On Dec. 21, I wrote a story about Santa Rosa native Kevin Jorgeson and his rock climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell, and their attempt to free climb the toughest route in Yosemite National Park — most would call it one of the most arduous routes in the world.
By now, Jorgeson is halfway up El Capitan, having just completed the most difficult segments of the route. Caldwell is beyond that stage already, waiting for his friend. Their odds of completing the climb look pretty good.
In the last week, Jorgeson and Caldwell have gone from folk heroes in the localized world of rock climbing to full-blown media sensations. The New York Times offered an in-depth feature on the Dawn Wall Project on Monday. Since then, every news outlet from NPR to the South China Morning Post has reported on the climbers’ progress. Thousands of Americans seem to be breathlessly following their progress.
After years of chipping away at the project in relative obscurity, Caldwell and Jorgeson have become instant messy-haired celebs. And along with that has come the backlash.
The Adventure Journal website ran a rather hilarious collection of negative comments that followed the NYT story. “Tom Cruise did something like this for that movie Mission Impossible…,” one comment began. “These two are an argument against Universal Health Care…,” another started.
My recent Press Democrat updates on the Dawn Wall climb generated far fewer comments, but many of those that did appear were scolding. Several readers characterized Jorgeson and Caldwell as narcissists, scrabbling up the face of El Cap solely for attention, or perhaps for money as well. (“Nothing to do with media yet he posts on one of the biggest social media websites out there?” one wrote archly.) Some wondered why the climbers weren’t “working,” whether they were defacing the granite and whether we taxpayers are underwriting their health insurance.
On some level, I get the response. I am a long-time reader of Outside magazine. And while I still appreciate the vivid writing in that magazine’s travelogues and eco-political exposés, I sometimes wince at an underlying ethos that seems to encourage risk and inflated image.
We live in an age when someone of even moderate means can design a grand outdoor adventure — one for which he/she might not actually be prepared — and then document the excursion in nauseating detail via social media. Some of these adventures go wrong, and it feels like our culture of over-documentation must bear some of the responsibility for the expense of rescue and, worse, loss of life.
That, I believe, is the place from where the Dawn Wall backlash emanates. And it seems so misguided.
I don’t think Jorgeson and Caldwell are doing much damage to El Capitan (modern climbing equipment makes it easier to leave-no-trace), and I don’t think they’re sponging off the rest of us. They have various “jobs” in the climbing industry, including education and promotion, and I don’t think either lives like a king. I’d say they have forfeited a lot of financial gain to do what they love, and what’s the harm in that?
The safety issue seems a bit misplaced, too. People do die on El Cap, as they do in other lovely corners of the natural world. But most often these are people who put themselves at great risk through hubris or ignorance. “Free climbing” a rock face does have its dangers, including falling ice and tumbling equipment. But for climbers as experienced and detail-oriented as Caldwell and Jorgeson, we’re talking about risk of injury. Risk of death seems much smaller for them than their drive down Highway 99 to get to Yosemite.
Finally, there’s this notion that Jorgeson and Caldwell have found a novel way to shout “Look at me!!” Rather than climbing El Cap, they might have chained themselves to the Liberty Bell or led an ocelot through the streets of San Francisco on a leash or attempted to make the Baltimore Ravens in the 2015 edition of “Hard Knocks.”
None of which adds up. These guys have been working on this project for six years, with very little attention outside of “the climbing community.” This winter, they headed back to El Cap for another crack, preceded by the blast of approximately zero trumpets. It was only a week into the climb that the world suddenly went crazy for them.
And yes, Jorgeson and Caldwell have offered regular updates via Facebook and Instagram, in lieu of granting in-depth interviews during the attempt. You know, their friends and colleagues just might want to know what they’re up to. And while they seem to be a bit freaked out by the attention, of course they’re not going to run from it. The ink is good for their sport, good for the next generation of climbers, and it may bring them additional sponsorships, which would allow them to keep climbing.
When I spoke with Healdsburg climber Jeffrey Quigley for a story earlier this week, he was disdainful of the haters, referring to them as “people who live in concrete boxes.”
It’s probably helpful for climbers to be at least somewhat sympathetic to those who don’t understand the sport. But I can see why Quigley is frustrated. There are many times in life when it’s good for all of us to question motives, to let our inner cynics emerge. And there are times when we should just climb out of our concrete boxes and appreciate the amazing talent, and epic quest, to which we are introduced.
This was originally published on Phil Barber’s 110 Percent blog. This blog entry and others can be accessed at 110percent.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.