. (Jorgeson returned to Santa Rosa this week to ride out the recent downpour.) And the only thing more dangerous than heat is falling ice after a snowstorm. In effect, the Dawn Wall duo is limited to calm, dry days with temperatures in the mid-40s or below. The window usually closes in January. Last winter was so warm, they headed home before Christmas.
If the weather doesn’t give out, their bodies might. Some years, the climbers call it quits because the granite rubs their fingertips raw. They’ve had injuries, too. Jorgeson hurt his ankle three years ago and had to back off for the rest of that season. Last year, Caldwell’s haul bag took a 200-foot plunge and yanked hard on the back of his harness when the rope ran out of slack, tearing cartilage from his ribs. He sat out for several weeks.
It could be worse, of course. People die climbing El Capitan, including two in a two-week period in May-June, 2013.
Every portion now solved
If Jorgeson and Caldwell are in Yosemite just three months a year, they are never far from El Cap, at least not mentally. Caldwell created a training wall at his home simulating one of the Dawn Wall’s more acrobatic moves.
“This very clear objective drives my climbs,” he said. “All year long I’m thinking about it.”
Both men have envisioned fixes in their dreams. That worked in the past for Jorgeson, who once had a dream about solving a particular crux on Ambrosia, and found that it actually worked when he returned to the boulder. Alas, their Dawn Wall dreams have provided no real answers.
Fortunately, Jorgeson is able to file specific moves in his brain in amazing detail. Not infrequently, he will call ahead to his partner, perhaps 60 feet away, and remind him of the tiny crack he can grasp to his right.
“I could tell you the hand and foot sequence for all the cruxes,” Jorgeson said.
Having “redpointed” individual pitches over several seasons, making minute refinements and working through mistakes until that portion is solved, he and Caldwell have now completed every stage, at least individually. Caldwell solved the final puzzle, pitch No. 14 — a right-to-left traverse with three distinctly vicious cruxes — in November.
“We’ve climbed it in so many individual and overlapping pieces, we know it goes,” Jorgeson said. “An analogy might be the Tour de France, with all its stages. You can ride each individual stage. But if you don’t really complete the race, there’s no significance to the tour, unless you put it all together. … For us, the goal is to start on the ground and ride the whole race.”
Jorgeson believes they will try to push the route when the weather clears. If so, they’ll sleep 1,000 or 2,000 feet in the air, on suspended sleeping planks called portaledges. A successful push would take two to three weeks, but of course there is no guarantee it will happen.
“It’s easy to look back and see how far you’ve come. But it’s really hard to tell how close you are to the finish line,” Jorgeson said. “… We could do it in the same season that we free all the pitches, or it could be two or three more seasons before we put that all together.”
Jorgeson doesn’t sound frustrated by this uncertainty. He and Caldwell are taking sort of a zen approach to the Dawn Wall Project, figuring their only time constraint is their own mortality. Because let’s face it, El Capitan isn’t going anywhere.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.