On November 21, 2016, after an eight-day push, 23-year-old Czech climber Adam Ondra topped out the 32-pitch Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on Yosemite’s El Capitan, a line many consider the hardest free big wall on the planet. With eight pitches of 5.14 and 12 pitches of 5.13, the route garnered mainstream-media attention in January 2015 when Tommy Caldwell, who had put seven years of work into exploring and freeing the route, and Kevin Jorgeson nabbed the first free ascent after 19 days on the wall. Ondra, who had never been to the Valley, trad climbed, or been on a big wall before, nabbed the second ascent, thanks in part to his support team of Pavel Blazek and Heinz Zak.
Although Ondra has ticked some of the planet’s hardest sport climbs and boulder problems, critics assumed the experience-driven discipline of big wall free climbing would shut him down. Despite success that seemingly came easy, conditions, skin, and the route’s pure technical difficulty posed challenges along the way. Caldwell, Jorgeson, and Ondra spoke to us about the nuts, bolts, and near-invisible micro-crimps of this historic ascent.
The El Cap Explosion
Many hard sends went down on the Big Stone this Fall
“We just entered the gold rush,” Tommy Caldwell says of the numerous free-climbing achievements on El Cap in fall 2016. Austrian Jorg Verhoeven made the second ascent of Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a); Austrians Babsi Zangerl and Jacopo Larcher made the third ascent of Zodiac (VI 5.13d); and England’s Pete Whittaker rope-soloed Freerider (VI 5.12d) in a day.
Not all the free activity on El Cap this year was limited to repeats, however, with Rob Miller working on a free line through Grape Race, and Nik Berry and Mason Earle freeing the majority of Never Never Land on the west side. “In terms of free climbing, I would expect [many] more free climbs to be found,” Ondra says. “And possibly lines that would be even harder than Dawn Wall. It depends if somebody will be willing to put the same effort as Tommy into one line with insecure results.”
But Caldwell, who has five first free ascents on the granite monolith and has freed the formation 20 times, doesn’t think anyone will come close to Ondra’s feat. “Adam is a bit of an outlier,” Caldwell says. “El Cap free climbing is going to steadily gain popularity with or without his climb. I doubt that the Dawn Wall will see many, if any, ascents in the coming years.”
New to Yosemite Climbing, Ondra experienced a steep learning curve
“I came to the Valley as a sport climber, thinking that I can climb reasonably in the terrain, and all the other stuff [offwidths, technical smearing, laybacking], I will pick up,” Ondra says. On his first day, he thrashed up Generator Crack (5.10c), a short roadside offwidth-to-squeeze chimney, with cams that didn’t fit. A few days later, he started up the Dawn Wall, where he fell on thin and technical pitches a number grade below his normal 5.14 onsight level, ripping gear. Later that week at Swan Slab, Kevin Jorgeson taught Ondra how to jumar, a rudimentary skill for Yosemite wall climbers.
“It showed how humble he is,” Jorgeson says. “He doesn’t mind not knowing what he doesn’t know, and was able to ask for help.”
The Big 3
Ondra came to the Valley with three ambitious goals
Ondra arrived in October with three objectives: free the Nose (VI 5.14a), onsight Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b) in a day, and free the Dawn Wall. He climbed the Nose in a day with his father, freeing all but the two crux pitches. They topped out at midnight just before a rainstorm. Unable to find the East Ledges descent, the pair spent the night on top of El Capitan, sheltered in a cave. As for his other goals, Ondra wasn’t bothered when he failed to complete them. “Not climbing, not even trying the Salathé due to poor conditions the last week of our stay is not a problem, as succeeding on the Dawn Wall is utterly satisfying,” Ondra says. His next big goal is a project in Flatanger, Norway, something he calls the hardest sport climb he’s ever tried. The Dawn Wall made him excited to continue trad climbing on big walls and at shorter crags where he doesn’t need to headpoint. Regardless, he plans to spend more time in California: “Let’s see what the future brings, but I am sure this was not my last time in the Valley.”
The hardest big wall has the most questionable pro
Most of the climbing on the Dawn Wall involves fixed protection, clipping suspect fixed aid pro instead of bomber pro. “On the first 21 pitches I placed only 10 cams,” Ondra says. “The rest is all fixed gear. Mostly bad ones, beaks and heads.” Used as aid protection in hairline cracks, a beak has a tapered nose that climbers pound in. Aid climbers employ heads for seams, smashing copper or aluminum into the rock, relying on soft metal to bite into the stone. Tommy Caldwell added 30 bolts to the line, with half of them protecting the traverses on pitches 14 and 15.
“I was all for this approach, although it took me a long time to get remotely comfortable with the idea of clipping beaks as pro,” says Jorgeson, whose first El Capitan ascent was also freeing the Dawn Wall.
Climbing above the thin pins proved scary for Ondra. “It makes some of the pitches much more demanding, like pitch 7 and 10,” says Ondra, “and adds the right spice to the complexity of the climb.”
The Support Team
Ondra stood on the shoulders of a strong team for his ascent
Heinz Zak, an Austrian born climber, documented and assisted Ondra on the Dawn Wall. Zak spent an extensive amount of time in Yosemite in the early 2000s, documenting the Huber brothers and climbing, making an early ascent of the Freerider and free soloing Separate Reality (5.11d). “His book Rock Stars is one of the reasons of my motivation for climbing and Yosemite,” said Ondra. Zak provided much of the inspiration and strategy for the ascent. Fellow Czech climber Pavel Blazek helped Ondra as well with the labor on the wall, saving energy for Ondra and allowing him to climb more. When asked about the usual heavy ratio of climbing to toiling and laboring on wall routes, Ondra responded, “As Pavel did most of the hauling, I found the ratio to be pretty good.”
A Quick Tick
The FA party took 19 days on the wall; Ondra took 8
“I don’t see the time thing as overly significant,” Caldwell says. “Except when you consider that Ondra had barely trad climbed before this trip to Yosemite.” Caldwell invested seven years swinging across the Dawn Wall, attempting to link features and figure out beta. Ondra began his ascent by fixing ropes from the ground, up the entire wall. Then, for two weeks, he worked the techy crux traverses on pitches 14 and 15 as well as other hard sections, attacking the line in almost a sport climbing style. “Even though it might look similar to old-school limestone sport climbing in Europe, it is not,” Ondra says of the technical, vertical style. “The other things, like being exposed on a big wall and insufficient recovery on the portaledge, do not change it that radically. You just face the same goal in the end like on a single-pitch sport climb: send the pitch. You are just a little more tired.”
Jorgeson and Caldwell rated the twelve 5.13 pitches and eight 5.14 pitches in relation to the hardest ropelength—the pitch 14 traverse—which Jonathan Siegrist helped confirm at 5.14d. The only grading discrepancy between the first ascensionsists was a difficult flare pitch near the top. “I told Tommy I thought it was 14d,” Jorgeson said. “He assured me it was 5.12. I shrugged my shoulders and said OK. He made it look 5.9.”
Ondra concurred with the difficulty of the climbing. Says Ondra, “Normally, the grades on multi-pitches are soft compared to the grades at the crag because the complexity of the whole big wall is included—which is something I strongly disagree with—as well as adding the psychological factor to the actual grade.” Even after a month of work, Ondra still found the climbing to be insecure, adding to the difficulty. “Grades on the Dawn Wall are as hard as any crag, [and] all the pitches around 5.13c and 5.13d are sandbagged,” he says.