Inside Kevin Jorgeson’s Historic First Free Ascent on Higher Cathedral Spire

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Kevin Jorgeson on the first free ascent of the Blue Collar route on Yosemite's Higher Cathedral Spire.Ryan Sheridan

Two and a half years, multiple climbing partners, and chossy rock didn’t stop the co-star in Dawn Wall from completing his historic climb. 

When Tom Frost and Royal Robbins — legendary climbers from Yosemite’s Golden Age — made the first ascent of the Northwest Face of Higher Cathedral Spire back in the early 1960s, they regarded it as difficult and committing as the Northwest Face of Half Dome. Aid climbed over two days, the duo placed nearly 200 pitons and six protection bolts. (Aid climbing means using equipment placed in the rock for upward progress.) In the decades since, the route had fallen into obscurity, dwarfed by El Capitan across the Valley floor. That was until Kevin Jorgeson made it his free climbing project.

After completing the Dawn Wall with Tommy Caldwell in winter 2015, considered by many as the most difficult free climb in the world at 5.14d and 3,000 feet, Jorgeson began focusing on lesser-known formations in the park, routes rich with history. In 2017 he and Ben Rueck free climbed Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Tom Frost’s West Face of Sentinel Rock. After that, Jorgeson turned his attention to Higher Cathedral Spire. For the next two and a half years he worked on the climb, searching for an all-free passage. He started the project with aid-climbing specialist Ryan Sheridan, then recruited professional free climber Ben Rueck, who nearly took the route to the top but tweaked his shoulder. With Rueck out, Sheridan was back in, and he supported Jorgeson on his in-a-day free ascent of the 1,200-foot 5.13 they called Blue Collar.

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Kevin Jorgeson on the first free ascent of Blue Collar on Yosemite’s High Cathedral Spire. Ryan Sheridan

“When I got on board,” Rueck said from a climbing trip in Greece, “Kevin was stuck on the 13d pitch [crux]. I ended up figuring out small pieces of beta and I got it first, and Kevin got it a few days later. Then we checked out the next crux pitch higher up. I got hurt on pitch 7 and everything went wonky from there.”

Sheridan followed the climb by using handled ascenders that he slid up the rope. He belayed a Jorgeson and carried food, water and jackets.

“It’s not cutting edge [like the Dawn Wall],” Jorgeson says, adding, “it’s about the process.”

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From ‘Blue Collar,’ the recent film on Kevin Jorgeson and Ryan Sheridan’s ascent on High Cathedral Spire, by Digital Stoke Media. YouTube

Busy with life as a husband, father and founder of the nonprofit 1Climb, Jorgeson could only make it to Higher Spire during brief time windows. In addition to his nonprofit, he’s building a 23,000-square-foot climbing gym in his hometown of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Today with the Spire now behind him, he’s focusing on doing short, powerful climbs on the California coast and growing 1Climb that builds climbing walls near Boys and Girls Clubs of America and aims to bring the sport to 100,000 kids.

“This is where I put my energy,” he says. “We have 14 projects funded and in various stages of being installed. I was just in Denver on Tuesday (December 17) for a grand opening of a 1Climb there.”

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