The Dawn Wall is a documentary about the life of climber Tommy Caldwell, culminating in first free* ascent of a 3000-foot sheer wall on El Capitan in Yosemite with his partner Kevin Jorgeson. During Tommy’s early years, he learns climbing from his father, whom he finally surpasses in his mid-teens. Tommy’s victory at age 16 in the International Sport Climbing Championship in Snowbird, UT launched his professional climbing career.
In 2000, he and three other climbers traveled to the Kara-Suu valley in Kyrgyzstan on a climbing expedition. While they were 1000 feet up a wall, Uzbek rebels fired on them and forcing them to rappel down. The four rebels marched them around the wilderness for six nights, hiding them from Kyrgyz army patrols during the day. At the end, they were left alone with only one of the rebels, at which point Tommy pushed the rebel off a ridge so they could escape to the safety of a Kyrgyz army post. He describes that experience and subsequent path to climbing the Dawn Wall in this talk. [spoilers]
One of the members of the Kyrgyzstan expedition was Tommy’s girlfriend, whom he later married. They climbed Yosemite together for years but ultimately parted. In the meantime, Tommy lost his index finger to the first joint to a table saw. After his accident and divorce, he became monomaniacally focused on making the first ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Tommy enlisted Kevin Jorgeson, climber skilled in bouldering* but not experienced in big-wall climbing. Tommy had carefully surveyed the wall, looking for cracks and ledges to find a route. The route he identified was 32 pitches* and would require at least two weeks to complete. They would sleep on portaledges* take turns leading.* Both climbers would have to complete each pitch without falling. If either one fell, he’d have to return to the beginning of that pitch and start again. They planned their expedition for the winter because the rock is stickier when it is cold.
After years of preparation, the duo took up the challenge in January 2015. Tommy was able to complete his pitches with comparatively little difficulty but Kevin got stuck for several days about halfway up. As they were overcome with fatigue after a couple of weeks of living on the wall, they agreed that Tommy should complete the climb by himself. I won’t spoil the ending. The film has some incredible close-up footage taken by videographers who hung down from ropes anchored at the summit during the climb.
If you’ve read this far, you might wonder what possible appeal this somewhat dangerous activity might hold. As a former climber, I can shed some light on this. Rock climbing is an exercise in problem solving. The rock presents the leader with a puzzle in route-finding. A climbing guidebook can only tell you roughly where to go but you still must find the hand- and foot-holds, decide how to distribute your weight on them, and where to put in protection.* You must also judge if the protection will hold should you fall. The nut* pictured on the right saved me from falling to my death on a climb many years ago. That’s not as big a deal as it sounds; climbers often fall on the lead. In their ascent, Tommy and Kevin both fell dozens of times. Each time I watched one of them smack the rock face after a fall, I felt the ouch. And each time, protection failure would have meant death. I keep that nut hanging on my closet door to remind me of the fine line between life and death, or in this case, the thin rope.
The film is available to stream on Netflix.
free climbing: Ropes and other equipment are only used to limit how far a climber can fall, hence limiting injury, not to help in the ascent. The climber can only use hands and feet.
pitch: a segment of a climb, about one rope length (~100 ft.)
protection: temporary attachments of the rope to the rock using nuts (chocks)
nut: a wedge- or hexagonally-shaped metal device, to which the rope is attached, that can be jammed into a crack
lead: the climber that ascends first, installing the protection as he goes
belay: to pay out the rope to the leader as he ascends, ready to arrest the rope should the leader fall
portaledge: accommodation for rest and sleep on multi-day ascents, pictured in the movie poster above
bouldering: free climbing short, difficult rocks that typically does not require protection