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Hey, have you heard about the Dawn Wall Project yet?

Submitted by camhead on 2015-01-07 | Last Modified on 2015-01-12

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 6 | Comments: 2 | Views: 20048

by Paul Nelson

Last month, we reported that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had finally freed every individual pitch of their Dawn Wall mega-project, and that now they wished to send the route in their preferred style: ground-up, in-a-go, team-free. With crisp, cool temperatures and sunny winter weather, they’ve been doing precisely that over the past week, and Tommy has now freed every 5.14 pitch on the route. Kevin is still working on a few, dealing with some nagging skin issues (those micro-crystals are sharp, and he has one more finger to injure than Tommy does, ZING!).

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Caldwell after his table saw accident ended his climbing career.

At this point, we know that the climb goes completely free, and it is likely that it will see an ascent in the style that Caldwell and Jorgeson are aspiring toward this season. This is a huge deal. Dawn Wall will be far and away the most difficult big wall free route in the world, with multiple pitches of 5.14+ on one of the most iconic features in the climbing world. In addition to having climbed 5.14 trad and 5.15 sport for over a decade, Caldwell has repeated or FA’d more El Cap free routes than any other climber in the world. In his own words, Dawn Wall has been a sort of “Moby Dick”-like obsession for a half dozen years. He’s enlisted the help of not just Jorgeson, a very gifted and bold climber, but also elites such as Jonathan Siegrist and Chris Sharma in piecing together the complex pitches of insanely techy granite face climbing. I don’t think I’m alone in having thought even as recently as last year that this project would never go. It was just too hard, too big, and Caldwell is approaching his late-30s; over the hill! So, this is awesome.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. Dawn Wall has gotten a lot of coverage in the climbing press from the get-go, with Caldwell and Jorgeson tweeting real time updates, photographers uploading telephoto images from El Cap Meadow, and armchair climbers such as myself posting and reposting their statuses on facebook. For gear companies this has been a great publicity boon, and Caldwell and Jorgeson have done their jobs as ambassadors for their sponsors perfectly.

With this final push for the complete ascent however, the media coverage has exploded beyond the confines of Climbing, Rock and Ice, Deadpoint, and Evening Sends, and set off the radars of the Mainstream Media! ™ This has prompted some hilarious commentary. Climbers have been attempting to explain to non-climbers why this is a big deal; I don’t know how many times I’ve read on my newsfeed that “this is like the Superbowl for climbing!” Or, alternately, climbers angry about all this exposure have gone on rants about how Dawn Wall is killing the real soul of climbing. It's too corporate, man!

Speaking of corporatism, the non-climbing media has been struggling to explain the significance of Dawn Wall in terms that anyone can understand, usually with all the depth and insight of Bill O’Reilly trying to analyze hip hop lyrics. And then, for the worst (or best, depending on your sense of humor) part of this whole media explosion, non-climbing internet commenters have weighed in with all of their infinite wisdom on how ridiculous, reckless, or silly Caldwell and Jorgeson are being.

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Are these reckless climbers on welfare ruining our country with their toplines and clip-ups? You decide!

We’re going to try to condense and summarize all of this circus from the last few days here. Oh, and needless to say, go Tommy and Kevin! This is like scoring a goal unit basket for the universal world cup-o-bowl of curling! Or something. Go team! America!



As the mainstream media (or should I say, LAMEstream media, AMIRITE Baby Boomers?) coverage was ramping up, a concerned climber posted a link on mountainproject to a blog called “FringesClimbing.” Well, actually he linked to his own blog post, but this was very important, so we’ll give him a pass here. Basically, FringesClimbing's point was that the excessive rehearsal, projecting, and most of all the publicity of the Dawn Wall was contrary to the true “adventurous” roots of climbing. This was a step in the wrong direction!

To his credit, “FringesClimbing” emphasized that he was not detracting from Caldwell and Jorgeson’s accomplishments before going into what was wrong with their approach to Dawn Wall. This is kind of like how your uncle always says “I’m not racist, but…” right before he goes into rants about those “inner city kids” listening to “ghetto music” and dressing like “thugs.”

I’m still not sure what exactly FringesClimbing finds so objectionable here. Were I still a college professor, I would tell him, “yes, you have a clear thesis, but your evidence falls short. What are your specific examples of how Dawn Wall is killing the adventure of climbing?

He has a few examples. For one, this is like *gasp* SPORT climbing! Dawn Wall's send will be more similar to Sharma’s redpoint of Realization than to “a bunch of Belgians romping their way up mossy big wall offwidths in the middle of the Arctic with seagulls puking in their faces.” I think that he’s referring here to the Favresse brothers’ exploits on Baffin Island, his idealized pinnacle of true “adventure climbing.” Ahem. Now, I don’t want to detract from the Favresses’ ascent, but they got strong by climbing 5.14 bolted lines in Europe, and plus, they took away from the true soul of their climb by filming it. Soulless! See what I did there, FringesClimbing?

Perhaps Caldwell and Jorgeson could inject a bit more “adventure” into Dawn Wall by, uhhh, I don’t know… Maybe taking more 35 foot groundfalls? Climbing Patagonia 5.11+ in approach shoes as part of a massive enchainment? Or getting kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan? That’s real adventure. These guys could learn a thing or two! Maybe the fact that sport, trad, and bouldering all come together in today’s cutting edge ascents is what gets FringesClimbing so angry. As he says, “if you’re a trad climber or an alpinist, you likely already raise a skeptical eyebrow or two when you think about bouldering or sport climbing.” Well, unless you’re Sonnie Trotter, Matt Segal, Lynn Hill, Hayden Kennedy, Josh Wharton, or, uhhh, about any other major trad climber of the past 30 years who realized that you get stronger by climbing sport and bouldering.

Or is it the massive publicity that is getting this guy mad? It is true that Dawn Wall is getting a LOT of attention, and that Caldwell and Jorgeson are promoting it themselves. But still, remember that TV crews were waiting to greet Warren Harding at the top of El Cap when he topped out The Nose (after a multi-week push), trad purist John Bachar ran through his Joshua Tree solo circuit for the shows “Wide World of Sports” and "That's Incredible!" in the early 1980s, and Todd Skinner was a frequent contributor to National Geographic. Media types change, but the publicity does not.

In the end, I feel silly having even wasted time responding to FringesClimbing, but it comes down to this: climbing has never had a Golden Age, and every jump in climbing has had conservative purists who say “You’re Ruining My Sport!”



As climbers, we often forget that non-climbers really don’t know or care about the intricacies of our sports, even if they are the types of people to constantly follow their favorite sport teams or even obsess about Olympic gymnastics, which has a lot in common with high level climbing. Onsight versus redpoint, aid vs. free, 5.10 vs. 5.14; non-climbers do not care! All they care about is 1) did the climber get to the top, and 2) if he fell would he die? That’s it.

This is why it has been interesting to read through articles such as this by the New York Times, which is clearly struggling to tell its readers why the Dawn Wall is a big deal. Alex Honnold is really easy for couch potatoes to grasp; if he falls, he dies, and he’s REALLY HIGH UP GUYS! But how do you explain what Caldwell and Jorgeson are doing?

We’ve all probably had a conversation at the family reunion or office water cooler that goes something like this:

Climber: “So, they’ve been working on this route for several years.”

Non-climber: “Really? They’ve been up there for that long?”

C: “well… no, they’ve been going up and down projecting it.”

NC: “can’t they just walk around to the top?”

C: “No, this particular route is really challenging. Like a challenging way to the top of a mountain. It's about the journey, not the destination”

NC: “Oh, ok, so nobody has climbed this way up the mountain before.”

C: “well, people have gone up this route by ‘aiding.’ [I now explain aid climbing as nonclimber’s eyes glaze over and he starts drooling. That's understandable. Aid is boring.] These guys are trying to free it!”

NC: [snaps out of the glazed drooling] “Oh! OH! FREE CLIMBING! I know about FREE CLIMBING! That’s where you don’t have a rope like Tom Cruise or the Citibank guy! That’s so badass!”

C: “well, no. They have a rope that catches them if they fall.”

NC: “Okaaaaay? So, they’re trying to do the whole mountain without falling but if they do fall a rope catches them?”

C: “well, they try to do each pitch without falling, which involves rehearsing the moves, then if they fall they have to lower back down and blablabla…”

NC: “Yeah, uh, cool, I’m going to go watch American Ninja Warrior now. Oh and did you see who won the game last night?”


This is why the Times lamely goes through all this awkward metaphor and analogy, talking about “ropes only there to catch them” or “sheer vertical wall!” (whenever mainstream media wants to emphasize how serious a climb is, they have to use the adjective "sheer." It's the law.) Check out this awesome wrap-up of the most hilarious media quips about Dawn Wall.

Furthermore, many Americans view “roughing it” as paying $25 a night for a place to park their motorhome. In a "60 Minutes" piece on Honnold, his interviewer seemed just as intrigued by Alex’s living in a van as she was by his 5.12 solos. Similarly, the Times is fixating on inane (to most climbers) details like “what do they eat?” “how do they sleep?” “How do they charge their phones?” The hardest thing to explain is just how insanely difficult the moves and pitches are that Caldwell and Jorgeson are working on.

And even when news outlets do describe the difficulty of this route, they fall short, saying something hyperbolic like, “this is the hardest route in the world,” or “El Cap is the hardest climb ever!” Actually, Dawn Wall doesn’t have any pitches that are as difficult as Ondra’s Change (5.15c) or any moves as difficult as Woods’s "The Game" (v16). It is the hardest big wall free climb in the world, but even that is not really the reason it is such a big deal. To really understand its significance, you need to understand the logistics of big wall climbing, the aggrevation of projecting something at your limit, the historiocity of El Cap, and Caldwell’s own personal journey from his childhood in becoming America’s best free climber, which has encompassed all disciplines of rock climbing. Got that, Buzzfeed?


3. NON-CLIMBING INTERNET COMMENTORS ARE THE WORST! (You’re off the hook, FringesClimbing)

Despite (or maybe because of) the mainstream media’s coverage falling short of capturing exactly how cutting-edge the Dawn Wall is, internet commenters are not hesitating to step forward and state exactly how reckless, silly, or selfish Caldwell and Jorgeson are in taking on this awesome undertaking. Adventure Journal recently compiled the best internet comments regarding this topic.

Internet comments are like cairns along a wilderness trail: anyone can put one up, they all look superficially like they are official and well-informed, and usually those who spend the most time putting one together are those who should just be shutting their mouths and paying more attention to the surroundings.

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Cairns are less likely to invoke Godwin's Law or utter racial epithets, though

And really, we can’t blame commenters who have been steeped in chain emails about ridiculous lawsuits, or Fox News-style stories that outdoor recreation with The Left and welfare mooching liberals, for getting angry and yelling that Caldwell and Jorgeson are just going to get injured and cost taxpayers millions!

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Wasn't Reagan supposed to get rid of these guys? National Geographic Photo.

Or, well-meaning Leave-No-Tracers who are most concerned that the climbers are defacing the pristine fragile rock of El Capitan (probably while viewing it after driving on roads and through tunnels that have gone through this same rock). Or, avid media consumers who have read about dozens of hikers, drunk redneck cliff jumpers, and “experienced climbers” who have fallen down scree gullies, who just know that these selfish “free climbers” are just going to fall to their unroped deaths, leaving just a trail of blood and grieving relatives! All of these people have opinions!


So, in the end, it come down to this: Dawn Wall is a big deal, and most of us know that it is, though a lot of us– climbers and non-climbers alike– don’t quite know why. Yes, the excessive promotion and media coverage can be overbearing, especially for climbers such as myself who got into the sport from a countercultural position. But this is nothing new, and when we get mad at it, it says more about us than about the route or climbers.

And you know what? Something else MORE AWESOME is going to happen in the future of climbing. 5.13 big walls will get free soloed. Dawn Wall will get repeated in a ground-up push by drunk Belgians. 5.15 big walls will get put up in even more siege-like, “un-adventurous” tactics by Adam Ondra and Alex Megos. Kai Lightner and the Hörst brothers will onsight The Nose but only after their coaches have prehung draws on the whole route. Daniel Woods will establish the world’s hardest big wall after he discovers a 1000 foot 5.9 route that has one v14 move in the middle of it, and then it will be repeated by every gym rat from The Spot. And we, the masses, will continue to pontificate, seeth, and speculate about such accomplishments in between our toprope runs of Horseman, a REAL 5.4+!

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5 out of 5 stars Fun article. Note, I believe the images from the Nat Geo article were shot by Corey Rich.
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The original non-climbing commentator of note was Frank Parckel. After Steve Roper, Glen Denny, and Layton Kor made the third ascent of the Nose in 1963, an event noted in a local newspaper, Roper got a letter from Parckel. I can't post images here, and it is fun to read the original, so navigate over to the Vulgarian Digest at and scroll to page 25.

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