When climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall on Wednesday after a grueling 19-day journey straight up, friends and family let our their collective breaths. So did untold watchers across the globe.
The two climbers had been the stars of the ultimate sports reality test ever since they put fingers to rock and began an outrageously ambitious ascent of a 3,000-foot sheer granite face using only the strength of their hands and feet. It was widely considered the toughest free climb ever undertaken.
They had ropes, of course — they were ambitious, not suicidal — but didn’t use them to climb, just to move equipment and to keep from plunging to their deaths if they fell. And they did fall, many times; even so, they kept going on and up.
We’ll never know the levels of despair, euphoria, exhaustion and cold these two endured during the long days and longer nights clinging to a rock wall. We do know, however, that it took amazing reserves of patience, humility, persistence, confidence and skill to accomplish this feat.
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What’s even more impressive is that Caldwell and Jorgeson took on this challenge not for public attention or movie deals but because, as rock climbers, this was their Everest.
“This isn’t about conquering,” Jorgeson said Thursday, “this isn’t about us vs. it. It comes back to that inspiration, that dream of seeing something through.”
This is also a lesson about hard work paying off, not about engaging in extreme and risky behavior. The concern about any high-profile accomplishment is other people, less prepared people, will get hurt or die trying.
Remember: These men knew precisely what they were doing and relied on years of training and a lifetime of technical skill. Caldwell has climbed other routes up El Capitan 60 times before hatching plans to free climb the Dawn Wall.
However, there’s really nothing stopping anyone with a rope, or without, from attempting the same climb. The National Park Services says there is no permit or training required to rock climb in the national parks or monuments. It’s understandable; it’s not the responsibility of the parks to stop people from doing foolish things to themselves.
As it is, Yosemite alone has more than 100 climbing accidents every year and as many as 25% of them require rescues. Says the park on its website: “Rescue is not a certainty. If you get into difficulties, be prepared to get yourself out of them.”
Let’s hope that Caldwell and Jorgeson’s remarkable climb inspires people to new heights in careers, education and athletics. The goal shouldn’t be necessarily to emulate them by climbing mountains, but to model the drive, planning and acquisition of skills that enabled them to reach the summit.