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