Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Cap. Source: ABC News
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Cap. Source: ABC News

On Dec. 27, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson started free-climbing El Capitan’s “Dawn Wall” in Yosemite Valley. If climbed successfully, it will be the first time this formidable wall has been free-climbed in one continuous effort.

The Dawn Wall is the steepest part of the mountain and is notorious for its smooth face and sliver sized finger and foot holds. The epic climb is expected to take several weeks to complete with the climbers resting on porta-ledges bolted to the side of the mountain between pitches. Jorgeson says one of the biggest challenges is keeping your fingers healthy; the razor sharp rock can easily cut and rub the fingers raw making it impossible to climb.

Free-Climbing El Capitan
Life on the porta-ledge is cramped, but the view can’t be beat. Climbers Jorgeson (left) and Caldwell rest between pitches. Source: Epic TV

First climbed in a single push in 1970 by legendary Yosemite climber Warren Harding, Harding would use technical equipment and stand on bolts placed in the wall when hand and foot holds failed. Caldwell says, “I saw it as the last big wall that hasn’t been free-climbed.”

The climbing duo has been planning and practicing on the wall for years, learning the routes and mapping potential holds along the way. The route has 32 pitches with pitch 16 – originally including an 8.5 ft leap from one hold to another called a dyno before Caldwell decided to adjust his route – being the most difficult. Caldwell told National Public Radio that, “It’s something that I’ve pursued for so long and I’ve gained so much through that pursuit. It’s driven me to try to be a more complete person in so many ways and I’m a little worried that if I complete it, I’m going to lose that.”

Free-Climbing El Capitan
Caldwell works pitch 17 as the late afternoon sun warms the rock. Source: El Cap Report


Breaking News from the Wall – Injuries and Warm Temperature Hamper Ascent

Jorgeson told NPR that he cut his right index finger on day two and his right middle finger on day three. Jorgeson reports that the dry air is keeping the fingers tender despite attempts to rest and heal the injuries. According to El Cap blogger Tom Evans, Jorgeson is still working pitches 15 and 16 while Caldwell works pitch 18. The climbers confided to NPR that it will be the fingers more than anything that will shut the climb down. In addition to the injured fingers, warmer weather than expected has forced the climbers to mostly climb in the evening and at night when the rock is colder and their specially made climbing shoes grip the rock better.

Free-Climbing El Capitan
Fingers are cut and rubbed raw on the razor sharp granite making climbing difficult. Source: ABC News


Free-Climbing Versus Free-Soloing

To head-off any confusion, it is important to understand what exactly Caldwell and Jorgeson are attempting and the differences in these two popular forms of rock climbing. Free-climbing uses ropes and equipment to prevent an injury or death in the event of a fall, but the climber does not ascend the mountain using the equipment. Caldwell and Jorgeson are using ropes and bolted in protection to reduce the risk when falling and to descend to porta-ledges when not climbing. In free-soloing, no protective equipment is used; if the climber falls, only gravity and the ground decide the climber’s fate.

Free-Climbing El Capitan
Base camp hidden in the late afternoon shadow of El Capitan as the climbers prepared to climb into the night. Source: El Cap Report


Check out this video from Reel Rock 9 – Valley Uprising to see more from Caldwell and Jorgeson’s climb:

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