Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of our print edition.
The Dawn Wall was pretty cool, I guess, but it could have been radder.
If your response to this expertly crafted sentence is “What’s the Dawn Wall?” my reply is “Give this computer back to its rightful owner. You are not a climber, if you are even a human.”
If you love rock climbing or just have a pulse, the Dawn Wall was impossible to miss. It was the highest profile climb I’ve ever witnessed in my 25+ years of Yosemite climbing, and, dare I say, it was the weirdest climb ever, too!
Perhaps there is some sort of karmic media energy attached to the Wall of Early Morning Light on El Capitan, because the last time there was even close to this much hype surrounding an El Cap ascent was when Warren “I’m insane” Harding and Dean “me too” Caldwell scratched over the top on the first ascent of this same wall after an epic, wine-fueled aid climb.
This time, thanks to social media and smartphones, Tommy and Kevin brought us 5.14d big wall selfies, daily finger-skin progress photos, and professional quality imagery of delicious-looking, gourmet bagel sandwiches. These guys were eating better than I was in the comfortable confines of my condo in Boulder, Colorado, thanks to a dedicated team of “dirtbag sherpas” who ascended the lines daily to replenish the climbers with fresh lobster tails, caviar, chocolate-dipped strawberries, and bottles of Cristal.
When Tommy and Kevin weren’t eating like kings or wrestling technical, dime-size, fingernail crimpers and microscopic foot nubbins, the weather-worn duo could be found napping, watching Netflix, and answering bad questions from uninformed reporters by phone. Mainstream media, which operates with the collective intellect of a five-year-old child with a head injury, had decided that this climb was a big deal, but had no real idea why. In their desperate struggle to understand what the heck was going on up there on that blank, unforgiving wall of stone and why it was so important, they came up with the comical but essentially accurate fact that they were climbing the face using “only their hands and their feet.” I’d like to point out that they also used their elbows and knees, among other things!
To add to the world-class mass-media circus, the entire climb was documented by Big UP Productions, who had a team of cinematographers living on the wall with the climbers, documenting every high-step, gaston, and trip to the poop tube. The film crew weaved a wild spiderweb of up-ropes, side-ropes, down-ropes, and middle-frontside-kickflip ropes in order to shoot every gritty moment in mind-blowing HD. We’re talking perfectly lit cinematography that’ll make Avatar look like The Andy Griffith Show and The Amazing Spider-Man look like he was climbing 5.4. At times there was a small city living up there, complete with accompanying traffic jams and light pollution. Tommy and Kevin even took advantage of the camera operator’s lights to illuminate the gnar they set out to redpoint each evening.
To make matters even more odd, they climbed in the middle of winter. The send of the century owes a debt of gratitude to fossil fuels, CO, coal-burning power plants, and my old Corolla, because thanks to global warming, Kevin and Tommy enjoyed three weeks of nearly perfect climbing weather in January. They dodged an ice bomb here and there, but one of the top threats to their success was that it was too hot to climb during the day! They waited until nightfall to climb, a lesser-known benefit of which was that it gave their stylists plenty of daylight to get their wardrobe and hair just so.
And the whole epic ordeal unfolded in real time thanks to NBC’s live feed! Two weeks in, some cynics were calling it the “Yawn Wall” because watching these guys pushing the outer limits of big wall climbing was slower than watching paint dry. I myself was on the edge of my seat. Because I have free climbed El Cap, I know that it really isn’t over till it’s over on that big ocean of stone. For this reason, the Dawn Wall started to really stress me out. For God’s sake just send this thing already so I can go back to my life! And then, finally, thanks to tenacity, titanium tendons, a dedication to training, and the winter sun, the Dawn Wall went free! When have you ever witnessed something like that live on your laptop?
By the time they stumbled to the top, Tommy and Kevin were gods among men, and the media machine only gained steam. The climb was heralded as the hardest big wall free climb in the world, galaxy, and universe. I was so inspired I wanted to chop off my finger so I could be more like Tommy, who apparently shouted too much encouragement as Kevin tried like 579 times to redpoint pitch 15. He appeared on SportsCenter and Today and wasn’t even able to speak! His labored efforts to answer reporters’ questions sounded like Gollum with strep throat.
Where could climbing’s hardest and weirdest feat go from here but to the plush couches of The Ellen DeGeneres Show? “Everything about what you were doing was dangerous,” Ellen declared, after Tommy tried to explain that free climbing El Cap is actually relatively safe. She delved into the finer aspects of cutting off a finger with a table saw, and then sent them on their merry way with five-year subscriptions to Netflix and a bottle of whiskey, which if you guys aren’t planning to use one or the other, might as well drop them by the Climbing magazine office.
But my lame jokes aside, the Dawn Wall has forever changed the lives of not just Kevin and Tommy, but really all climbers. In many ways this is an infinitely wonderful and positive occurrence. Climbing has gotten some of the recognition it deserves as one of the most athletic and demanding sports in the world. The general public is maybe 10% less clueless about what it means to climb a rock. Some people may even now know the difference between free soloing, free climbing, and summiting Everest!
And, for once, whether or not the media had any clue why it was so hyped, the spotlight was legitimately well-placed. This is truly a new level in difficulty on El Cap. But to be fair, it was actually a step back in style, compared to other El Cap free climbs. Many of Tommy’s other difficult El Cap ascents were done in true “capsule style,” with no one bringing them food, no pink-pointing, and in several cases, such as Magic Mushroom and the Nose, Tommy went back to free climb these routes in a day, arguably the final step in perfect style, save perhaps a free solo or the coveted onsight, naked, barefoot, chalkless free solo.
That’s the great thing about climbing, it’s as much art as sport. There are no absolute rules save the ones we arbitrarily define, and so much about climbing is not about “winning,” but about style. I bring up the fact that there is room for improvement in the style of this remarkable ascent not to be a jerk—believe me, I might as well be the president of Tommy’s fan club—but because this throws down the gauntlet for future generations of climbers to improve on the style in which the Dawn Wall was climbed. What an opportunity!
When I asked Tommy what some of his stylistic compromises were in freeing the Dawn Wall, he said, “We fixed ropes, worked things top-down, put in bolts top-down, used porters, had photographers up there with us, and we stashed gear!” That’s what I love about Tommy, he’s a no-bullshit guy, and the first one to admit areas where there was room for improvement.
At the end of the day climbing is supposed to be fun, and Tommy put it this way: “I viewed the Dawn Wall as a game with rules that we made to format the best possible experience. But, unlike baseball, football, or any organized sport really, big wall free climbing has no rule book or judges, so we get the privilege of endless debate.” Having known him for a long time, I’m willing to bet that somewhere in the back of his mind he’s entertaining the idea of heading back to the Dawn Wall for a purer ascent, so I asked him what he thought perfect style was. He responded, “Onsight, in a day, two people, both freeing every pitch. No help from anyone—or onsight free solo.”
Of course, improving on the style of the Dawn Wall is easier said than done! It could be 20 years before someone even repeats the Dawn Wall, but eventually I believe, or at least hope, that it will be freed onsight, then freed in a day, and then, perhaps a thousand years from now it will be repeated onsight in a day! To me that’s the beauty of climbing. There is always progression. I asked Tommy where he thought future generations would take El Cap free climbing, and he said, “I think it will go in a lot of directions. There are so many ways to improve on style. Easier routes will get done faster and onsight. People will climb existing routes ground-up without the use of fixed ropes. El Cap will get free soloed. Harder routes will be found, and people will work the crap out of them the way Kevin and I did.”
As weird as the circus around it was, the Dawn Wall is a peek into the increasingly cutting-edge future of big wall climbing. Just as climbers in the 1960s would have found it hard to imagine that El Cap would regularly get free climbed, we can’t fathom what incredible feats future climbers will pull off on that wall.
So, does Tommy think that one day someone will walk up to the Dawn Wall with no beta and onsight the route in a day? He summed it up pretty well by saying, “It’s hard to imagine that right now, but El Cap has proven time and time again to be bigger than imagination.”
Cedar Wright is a contributing editor for Climbing. He’s a professional climber, filmmaker, and world-class goofball, residing in Boulder, Colorado.