How the breakup of a marriage inspired the world's toughest free climb

How the breakup of a marriage inspired the world's toughest free climb
El Capitan's Dawn Wall — Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson may well be climbing’s first household names. But not everyone knows the demons they stared down when they completed the world’s toughest free climb.

Drive into Yosemite National Park from the West and the great slab of rock called El Capitan rises in all its burnished glory so quickly and so definitively one wonders if John Muir, the park’s legendary godfather, arranged things so visitors would be inspired get the hell out of their cars as quickly as possible. Luckily, there’s a meadow along the road that splays out before the 3,000-foot, near-vertical monolith making it easy enough for humans to grab a quick slice of humble pie before venturing further into the park.

Though winter is off-season in Yosemite, The Meadow has hosted more guests than usual this season as spectators gathered here to gaze through binoculars and zoom lenses at two men engulfed in a dramatic quest to free climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, rated by those who know as the most difficult big-wall, free climb in the world.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had been failing miserably at this pursuit for years, but through the miracle of social media, and perhaps because the world is in dire need of things to cheer for, this particular attempt captured the imagination of folks who had never picked up a climbing magazine and likely never will.

A week after their attempt, Caldwell and Jorgeson are wolfing down large cheeseburgers in the vast dining hall of the Ahwanhee Hotel here in the heart of Yosemite Village. Sunbeams sneak through the tall trees surrounding the stately wood-and-brick building, casting shadow and light across an elegantly rustic tableau of silver, glass, stone and exposed wood.

Caldwell and Jorgeson look slightly amiss in their worn jeans and flannels, unkempt facial hair and tattered, abused hands that look unfit to pick up a salad fork, let alone grip and hold onto a wart-size piece of stone jutting from a sheer wall that could spell the difference between rising or falling.

When we meet up for lunch, the men are on a break between sessions for a Vanity Fair photo shoot. It’s been like this – a parade of interviews, morning-show appearances, and, well, Vanity Fair shoots – since they got back to ground after nearly three weeks of pressing their noses, backs, arms, hands and feet into the unforgiving face of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall.

“I can’t imagine two more polar opposite worlds than living on the wall for nineteen days and coming down to 3:30 press conferences,” says Jorgeson, whose thick black hair, high cheekbones and intense eyes would seem to make him a fine choice to be the new face of modern climbing, if there is to be such a thing. “That’s about as far apart from one another as it gets.”

Not that they’re not grateful for the opportunities that are sure to come from their newfound celebrity. After all, it wasn’t long ago Jorgeson was living out of his van. But it’s pretty clear this isn’t their scene. Their scene is way up high where they can be just specks on the grand canvas, invisible to the naked eye.

***

Tommy Caldwell is just thirty-six, but the weathered lines around his eyes read like a trail map of a well-travelled life. He has a sort of quiet, soulful intensity about him.

Mostly, he loves to climb.

“I crave climbing like I crave food or water. If I don’t have it, I feel like something’s missing,” says Caldwell. “I crave the adventure that isn’t part of normal, everyday life anymore and climbing is an outlet that you can do in a relatively safe way that fulfills those needs and gets you out into this natural world and brings us back to the way we’re built as human beings.”

Before he embarked on the journey that has made him and Jorgeson arguably big-wall climbing’s first-ever household names, he had been quietly racking up First Free Ascents (FFA) on El Cap, including Lurking Fear, Magic Mushroom and other routes. In 2004, he did an FFA on Dihedral Wall and followed that up the next year by free climbing The Nose (on which he’d previously made the third ascent), descending East Ledges and then ascending Freerider, all within twenty-four hours. That, too, was a first.

Despite the audacity of his efforts in Yosemite and elsewhere, something started haunting him in the way it would haunt a true climber: the Dawn Wall, so called because the morning light bleeds down its face from top to bottom as the sun rises.

“I’d climbed different routes on El Cap for twelve years before I even considered that the Dawn Wall was possible,” says Caldwell. “We’re always searching for the limit of what we can do, where we can take climbing. Once we got to know El Cap well, we’d look at that wall and be like, ‘Is this possible?’”

Not many thought it was. The route up Dawn Wall would require scaling some of the hardest climbing pitches in the world and the two hardest would come in a back-to-back sequence. Simply put, it was widely regarded as the most difficult free climb in the world. But once a project – a new route – gets in a climber’s mind, especially in the mind of a climber as admittedly tenacious as Caldwell, it tends to nag like a psychic itch.

***

From 2003 to 2010, Caldwell was married to Beth Rodden, a world-class climber in her own right. The two met on the sport-climbing circuit in the mid-’90s when they were teenagers winning every competition in sight. Before long, they were climbing’s first couple. In fact, they are the subjects of a 2006 film called The First Couple of Rock. The Dawn Wall itch became an obsession when that marriage began to break up.

Caldwell says the breakup was his first taste of failure and he initially had trouble accepting it wasn’t a problem he could solve. “I’m so obsessive about things that once I get on that track, I just stick with it until I do it. Failing in a marriage just isn’t that. I couldn’t control that at all,” says Caldwell, who is now happily remarried and the proud father of a twenty-month-old boy.

“I had this vision for it before I went through my divorce and then in that time, when my mind was going a million miles an hour and I was in this really crazy state, I needed a distraction from the pain of that,” says Caldwell. “That’s when I really took this project on full force, because being up there in this place that I love and working hard was kind of the only time I could feel normal for a while.”

If his divorce fuelled his fire to take on a daunting challenge like the Dawn Wall, Caldwell can thank another traumatic event for the preternatural calm he displays in the face of such challenges.

When the fall of the Soviet Union opened up the former republics to the world, Kyrgyzstan’s remote Kara Su valley in the Pamir Alai Range became an international climbing destination along the lines of Yosemite. In the summer of 2000, Caldwell and Rodden were the junior members of a four-person expedition that included American climbers Jason ‘Singer’ Smith and John Dickey. They planned to tackle Yellow Wall, a 2,500-foot headwall ascent on 12,000-foot Mount Zhioltaya Stena.

On the second day of their four-day ascent, the group was taken captive by fundamentalist guerillas from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The ordeal that followed – six-days of freezing, starving, witnessing executions and surviving crossfires – has been recounted by writer Greg Child in his gripping November 2000 piece for Outside magazine, ‘Fear of Falling’.

Convinced they’d die at the hands of their captors, the group’s opportunity for salvation came one night when they were left under the watch of just one man. Caldwell, who until that point would have seemed the least likely candidate, seized the moment and pushed the man off a ledge high up in the remote mountains. The group fled to a Kyrgyz army base miles away.

Caldwell says the ripple effects of that experience have been profound for all four members of the expedition, and that it inevitably factored into the breakup of his marriage. But, he adds, it also left him some gifts. “Life is so valuable and the Kyrgyzstan experience brought that into the front of my mind so much,” says Caldwell. “It made me push so hard on everything else because it made life tangible. I know I can’t take it for granted.”

As far as how it affected his climbing, Caldwell says, “In a lot of regards, that experience was so intense and painful and life-threatening, it just turned up the volume so much that everything since then has felt comparatively mellow. I can go up on El Cap and be in storms, or have crazy stuff happening – Kevin’s seen it – and other people are scared and I’m like, ‘Well, this isn’t really that big of a deal’, because I have that to compare it to.”

***

While Caldwell was working out his issues on various Dawn Wall pitches, Jorgeson, was busy making daring first ascents in the climbing discipline of highball bouldering – scaling large, freestanding rocks without the aid of ropes, bolts or other climbing aids.

In January 2009, Jorgeson’s first ascent of Ambrosia, a 45-foot face on the Grandpa Peabody boulder in the Buttermilks of the Eastern Sierras, blurred the lines between super-highball bouldering and the do-or-die discipline of free-solo climbing. Though it became his signature ascent, the experience left Jorgeson wondering where the hell he was going with all this.

“Ambrosia could have been fatal if you fell in the wrong place for sure,” he says. “I felt that if I raised the bar again, I’d be free soloing where it’s certain death if you fall, and that’s not a discipline I’m that interested in.”

After Ambrosia, Jorgeson began seeking a new direction.

For his part, after years spent on various Dawn Wall pitches, Caldwell was having second thoughts about the feasibility of a continuous free climb push. In fact, he’d just about given up and decided to release a film of his failed 2009 attempt just so “we could show the climbing world what the future is, because I didn’t think that I’d ever be able to do it.”

Despite the failure of that attempt, Caldwell had a good time with his friends on the film crew, which led to a revelation about how to tackle Dawn Wall. “I was like, man, if the Dawn Wall can be done with good people all up there together having this cool adventure, maybe that’s what I need.”

Jorgeson saw the film and thought, “Whoa, it kind of looks like he needs a partner.”

A match made in heaven except for one small problem: Jorgeson had never done big-wall climbing before. In fact, before Dawn Wall, he’d never climbed El Cap, or any other Yosemite milestone for that matter.

“The first day that he came to Yosemite, we put on 75 pound packs and walked to the top of El Cap, which is 3,000 feet up steep slabs and it’s physically a really, really hard thing that would crush most people,” recalls Caldwell. “And Kevin, having not really been in that world much at all, he got to the top and threw down his pack and said, ‘Yeah, that felt good!’ And I was like, this is awesome!

“Then, we rappelled off El Cap to what is probably the most exposed spot in North America. Most people get vertigo when they go up there and immediately we were trying to figure out the top of the route, because it was a section that I hadn’t looked at and we’re having to take these giant swings across the wall to try and find the holes… and this was day one. Day one of Kevin joining in the project!”

Jorgeson’s eyes light up. “What a cool experience,” he says. “I mean, I grew up seeing Tommy in magazines. To be taken on this project – I would have done anything.”

***

Caldwell and Jorgeson’s route up Dawn Wall was comprised of thirty-one pitches. A pitch is the distance between a starting point and a resting point on the ascent. It’s always within the length of the climbers’ safety ropes – 200-feet or less.

When the two attempted a push on Dawn Wall in 2010, Jorgeson couldn’t make Pitch 12 and the climb stopped after seven days. For that matter, prior to this attempt, Jorgeson had never done Pitch 12, or 14 or 16, some of the hardest pitches on their route. Caldwell had tackled each pitch on the route, just not in a continuous free climb push.

They’d been working this project for six years now with countless falls and frustrations as well as the odd breakthrough here and there to sustain them. The forecast for the end of December was too good to not give it another go. If they were going to be successful on this attempt, Jorgeson would just have to figure out some things on the fly.

It started well and by their second day on the wall – day six of the push – troublesome Pitch 12 was behind them and so was Pitch 14, the one they thought would be the hardest.

“We’d get to pitches and we’d do them quickly, whereas in the past, we’d failed so much. It started this ball rolling that was extraordinary. Basically until Pitch 15,” Caldwell says, and then laughs.

“Tommy’s roll didn’t stop,” Jorgeson adds. “Well, it stopped at 20 because he was waiting for me, but mine hit the wall at Pitch 15.” At that point, the route’s sharp points had punctured Jorgeson’s fingers, making it impossible to get traction on Pitch 15’s tiny holds. He tried to find ways around the problem, but fell time and again.

Meanwhile, Caldwell was at Pitch 20, the most difficult parts of the climb behind him. By then, the New York Times had written about their attempt and NPR interviewed them from their portaledge at 1500. The world was tuning in on Twitter and Facebook. The pressure was mounting on Jorgeson.

He tried everything to get his skin to mend – Neosporin wraps, spray-on skin, tape from Australia. He stared at his fingers and willed them to heal. Seven torturous days had gone by and he was still stuck at Pitch 15.

“It was kind of a bummer,” he says, deadpan.

Finally, he had the idea to ask the crew filming their attempt to compile his falls and post them on Vimeo so he could study them.

“Essentially what clicked was I watched a bunch of video of all my failed attempts,” says Jorgeson. “I have a memory for sequences and stuff, so I remembered what it felt like on each of those sequences when I fell. And I remembered this insecurity with my right foot, which you’re parked on and you have to have the utmost confidence in.”

On his next attempt, Jorgeson made a slight adjustment on a small foothold and made it through the pitch. Soon, he was reunited with Caldwell at Pitch 20.

On January 14, nineteen days after they started, the two men finished the world’s hardest free climb together.

“We failed at this for a lot of years and we stuck with it until it happened,” says Caldwell. “One of the things that’s been so cool about this is that we went all in on something that we didn’t know if we could do. We were just really following our hearts and it worked out. It strengthened that inside me… that if there’s something your heart tells you that you should do, you should go for it.”

This article originally appeared in Huck 49 – The Survival Issue.

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