It’s difficult to capture in words the painstaking nuance and utter improbability that is really hard, really technical rock climbing such as what is going down on the Dawn Wall this week. Yet it’s worth trying because it’s in those details that climbing is elevated from athletic to aesthetic.
This week on El Cap, two of the best climbers in the world are peaking physically and giving their sport’s greatest venue the performances of their lives. For that reason I think that all the media attention is deserved. Fortunately, Brett Lowell and Corey Rich are up there documenting these efforts. I think we’re all stoked to see the footage that comes out of their cameras this week.
On that note, check out my latest piece for National Geographic, an interview with Corey about his process and some captions to go along with some pretty sick photos.
Progress on the Dawn Wall continues. Last night (1/6) Tommy Caldwell redpointed the “second half” of pitch 16—a long stretch of 5.14a liebacking in a corner just above the dyno. This means that Caldwell has now sent all the 5.14s on the Dawn Wall.
“There’s this big learning curve every year, where you have to re-learn the language of the rock,” explained Tommy, speaking to me on his cell phone during an interview on January 5. “But I feel totally dialed in and fluent to that language right now. Like, my brain is just in sync in with the rock.”
Kevin, meanwhile, has a hole in his finger in one of the worst possible places: far forward on the tip. I know from experience that this is one of the most difficult spots to tape well. By all accounts, he’s as close to sending pitch 15 as you can get.
“The hold he’s falling on is one of the smallest, sharpest holds on the route,” said Tommy. “You can only grab it with two fingers, and both those fingers on Kevin are taped up. It’s makes it a lot harder.”
Explaining Pitch 16: How Tommy got around the Dyno
Pitch 16 is now two pitches. The “Loop Pitch” (a 5.13+/14a) down climb. And a 5.14a corner above it (pitch 17).
The Loop Pitch is Tommy’s crafty solution to avoiding the Dyno—the 8-foot sideways leap that came to be emblematic of the Dawn Wall’s difficulty thanks to various films over the years. Now Tommy reverses 20 feet of pitch 15, down climbs 80 feet, traverses over to a corner and then climbs back up the corner to reach a no-hands stand just above the Dyno. The climbing on the Loop Pitch is 90 percent on top-rope. And at 5.14a, it’s probably the hardest down climb on El Cap.
From that no-hands rest/belay, there’s either pitch 17, or the remainder of pitch 16—depending on how you look at it. Pitch 17 climbs a sustained 5.14a lieback corner. And it’s the last pitch of 5.14 on the Dawn Wall.
The 7 5.14s of the Dawn Wall
On this push, Tommy has climbed a total of 7 pitches of 5.14. By grade, those are:
5.14b (p12, the Molar Traverse)
5.14d (p14, the first crux traverse)
5.14d (p15, the second crux traverse)
5.14a (p16, the Loop Pitch)
What’s Left for Tommy
There are three more pitches of hard 5.13 climbing left before the terrain eases off. Pitches 18-20 go at 5.13c, 5.13c, 5.13d. All three pitches are really long—about 180 feet. Tommy is not treating any of the pitches lightly, despite the fact that they are relatively easier than what he’s already climbed.
“I’m feeling really fit and my body is holding up really well. I’ve been doing wall yoga and push-ups and that’s helped keep my body feeling normal after 11 days on the wall. Eating better food this time has also helped. My skin is thin; that’s the main concern. But all the training I’ve done this year is coming through for me right now.”
Kevin’s Plan for Pitch 16
Kevin’s goal is to try to climb pitch 16 via the Dyno, through to the no-hands stance, and continue climbing the 5.14a lieback corner (Tommy’s pitch 17). However, he admits that it takes a little pressure off knowing that he can always break pitch 16 up into two pitches as well: The Dyno to the no-hands. Then from there up the 5.14a lieback corner.
“I’ve stuck the Dyno several times,” Kevin said to me on Monday. “I’ve even linked it once, climbing from up from the portaledge. I’m not too worried about the Dyno. It’ll taken little while to remember it. I know it’ll come together. I’ve also linked from the no-hands above the Dyno to the top. My intention is to do it all in one because it would be super rad. Then, if I have to adapt, we’ll see how it goes. We’re climbing no-hands to no-hands everywhere else on the wall, so it’s pretty logical if it has to go the other way, too.”
Not bad for Kevin’s first El Cap route
Thus far, Kevin has sent 4 of the 7 5.14s. Two of those 5.14s were his first time redpointing: the Molar Traverse (5.14b) and pitch 14 (5.14d).
Kevin: “Clipping the chains on pitch 14 was definitely a high point. I’d never done that pitch. I fell off the last move about a month ago. I knew it was possible, but that’s still different from having actually done it.
“That’s how all the crux pitches are. I haven’t redpointed any of them [till now]. Doing pitch 12 was memorable. That shut me down on our first push. And it felt like a totally different pitch this year—not even in the same ballpark.
“When I get to the top I’m going to drop my harness and never put it back on again. [Laughs]. I’m not literally going to do that, by the way.”
The Pitch 15 campaign
A redpoint of pitch 15 has, thus far, eluded Kevin. The battle, in his words:
“You have to climb a long section of 5.13c just to get to the crux of pitch 15. So you have to endure a lot of crimping. Basically what will happen is that my tape wraps separate from each other. At the crux, the strip will peal away and cause a little rolling.
“The move is that you take that crimp and picture manteling it in order to move left. You’re not just pulling straight down on that edge because you have to do an iron cross. There’s so little friction on that hold that I can’t move as statically as I need to. And the left hand I’m moving towards is really bad. You have to hold this position while you shuffle your feet and get your left heel on. It’s a long time to spend on those little razors.
“It’s definitely a pain tolerance and friction type of crux. The moves are hard but the issues is, you have to want to grab. And you have to not give a fuck about how much it hurts. Which is kinda hard to do.”
The Media Frenzy
No other climb has been as well documented as the Dawn Wall. The New York Times has a reporter in Yosemite covering this ascent. Major television networks have covered the ongoing process, to the forehead-slapping chagrin of the core climbing community.
For Kevin and Tommy, there has been a level of balance and discipline between trying to focus on the grand adventure and experience as it unfolds, as well as broadcast the news via social media as it happens.
Tommy: “I almost feel obligated at this point to continue posting. It’s been a tough balance. I’m not doing a ton of interviews. It was something I was really uncomfortable with at first. But I feel such overwhelming support from the climbing world. I’ve gotten such great feedback that I feel obligated at this point to continue posting to Instagram and Facebook. It’s become such an integral part of this climb.”
Free Climbing, Not Free Soloing
Of course, the general public has continued to make the understandable error of conflating free soloing and free climbing into one interchangeable term to describe what a bunch of thrill-seeking yahoos with a death wish do on the rocks instead of go to the mall and buy more shit they don’t need like most people in America.
And yet … From my perspective great advances have been made in terms of educating the general populace about the nuances of climbing. I think it’s worth being thankful for the fact actual roped rock climbing—something akin to what all of us go out and do every day, albeit on our own vastly more mediocre levels—is generating headlines. And not free soloing this time. That’s great for the sport climbing in general.