Great Moments in Climbing on Yosemite's El Capitan

Credit: Tom Frost / Getty Images

With Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell halfway through their (planned) two-week attempt to become the first to free climb (using ropes only for protection, not as climbing aids) El Capitan’s 3,000-foot sheer granite Dawn Wall, it’s easy to forget that El Cap was once considered impossible to climb — on any wall, under any circumstance. We look back on this imposing monolith, now considered the standard for big wall climbing.

1958: Warren Harding, Wayne Merry, and George Whitmore were the first to climb El Capitan, ascending the massive prow — known as The Nose — between the rock formation’s two main faces. The feat took 45 days over 18 months, and relied heavily on aid climbing (using rope, pitons, and bolts to ascend). Today, The Nose may very well be the most famous rock-climbing route in America, and takes climbers about four days to complete. 

1968: Royal Robbins completed the first solo ascent of El Capitan in 10 days, using a route known as the Muir Wall, originally established in 1965 by Yvon Chouinard and T.M. Herbert. Today, the 5.9-rated, 32-pitch route is considered one of El Cap’s greatest natural lines (second only to the Salathé Wall), and is among the longest. Average time to climb is five days.

1970: Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) became the first to ascend the “Wall of Early Morning Light,” now better known as the Dawn Wall, using aid-climbing techniques. The Dawn Wall is El Cap’s steepest and tallest, and considered the most dangerous. The two garnered national news attention by refusing the National Park Services rescue attempt after a nasty four-day storm, instead offering them wine.

1973: Bev Johnson and Sibylle Hechtel nabbed the first all-female ascent of El Capitan using the Triple Direct Route (first 10 pitches of the Salathe Wall, continuing via the Muir Wall, and finishing on the upper pitches of The Nose). Johnson went on, in 1978, to complete the first female solo ascent of El Cap, using the Dihedral Wall. 

1988: Todd Skinner and Paul Piana made the first free climb ascent (using ropes for protection, not as climbing aids) on El Capitan, using the Salathé Wall — today widely regarded as one of the greatest rock climbing routes on Earth. They spent 30 days practicing on the wall, and then completed the ascent in a nine-day push.

1993: Lynn Hill, a rock climbing legend in her own time, became the first person to free climb The Nose, after four days of climbing. She returned the following year to attempt to free climb it in a day, reaching the summit in 23 hours and forever raising the bar on big wall climbing.

2005: Tommy Caldwell and his wife Beth Rodden became the first couple to free climb The Nose, taking four days. Caldwell came back two days later and did it on his own in just under 12 hours. And then, in case his dominion wasn’t clear, he came back in two weeks and did it again, then descended and immediately climbed Freerider, a route that other climbers take four days to ascend. Total time for the back-to-back ascents: 23 hours and 23 minutes.

2012: Alex Honnold stunned the climbing community (and garnered mainstream coverage in the New York Times) by becoming the first person to free solo, climbing without any ropes or protection, the west face of El Capitan, and then the first, along with Tommy Caldwell, to free climb the Triple Direct Route, which took them about 21 hours.

2014: On December 27, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson began a two-week (though it will likely take longer) project to free climb the 32-pitch Dawn Wall, an effort eight years in the making. At press time, they had made it through the 14th pitch—considered the toughest—and we’re working on pitch 15. If successful, they will have completed what’s arguably the hardest rock climb on the planet.