The Dawn Wall
The centre of the universe
from the stories of Tommy Caldwell and Adam Ondra
The Dawn Wall, on El Capitan, Yosemite,
is considered the most difficult big wall route
in the world. Freed by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin
Jorgeson between 2014 and 2015 after seven years of efforts,
it was repeated by Adam Ondra, who freed it in November 2016
One of my earliest memories as a kid, I think I was about two and a half, is with my dad somewhere up a mountain in a blizzard. I don’t know what my dad saw in me - I was a geeky kid - but he had that philosophy: prepare the kid for the road, not the road for the kid.
We lived in Estes Park in northern Colorado, and I’m still there. It’s got the best mountains for rock climbing in the state - right around my house. We’ve had bears break into the house and a mountain lion taking down elk right outside our back door. I started climbing as a kid around here, and by 14 I was making a bit of money out of competitions. Climbing as a profession didn’t really exist, but I knew this was what I wanted to do.
I started travelling and I’ve climbed in a lot of places. When I was younger, I’d rent a car for a month in the south of France with four other climbers and just climb and sleep in ditches - super dirtbag poor. I’ve climbed in the UK. Everywhere really, including Patagonia in 2014 with Alex Honnold where we climbed the Fitz traverse. But despite everything Yosemite Valley has always been the center of my universe.
I’ve been going every summer since I was a child. I love everything about that place: waterfalls, the compact and coarse rock, the sky and then its climbing history, the history of its climbers fascinated me. I did my first big wall - 900 meters - with my dad when I was 12. Later, I’d be up at Yosemite with my own friends, doing my own projects. I kept going back and its big walls became an obsession. I’ve always loved almost impossible projects, pushing one’s limit, with very little possibility of making it. Climbing free the Dawn Wall is something that took me seven years of my life, seven years of training and planning. I designed a new type of shoe, the TC Pro. TC are the initials of my name and surname, I’m happy that this shoe is named after me. I developed a special ointment to mend my fingertips; I built replicas of particular moves in my back garden then practiced over and over again. I went pretty deep - even now I could talk you through every single move of the line - I did it so many times. It was like a giant body of knowledge that had to be gained.
Free climbing a big wall over several days is like running a giant construction project: constantly making lists, rigging ropes, organizing food, figuring out camera angles - but you’re in this crazy place, hundreds of meters from the ground, with your best friends and it does take on a party atmosphere sometimes, like a big dudes’ camping trip. We drank whisky at night and watched Netflix movies hanging on our portaledges, until it became normal. It was all quite bizarre.
For two seasons we failed at the same place: on the 14th pitch, about halfway up. We’d get there and there’d be storms, or my fingertips would wear out. It was a particular move that I could barely do even if my skin was good and I hadn’t spent a week climbing to get there. I had to learn how to get there faster, before my fingers gave out. But this time my climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson’s skin gave out and we had to wait on a ledge for a week, crowdsourcing taping techniques, eating special food, using special cream. The moment we broke through that section was pretty amazing although there were still two more really hard pitches to do, before the end.
. Funnily enough, the moment when I topped out we finished everything, was one of the most stressful moments of the entire adventure. I just wanted to go home, to my wife and son. Instead I had 10 hours of television interviews to do. And the obsession was over. Nothing would remain. The intensity and effort needed for such a project make you addicted to what you’re doing, you’re with your best friends in scary situations, they become your family. You bond more. The relationships are extraordinary. Sometimes I ask myself: how can normal people become close and have empathy with others without climbing? Everything just gets more intense and brighter, if I climb. What really drives me is the exploration of self - the curiosity. The desire to discover. It’s a great way to figure out who you are and what you are made of.
People ask me what’s next, but there’s been lots of times in my life where I’ve worked up to a big climbing goal and said: Yeah! It doesn’t get any better than that. And this happens all the times, so you never know, you can never see those coming, you just do what you love and something pops up. Climbing is just like any other job or passion, at the end of the day, maybe to build the best climbing shoe on the market is the same, at some point you say: we can do anything better than this. But you know you are going to do something better pretty soon. This is the way it is working.
«I remember the first time you showed me this pitch. I thought you were crazy for thinking it would go free».
Kevin Jorgeson, about pitch 15 of Dawn Wall.
«Compared to Tommy, I knew climbing the Dawn Wall was possible, and that was a great advantage. Tommy spent three years trying to send it, not actually knowing if there was actually a link between the first thirtheen pitches of Mescalito and Early Morning Light. His aim was to free climb both routes and then see if the two could be somehow joined together. This is simply rad»
Adam Ondra on one of the crux moves of the Dawn Wall (C) Heinz Zak