On Jan. 14, 2015, just after 6 p.m., Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson clambered over the rim of the Dawn Wall, 3,000 feet above the floor of California’s Yosemite National Park. It was near sunset, and 40-plus friends and family were gathered to celebrate the hardest single free climb in history—a feat so difficult even Caldwell, one of the most accomplished climbers on earth, wasn’t sure it could be done.
Over 19 days, Caldwell, 37, and Jorgeson, 31, climbed 32 pitches using only their hands and feet, with no assistance from climbing aids or ropes, which were there only to prevent falls. When they weren’t climbing, the two rested and slept in a “base camp” composed of three portaledges—tents anchored into the granite—and, this being the connected age, posted about the expedition and did new interviews from their tents, so that by the time they finished, a large percentage of the world’s sporting audience was cheering for them.
“I’ve spent 15 years climbing El Capitan,” says Caldwell. “I’d done more free climbing on that wall than anybody. I was curious how far I could take it.”
Caldwell thought he might attempt the Dawn Wall alone but decided it would be too hard. He would, though, attempt it with a partner. Jorgeson, a younger climber best known for his bouldering abilities, volunteered. “Bouldering makes you strong, and I knew that’s what it would take,” Caldwell says. “Strength takes years to build. Logistics I can give to anyone.”
That was in 2009. For the next six years, the two studied El Cap and mapped the route. Caldwell re-created the Dawn Wall’s most challenging sections on his wall at home, and, whenever possible, went with Jorgeson to work on the granite at El Capitan.
As the late-2014 target date approached, Caldwell eventually abandoned his regular regimen of total body fitness to focus on finger and arm strength. He cut cardio and built power, optimized his diet to toughen the skin on his hands, and built up calluses. “I reformatted my whole life to make this happen,” he says.
Hotter-than-expected days, falling ice chunks, and cracked fingertips added complications on top of some ridiculously difficult pitches. “I think if Tommy and I had both known the magnitude early on, we wouldn’t have done it,” says Jorgeson, whose struggles on Pitch 15 were the climb’s breaking point: It took 11 attempts over eight days for him to finally finish the section, which Caldwell—the far more experienced big-wall climber—had already completed. “That pressure was absolute,” recalls Jorgeson, who says he nearly quit. “But I would’ve had to live the rest of my life being the guy who almost climbed the Dawn Wall. That was the primary motivator for me.”
Months later, though Caldwell and Jorgeson are still a little in awe of what they accomplished, they acknowledge it will open the door for others to also do it, only faster.
“I see first ascents as a contribution,” Jorgeson says. “We just put up a new bar for big-wall free climbing. But I know it can be higher.”