Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s completion of their mega-project, the Dawn Wall free climb, is the biggest news in American rock climbing in a very, very long time — President Obama even tried to give the climbers a call after they topped out on Wednesday, after their 19th day on the wall. The Dawn Wall has been called the hardest big wall free climb in the world, and it’s the latest chapter in the history of difficult, bold climbing on El Capitan, which has been the stage for cutting-edge ascents for more than six decades. Here are El Cap’s hardest and boldest routes throughout its colorful history.
1. The Nose, Warren Harding, 1958
Miffed that Royal Robbins had plucked one of the gems of Yosemite climbing with his first ascent of Half Dome’s northwest face in 1957, Warren Harding spent 47 days on the wall with crew of different climbers over 17 months to notch the first climb of El Capitan, in 1958.
2. Royal Robbins does first solo of El Cap route, Muir Wall, 1968
It took a decade for someone to climb an El Cap route alone, and when it happened it was big wall-legend Royal Robbins. During his nine-day effort, Robbins self-belayed, and once fell and was saved by on a RURP (Realized Ultimate Reality Piton), a piece of gear no bigger than a postage stamp.
3. The Wall of Early Morning Light, Warren Harding, 1970
The Dawn Wall is no stranger to media spectacles: In 1970, when it was known as The Wall of Early Morning Light, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell spent 27 consecutive days putting up the first ascent, drilling more than 300 bolts and, at one point during a four-day storm, refusing rescue from the Park Service. They topped out to find a TV crew waiting for them, and although their climb isn’t considered a classic in the climbing world, at the time CBS News quoted park officials as saying it was "the greatest climb in American history."
4. Sea of Dreams, Jim Bridwell, Dave Diegelman, and Dale Bard, 1978
In a career of ballsy climbing routes, Sea of Dreams was legendary climber Jim Bridwell’s opus, boasting a RURP anchor and several scary pitches (at the time of its first ascent, 12 pitches were rated A5, or "you fall, you die.")
5. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana free the Salathe Wall, 1988
In the first free ascent of a main El Capitan route, Todd Skinner, one of climbing’s greatest pioneers and visionaries, and Paul Piana worked the Salathe for 30 days in 1988, then made the first free ascent in nine days. The climb clocked in at 5.13b, free.
6. Two El Cap routes in a day, Peter Croft and Dave Schultz, 1990
Combining two climbs that each take normal climber four or five days, Peter Croft and Dave Schultz climbed The Nose and the Salathe Wall in 18 hours.
7. Lynn Hill Frees the Nose, 1993
Lynn Hill didn’t want to be famous for just being the best woman climber. She wanted to outdo the men — and she did with her free climb of The Nose, the first ever successful ascent, with it’s toughest pitches rated 5.13c and 5.14b. She accomplished the feat over four days in 1993.
8. Lynn Hill Free-Climbs the Nose in a day, 1994
Hill’s groundbreaking free ascent of The Nose hadn’t been repeated by another climber (and wouldn’t be until 1998) when she returned to the Valley to try to free The Nose again, but this time in a single day. The climb took 23 hours, and established her as one of the rock climbing greats. In many ways, she was twenty years ahead of her time.
(Yosemite Valley showing profile of the 'nose' of El Capitan in midground and the face of Half Dome in background. Photograph by Mark D Callanan / Getty Images)
9. Three El Cap Routes in a Day, 1994
Americans Hans Florine and Steve Schneider blast up three El Capitan routes, The Nose, the West Face, and Lurking Fear — a whopping 65 pitches total — in 23 hours and 1 minute.
10. Nightmare on California Street, Warren Hollinger and Grant Gardner, 1998
The route Wings of Steel (first climbed by Mark Smith and Richard Jensen in 1982) was El Cap’s infamously difficult, and unrepeated, aided climb — that is until Ammon McNeely climbed it in 2011. McNeely wrote that it would be the hardest climb he ever did, but only because of the 20 falls he took on the route. The nearby Nightmare on California Street, McNeely said, had harder individual moves — which is why it hasn’t been repeated since it was put up in 1998. Legendary big wall hardman Brian McCray climbed all but the last three pitches of it, mostly solo, in 2009 and said it was far harder than anything he’d ever done.