After nearly three weeks of hanging onto minuscule, razor-sharp rock holds on the world’s largest chunk of granite, climber Tommy Caldwell said during a Thursday morning news conference below El Capitan, “I’ve totally fallen in love with that piece of rock.”
Nineteen grueling days on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, during what is widely considered the hardest free climb ever attempted, only made the love stronger.
Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson reflected on the historic climb in Yosemite National Park that captured the nation’s attention, culminating Wednesday afternoon when they reached the summit — a feat celebrated across the globe and even congratulated by President Barack Obama.
Their free climb — using only hands and feet to ascend the massive vertical wall, with ropes attached only for safety — was a vision born from Caldwell’s deep-rooted love of the place.
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“When I was 3 years old I used to come and sit in El Cap meadow and watch my dad (a mountain guide and teacher) up there,” Caldwell said in that same place. “It’s been a big centerpiece of my life. I live in Colorado, but my heart is here and I just feel so thankful, every day. ... I crave time in Yosemite like I crave food or water. I’ve been coming here my whole life.”
While climbing, Caldwell thought of his own 21-month-old son, Fitz, watching him from below.
“Although we were very dirty, quite smelly, all I wanted to do was just wrap myself around my wife and hold my little kid.”
His wife, Becca, also eagerly anticipated that moment as she waited for him on top of El Capitan.
So why climb mountains, spend days away from loved ones, devoid of modern comforts?
“Inspiration is the simplest answer,” Jorgeson said. “How do you explain inspiration? Everyone draws it from somewhere else.”
Caldwell said the climb was a spiritual experience more akin to something like “painting” than extreme sports.
Jorgeson said something similar: “As the mainstream media started to pick up on the story, we would read headlines about thrill seekers and hikers and conquering this and that. This isn’t so much a man vs. nature type of project — on the contrary. It’s such a cool thing to be in total balance with Yosemite and El Cap and put up this route.
“This isn’t about conquering, this isn’t about us vs. it. It comes back to that inspiration, that dream of seeing something through, and I think that’s something that’s pretty simple and a lot of people can relate to, even outside climbing.”
The climbers said their physical training paid off, and their climbing limit came down to something virtually out their control: The strength of the skin on their fingertips.
Cuts on Jorgeson’s fingertips — caused by tiny, sharp holds — slowed him for days at tricky pitch 15 of 32 climbing sections as he waited for his skin to heal.
But after extensive maintenance — including using sanding blocks to file down skin shavings and special moisturizers — the skin did heal and Jorgeson advanced.
It was a great feeling: “You could literally feel all the hope and desire and stress just like drip off of you.”
While ripping skin was a hurdle, an extensive support team aided their ascent. Spokespeople for the climbers —Caldwell is sponsored by Patagonia, Jorgeson by Adidas — said the companies do not discuss athlete contracts, but that close to 100 people supported their ascent.
About 10 people made up the core of that support, doing things like hauling food and water, setting up camp and taking photos and video. Jorgeson said watching one of those videos helped him remedy his approach on pitch 15 so he could successfully complete it.
Caldwell, who’s climbed El Capitan 60 times, first envisioned the free climb seven years ago. “I came to realize that section of the wall was, in my mind, the future ... I thought, I’m never going to be able to climb this thing, but maybe somebody someday will, and I wanted to open the future’s eyes to that.”
But then, Caldwell had another thought: If I work hard enough, maybe I can.
Completing it, Caldwell and Jorgeson earned a spot on a list of remarkable ascents of El Cap, first climbed in 1958 by a team that included Warren Harding, who also did the first climb of the Dawn Wall hanging on bolts and pitons.
“Tommy and Kevin’s climb has proved that there is still a golden age in Yosemite climbing and we’re in the midst of it,” said Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association. “Their achievement is really incredible.”
President Obama agreed, tweeting a message to the climbers that he was “so proud” of them and that they “remind us that anything is possible.” As for reading the tweet on top of El Cap, Jorgeson said, “If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it.”
Mike Gauthier, Yosemite National Park’s chief of staff, said their climb helps show that “adventure can still be found in our public lands and our national parks today ... Tommy and Kevin, thank you for showing us that.”
Caldwell accepted the accolades humbly, saying climbers often free climb El Cap on a smaller scale, and there are many extraordinary, untold stories of ascents up its vertical walls.
Next up? Caldwell said more climbing and traveling is in store, including Patagonia and France — where Jorgeson also plans to do some bouldering.
Of their El Cap climb, Jorgeson said, “I hope it inspired people to dream big and find their own equivalent of a Dawn Wall.”
And the most beautiful moment of their journey wasn’t reaching the summit, Jorgeson said. It was a quiet, intimate moment, watching the sunrise on the last day of their climb.
“We had a full view of Half Dome and Tuolumne and all of Yosemite. ... We watched the day break and then the sun come up and then the sun hit us, and it was just a beautiful place to be on the last day of what was going to be one of the most memorable adventures of our life.”