Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s winter 2015 climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite could be considered the most extraordinary rock climb of our generation. Well, that and Alex Honnold’s ascent this past spring of a less impossible El Cap route without the protection of a rope. The documentary film, The Dawn Wall, which opens September 14 in New York and LA, and then five days later in over 500 cities, captures the desperate intensity required for this first “free” climb of the route. That is, Caldwell and Jorgeson pulling and pushing themselves up the face solely on their fingertips and toes, using gear only to protect falls, not to haul themselves up on.
The Dawn Wall clip is courtesy of The Orchard and Red Bull Media House. [Editor’s Note: This clip features brief graphic content, which may disturb some viewers.]
Caldwell who first began mapping out the route in 2009 was the first person to even imagine that this seemingly blank, featureless expanse of granite could be climbed free. After partnering up with Jorgeson, the pair would spend a major chunk of the next five years dangling off fixed ropes trying to connect the dots, linking up minuscule cracks, nubbins, and edges so that one day it might be climbed in a single multi-day push. In The Dawn Wall, climbing eminence John Long calls the three-week ascent of the 3,000 ft. face, “the most continuously difficult rock climb ever done.”
Here’s what you need to know about their climb, the new film, and the exclusive clip, above.
How did the filmmakers shoot the up-close footage of two climbers suspended on a rock wall thousands of feet off the ground?
The film’s co-director Josh Lowell and its primary videographer, his brother Brett Lowell, were with the project almost from the beginning. Brett spent months, spread over the course of years, hanging from a 3,000 ft. fixed rope to record Caldwell and Jorgeson trying to work out the most difficult pitches. And falling a lot. When the final push began in late December 2015, Brett essentially lived on the wall, sharing a portaledge (collapsible sleeping platform) with Caldwell. Jorgeson, who liked his personal space, had the portaledge next door.
Caldwell was the driving force behind the climb. Why did the media’s attention shift to his partner, Kevin Jorgeson?
Jorgeson had the bad fortune to get stuck on one of the climb’s two crux (hardest) pitches, halfway up the wall, just as the world was tuning in. New York Times correspondent John Branch wrote a front-page story on the climb-in-progress, matched with an arresting photo of the two guys plastered on the face. That, in turn, set off a global media feeding frenzy with, by climb’s end, no less than 15 TV trucks parked on the El Cap meadow. And Jorgeson couldn’t repeat Caldwell’s delicately choreographed 300 ft. traverse over barely visible irregularities in the rock (calling them “holds” would be too generous) which linked up the two major sections of the climb. Over seven days, he failed numerous times, a number of them excruciatingly captured on film. This was a story the non-climbing media could sink its teeth into: Was Tommy going to have to abandon Kevin at pitch 15 to realize his own Dawn Wall dreams? As Jorgeson says in the film, “I was still going to have to do the hardest thing I’ve ever done for this to end well.” Spoiler alert: He did.
What was Jorgeson, who had never before climbed a “big wall,” doing on the Dawn Wall?
Jorgeson had made his reputation in the subspecialty of bouldering, climbing extremely hard moves mostly less than 30 feet off the ground. Even though he had zero experience with the exposure, commitment and complex rope and gear management involved in big wall climbing, Caldwell picked him as a partner because he was strong and, as he says in The Dawn Wall, “he was the only one interested.” This premiere of the clip above from the film catches Jorgeson’s first day on the wall, experiencing for the first time the joys of moving up and down fixed lines on jumars (friction clamps), setting up a portaledge, and more challenges.
What does getting kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan have to do with climbing the Dawn Wall?
As the film recounts, in 2000, a cherub-faced 22-year-old Caldwell was a member of a small group of young American climbers on an expedition in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. They were kidnapped at gunpoint by Islamic rebels and Caldwell effectively saved the group’s life by pushing their captor off the mountain they were crossing. Traumatic as the incident was at the time (he would later learn the rebel survived the fall), Caldwell believes it instilled in him the fortitude to pursue unreasonably difficult goals. Another motivation for the climb? His teammate on the Kyrgyzstan adventure was Beth Rodden, later his wife. The subsequent collapse of the marriage sent Caldwell on his Dawn Wall quest. To quote from the film: “It felt like El Cap was all I had.”
Why is the route called the Dawn Wall?
It’s the section of the El Cap face that first receives sunlight in the morning. Its first and arguably more poetic name: Wall of the Early Morning Light.