This past Friday night, climber Kevin Jorgeson broke through the wall, climbing the most difficult or “crux” fifteenth pitch on the Dawn Wall making it more likely that he’ll be able to join his partner Tommy Caldwell in the first successful “free” climb (using gear only as protection in case of a fall) of one of El Capitan’s most brutal and featureless walls. The pair are hoping to top out some time later this week. Jorgeson still has several more difficult pitches before he arrives at the point that Caldwell has already reached, separated from the summit by about a thousand feet, or ten pitches, of “easy” 5.12 climbing. We caught up with free-soloist Alex Honnold, who’s planning on tackling Cerro Torre in Patagonia with Caldwell in February and he explained to us why he’s glad he’s not on the Wall with his friends.
If Tommy had asked you to come along for this trip, would you have thought this might be a fun thing to do?
I don’t know. I don’t think I could have. I’m like totally psyched to help him out like day-trip style but I don’t know if I’d want to go up and live on the Wall for two weeks.
Have you ever done a siege-style climb like this?
I’ve been on [El Capitan] for four or five days trying to free routes but I’ve never been on the wall for two weeks. That’s kind of like a different level. What people maybe don’t appreciate is how hard it is to be living on a wall. I mean they haven’t walked in two weeks. They’ve just been laying and standing and pulling really, really hard on small holds. So the fact that they’ve had to recover and stay well-fed and hydrated and take care of their bodies while just like laying in a cot. Imagine getting out of your hospital bed and doing like the hardest rock climbing that’s ever been done and then getting back on your hospital bed. Like, ‘oh, now it’s time to recover.’ It’s not like taking a shower and stretching and taking a stroll for a little a bit. It’s hard living.
What makes the toughest pitches on the Dawn Wall tougher than most anything anyone else would free climb?
So the hardest I’ve ever climbed is like 14c [as in 5.14c] and the hardest climbing on the Dawn Wall is 14d. People just assume I must be some great climber but I’m like, ‘yeah but this is even harder than anything I’ve done.’ It’s really, really hard. The holds are just a little bit smaller and little bit further apart. There’s no exact science to it. It’s just really frickin’ hard.
Do you know Tommy’s partner Kevin?
I know him well. I actually competed with him when we were kids [in northern California], youth comps, climbing in the gym. He was much stronger than me and he’s still much, much stronger in terms of like brute climbing. He’s much stronger than Tommy in terms of like pure pulling. So I competed with him a bit and he always crushed me like a little worm.
Kevin’s had a problem with his fingers right?
Yeah, his skin is all torn up. I talked to Tommy on the phone [on Friday] and he said that when Kevin stuck the crux, when he did the hardest part of the hardest pitch last night, his index finger like split in five places. Like a pincushion, little holes that popped open in all these places, blood everywhere. When you’re squeezing that hard…
Stuff comes out.
But Kevin’s back on the move.
Kevin sent the hard pitch yesterday and he sorta did the next one so he’s like basically good now so Tommy’s supporting him to help catch back up. Tommy has now free-climbed up to Wino [Ledge] which is one of the towers up there. He has ten pitches left to go. If it was just him and if the weather started to come in or it was just time to be done, he could probably free the top in like three hours. He’s pretty much done. He saw a weather forecast that was kind of so-so so he texted me to see if I would be open to the idea of supporting him to the top if like things went bad and they had to divide and conquer. And obviously, I was like, yes of course, no question. But he was just idly wondering. The weather now actually looks pretty good. So, basically Tommy has like a thousand feet of 5.12 to go and then Kevin has the 14a pitch and like three 13 plus pitches and then the thousand feet of 5.12. Which sounds daunting for Kevin a little bit.
Even just the thousand feet of 5.12 doesn’t sound like a walk-up.
Well, relative to 14d it is. Even someone like me who hasn’t worked all those pitches could probably go up and do ten pitches of 5.12, like not that big a deal. Even if you fall off one them, like rapid-fire, you go, ‘oh I should have used that foot,’ and you do it again and you’re done. Being able to do ten pitches of 5.12 in a day shouldn’t be a big thing. I mean 14d is really like fucking hard.
I can’t imagine.
I can’t either really.
Did Tommy or Kevin imagine that it would take this long and if it did, that it would become this media sensation?
They knew it was going to be at least two weeks. So they’re still well within their expected time frame. I doubt they expected anything close to this level of media. Tommy accidentally dropped his phone off the wall. I called him on one of the photographers’ phones yesterday. He was like, ‘it’s actually kind of sweet this way,’ because he’s like a little more detached from it. There is this feeling of obligation that you should keep up. If your wife is being like, ‘Oh, you should see this thing on ABC. I can’t believe the CNN piece.’
Someday will somebody free the Dawn Wall without protection?
Free solo it? No, never.
Beyond the limits of human beings as we know them?
Yeah, I feel very comfortable saying that. And just motivation-wise, I don’t think anybody would ever want to.