After 19 days, 3,000 feet, and more blood and skin than they’d likely care to think about, Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson summited El Capitan’s foreboding Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park. Greeted at the top by their significant others, a bevy of media, and a congratulatory call from the President of the United States, the pair couldn’t have known that the collective years of preparation for this ascent coming would land them squarely in the world’s spotlight.
This was the first time the Dawn Wall has ever been free climbed–that is, scaled using only the natural features of the granite face and sheer strength of mind and body, with only a rope to catch them if they fell.
“When we first climbed the North American Wall on El Cap in 1964, we thought, ‘Well, that proves that any big wall in the world can be climbed.’ We never dreamed they could be climbed all free,” said Patagonia founder and climbing pioneer Yvon Chouinard. “Sending the Dawn Wall leaves Pope Francis with no choice but to admit our closest relative is the chimpanzee.”
The mood at the summit was, predictably, excited.
“It’s incredible. There are tons of people up there, camera crews, all of Tommy and Kevin’s friends and family, they had two bottles of champagne at the top.”
It’s been a good year for Caldwell, who is in the running for National Geographic’s vaunted Adventurer of the Year award. He has a new baby, too, who was staying with his grandparents down on the valley floor.
“Both of those guys are really humble, so I’m sure they’re going to be overwhelmed by all of the attention,” said Jess Clayton, a member of Patagonia’s marketing team, who sponsors Caldwell. “It’s going to change their lives. And it couldn’t happen to better people.”
Adventure photographer Chris Burkard was at the top for the final pitches.
“You could see them rallying, and just struggling over these last pitches that normally would be so easy for guys like them," he said. "It was insane. They looked so beat, they looked like they had just totally eaten crap. They’d been on the wall for 19 days, crapping on porta ledges. They really wanted to make it before dark. When they got to the top there was a little ledge, they got to have a cool little hang out with just them, and then they joined the crowd.”
Yosemite has a long and storied history in the climbing word, essentially giving birth to not only to many of the sport’s legends and characters, but also to the overall subculture of adventure seeking outdoors folk. From a motley crew of vagabonds who gathered there in the early 1960s emerged not only stories and records but some of the major makers of outdoorsy stuff that is fueling the fire for the outdoors – the North Face, Patagonia and Royal Robbins.
The lineage of climbing, from those few original self-described dirtbags all the way to modern times, is now punctuated with Caldwell and Jorgeson’s successful siege. It’s laid out in the award winning documentary Valley Uprising which is streamable starting today, with footage from the last fifty years that details, among other major climbing feats, Caldwell’s years of preparation for the now successful expedition. Check that out below, as well as an exclusive clip from the film.