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The Dawn Wall Goes Free!

Photo: Chris Burkard / Patagonia

1/14/15 – At 3:30 p.m. Pacific Time, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, achieving their years-long goal to free climb the 5.14+ route. They spent 19 days on the wall. This has been called the hardest big wall free climb to date, and it is truly a historic achievement that might not be repeated for years to come.

It was eight years between Tommy Caldwell’s initial spark of an idea and the completion of the route. Caldwell didn’t even believe he could ever do it in the early days. Instead, he filmed a section for Brett Lowell’s “Progression,” hoping to inspire someone else to try. Kevin Jorgeson saw the film in 2009 and was so struck by the idea of the challenge that he emailed Caldwell to see if he wanted a partner. The pair have been the primary team since then.

The first ground-up attempt happened in 2010. The team would spend several months battling the blank wall until Yosemite storms shut them down for the season. In 2011, Jorgeson’s season ended early when he bruised bones and strained ligaments in his ankle during a fall on pitch 16’s notorious dyno. An accident in 2013 put Tommy Caldwell out of commission for a couple months when a haulbag fell 200 feet while tied to his harness, tearing cartilage in his ribs.

Photo: Ted Distel/Adidas Outdoor

This year was relatively smooth in comparison. The team opted to make their ground-up push farther into winter than ever before, and they have attributed some of their success to the cooler temperatures, which provide optimal friction on climbing shoe rubber and skin. Tommy Caldwell managed to climb the pitches without any major setbacks. A new variation called the Loop Pitch allowed him to climb below the pitch 16 dyno, which had been his crux in the past. The variation still involved 5.13/5.14 downclimbing, but Caldwell dispatched it without trouble.

Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent saw more drama. He spent days stuck at pitch 15 with split tips and taped fingers. The miniscule edges he needed to hold were impossible to navigate with anything but clean, healthy skin. It came down to the wire. If Jorgeson took any longer, Caldwell, who was five pitches ahead, would have had to push on without him. But Jorgeson pulled through. On his seventh day working the pitch, he sent it and maintained momentum to catch up.

While some people have criticized the media circus surrounding the project, Dean Caldwell, who made the first aid ascent of the Dawn Wall with Warren Harding in 1970, was nothing but inspired.

“I admire these guys!” said Dean. “I see little similarity between the Yosemite climbing of today and that of the ’60s, but the spirit is the same. They’re doing it. It is a moving thing to see.”

See our complete 2014/2015 Dawn Wall coverage.

Tommy Caldwell (green) and Kevin Jorgeson run to the finish of the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. Photo: Chris Burkard / Patagonia
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A soon-to-be historic hug at the summit of the technical climbing.
Tommy Caldwell celebrates on the summit with wife Becca. Photo: Chris Burkard / Patagonia
A topo of the route. Photo: Nate Ptacek / Patagonia