Free Climbing the Dawn Wall

Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson have spent seven years studying, planning, and practicing to be the first people to ever free climb El Capitan's Dawn Wall, a 3,000 foot vertical wall that's about as smooth and difficult a free climb as exists in the world. Anticipation is that they'll complete this climb of historic significance in the next few days, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Some background for non-climbers like myself:

After a week of living on the wall in portaledges—dodging falling blocks of ice each morning and sustaining frigid winter conditions with nighttime temperatures plummeting below freezing—Kevin and Tommy are more than halfway there. As of Friday, January 2, both climbers have freed each of the route’s first 14 pitches, which constitute the bulk of the hardest climbing.

A long “multi-pitch” rock climb, such as the Dawn Wall, is broken down by the belays—the places on the wall that provide good stances on ledges where climbers can stop and belay each other. The individual pitches are the paths that link these points of belay, and this is where the actual rock climbing takes place. On this ascent of the Dawn Wall, Tommy and Kevin have the goal to climb each pitch, in succession, without falling and without returning to the ground in between. If a climber does fall, he must return to the previous belay, pull the rope down with him, and try again to complete the pitch without falling.

The reason it's taken seven years of planning is that the climb is so difficult that Caldwell has had to study the wall in minute detail to find features in the contour to serve as handholds or footholds and then link them together in a possible path up. This video gives you an idea of that process, including many gnarly falls and slips that left my palms sweaty (and yes, knees weak, arms are heavy).

Reading about and watching the planning in action reminded me of the hit book from last year The Martian. I'm about a third of the way through the book, and it, too chronicles feats of long and intensive planning, long-term goals of such complexity that the only way to attain them is by breaking the task down into a series of smaller, concrete problems, each of manageable if extreme difficulty.

Here's one excerpt of their plan for this ascent:

Pitches 14, 15, and 16 are the three hardest pitches. Pitch 16 is the infamous “Dyno Pitch,” in which the climber has to make a jump (dyno) six feet horizontally, and latch onto a downward sloping edge of rock and hold on while controlling the swinging momentum. Thus far Kevin has had the most success in sticking this rowdy move; Tommy, however, has had less success. On this push, Kevin plans to do the dyno.

Tommy, however, plans to circumnavigate the dyno with a 5.14a variation. He will climb in a “loop”—reversing 20 feet of the last pitch, down-climbing 50 feet from the belay, and then coming back up to join a point above the dyno.

Here's an Instagram photo indicating just how tiny some of the holds are. These aren't handholds, these are fingerholds.

The fear of plunging to one's death would be enough lunacy for most people, but Caldwell is no stranger to danger of a variety of forms: in 2000, Caldwell and three other climbers were taken hostage by armed rebels at war with the Kyrgyzstan government. It's worth reading just to see what Caldwell does to save himself and his companions; it's something straight out of an action movie, I'm surprised it hasn't been optioned for a movie adaptation.

Also, Caldwell is missing his left index finger. He's climbing a mountain with tiny handholds and he's missing a finger!?!

In 2001 while working with a table saw, he accidentally cut off his left index finger-a debilitating loss when your life's passion involves hanging by your fingertips.

Doctors were able to reattach the finger, but told Caldwell that with its diminished mobility he'd never climb again. At first he was devastated, but then his determination kicked in, and he had the finger removed so as not to hinder him. Five months later, he free climbed the 3,000-foot (914-meter) Salathé Wall, another route on El Capitan, in less than 24 hours.

(h/t Hang Up and Listen)