The first free ascent of the Dawn Wall took seven years from its inception. Yesterday, Adam Ondra topped out the route after just a few weeks’ work during his first trip to Yosemite.
Ondra had three goals for his first trip to the Valley: free the Nose (5.14a, Grade VI) in a day, onsight the Salathe Wall (5.13b, Grade VI), and make the second ascent of the Dawn Wall (5.14d, Grade VI). He arrived with little experience in trad and Yosemite-style granite climbing.
Wet conditions early in the trip forced Ondra straight onto the Dawn Wall.
“Foolishness, lack of respect, or boldness? Well, not necessarily any of it,” he said in a dispatch to Black Diamond. “The Dawn Wall just dries up quickly after the huge rain on Sunday.”
In three days, Ondra had fixed ropes up to pitch 16. His goal then was not to free each pitch, but to scope out the beta and protection. The initial assessment left him impressed.
“These pitches are not only bold, but freaking hard too!” said Ondra. “Definitely no easy grades for these ones—Tommy and Kevin are tough guys!”
Following two days of rest, Ondra attempted to free the Nose in a day, climbing with his father. At first it seemed he might pull it off. He onsighted everything until the first crux pitch, The Great Roof. Ondra fell three times, before giving up his free attempt and moving on. He ultimately onsighted every pitch but The Great Roof (5.13c) and Changing Corners (5.14a). The pair topped out at midnight in the rain, followed by an unplanned bivvy.
“Full alpine experience, as we did not find the descent route in the pissing rain, and had a wet and cold bivy in the little cave, before we finally got to the car at 9 a.m.,” said Ondra. “The Nose is one of the most famous climbs in the world and I am super glad to have climbed it with my dad, even though not free. A big day out.”
After the Nose excursion, Ondra returned his attention to the Dawn Wall. Ondra worked the pitches on the Dawn Wall from roughly October 27 through November 10.
On November 3, Ondra topped out the Dawn Wall, having fixed ropes on the route from the ground up. For the next week, Ondra focused on dialing in beta for each pitch, hoping to have every pitch sent and ready for a push of the entire route. He followed a two days on, one day off schedule, spending the majority of his time on the first half of the route. Pitch 14, the first traverse pitch and one of the crux pitches, gave Ondra trouble during this time.
“I tried pitch 14 [5.14d], where I still had no idea what to do on the last boulder problem,” Ondra told Black Diamond. “After a little session, I could finally do the moves and soon after I gave it a go, but realized that my beta for the intro-moves on the last boulder problem didn’t work. It took me a lot of time, skin, frustration, and swearing to finally find a satisfying sequence, but I was exhausted and my skin thrashed. I still gave it another go that night, slipped on the first boulder problem, but then continued to the anchor, which gave me a lot of confidence that next time it should work out.”
Though he had not sent Pitch 14, Ondra began his final Dawn Wall push on November 14, supported by fellow Czech Pavel Blazek. He started at an astounding pace, climbing the first nine pitches in just six hours. That’s two pitches of 5.12b, one 5.12d, one 5.13a, three 5.13c’s, one 5.13d, and one 5.14a.
Adam’s first challenge came at pitch 7.
“Even though it is all on fixed gear, it is protected only by beaks and copperheads,” he said. “Not the most reliable protection, but I kept my head cool—until my foot slipped and I fell. The protection held and I lowered myself down, pulled down the rope and headed back up there.”
He would take a few more falls on pitch 8, completing it just in time to beat the sun. Ondra followed Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s example, climbing in the late night and early morning hours to get the ideal friction provided by cool temperatures.
For day 2, Ondra planned to climb pitches 10-13 (5.14a, 5.13c, 5.14b, and 5.13b). He expected an easy day, but found the opposite.
“I hate pitch 10 (5.14a, but I would almost say 5.14b). It is all laybacking—smearing your feet against nothing (sometimes wet nothing)—and the harder you try, the harder it gets,” he said. “I knew it would be good to send the pitch first go, which almost worked out. I had my face at the belay, but I wanted to move my foot more right and stand up onto the no-hands rest. And somehow—I still do not know how it happened—I was in the air. Devastating.”
The Molar Traverse (pitch 12, 5.14b) also took Ondra by surprise. Though it’s one of the overall crux pitches, the powerful, bouldery moves fit his style and did not present a significant challenge when he was working the route. This time was different.
“On my first go I fell off two meters from the anchor, because a little crystal broke,” said Ondra. “The next go, I slipped on the same move even though I was relaxed, very careful and focused. On my third go, I fell on the lower boulder problem. It was obvious that I had to send the pitch next go, otherwise I would be stuck! I entered the zone, focused, and despite the fatigue I fired it off.”
Ondra took one rest day following his success on the first 13 pitches. He started up pitch 14 on his fourth day of the push.
Pitch 14 is the first of the Dawn Wall’s two 5.14d pitches, and it shut down Ondra hard. He fell seven times before calling it a day. He voiced his frustrations in an Instagram post:
“Damn! Climbed super poorly, so much pressure, so nervous! Needed seven tries to make it through the first boulder problem on pitch 14, a boulder problem that I never really found very hard before, but somehow felt really hard today. I slipped on my first try, then on my second try, then just freaked out and felt so insecure with my feet trying to climb as carefully as possible but kept slipping nevertheless. Then, on my seventh try, I did the boulder problem, and fell from the last move. Hard to find some optimism, but I will try it again tomorrow and hopefully with better mindset.”
Day 5 went better. Approaching the pitch with a different mindset, Ondra fired it off first try. “I tried to make jokes, being relaxed and focused only just before the climbing,” he said.
Ondra was then able to continue through pitch 15, the route’s other 5.14d, in just two attempts, despite his skin getting questionable.
On day 6, Ondra faced pitch 16, the infamous dyno pitch. Though completed by Kevin Jorgeson, Tommy Caldwell was forced to find an alternate path to circumvent the jump. Tommy’s variation, which involves downclimbing below the dyno pitch, then climbing back up around it, is known as the Loop Pitch. Ondra considered both options.
“I tried the dyno a few times in the last weeks, but I thought I would have to invest considerable effort into the dyno with insecure results,” he said. “That is why I decided to climb the Loop Pitch.”
After succeeding on pitches 16 and 17 (there is a rest between the two pitches, but no belay), Ondra decided to continue up to Wino Tower. Here, he found that the crux was the state of his feet. After so much hard climbing, Ondra reported that his feet were so painful and weak that he was shaking. He resorted to climbing slowly and methodically for the rest of the day, which allowed him to reach Wino Tower above pitch 21. Wino Tower is a huge milestone. It means the hardest climbing is over. Above it, all of the pitches go at the (relatively) comfortable 5.11 and 5.12 range (despite one 5.13 boulder problem near the top).
Rain forced a rest day for Ondra’s seventh day on the wall. He waited out the weather while planning the final summit attempt for Monday, November 21.
On November 21 at 3:29 p.m, eight days after beginning his push, Adam Ondra stepped onto the summit of El Capitan, completing the Dawn Wall and marking the route’s second ascent.