You may have followed the story of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson doing the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley but with all the media buzz the pioneer of that route and it’s controversial history seems to have gotten lost (not by Caldwell and Jorgeson, by the media and the public at large).
To understand what Caldwell and Jorgeson have done in context, one needs to understand how climbing works.
Free soloing is climbing without a rope or any protection. Free climbing (what they did) is using a rope and a variety of gear to climb safely up a wall. If either party falls, the rope and belayer is there to catch them. Aid climbing is standing or hanging on the gear to make progress, also tied into a rope.
Almost every route on El Capitan was first climbed with mixed free and aid climbing. As climbers have acclimated to doing harder things on big walls, at least partly because ropes can now absorb multiple falls without failing or hurting the person falling, climbers have started free climbing pitches on climbs that were once climbed only with aid. Climbers are more willing to risk a fall when they know the gear will protect them.
When the Dawn Wall was first climbed aid was used on almost every pitch. Over many years, things have changed such that Caldwell and Jorgeson have climbed the entire route without the use of aid.
The first person to climb El Capitan by any route was the late Warren Harding and the route he pioneered in 1958 was at the very prow of the huge cliff and he named it The Nose. He climbed it “expedition style” in 47 days over a period of a year and a half with a variety of partners (most climbers were freaked out to go up there and Harding himself scared them). He’d go up, explore a few pitches (rope lengths), leave some gear hanging there, then come down and rest up as well as get drunk (he was a drinker).
When he did this climb most of the technology which climbers now take for granted didn’t exist. He had to cut the metal legs off of wood stoves to make pitons wide enough for what are now called “the stoveleg cracks.”
Harding on completing the first ascent of The Nose:
I suppose this article could be titled “The Conquest of El Capitan”. However, as I hammered in the last bolt and staggered over the rim, it was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered: I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was.
In following years, another Yosemite pioneer Royal Robbins did the Nose Route with Joe Fitschen, Chuck Pratt and Tom Frost in a continuous push over seven days.
When I was in Yosemite, the Nose route was routinely climbed in three long days with mixed free (up to 5.10) and aid climbing.
One of the best ways to see what climbing El Capitan looked like during my time there is to watch the film: El Capitan which was shot in 1968.
The Nose route saw its first fully free ascent in 1999 by Lynn Hill. Hill’s accomplishment is probably one of the most significant steps toward what Caldwell and Jorgeson have recently done.
The Nose Route is the most popular big wall route on El Capitan and while modern climbers have honed the style by which it is done, Harding pioneered the route and got over what was a huge psychological barrier.
The Wall of Early Morning Light
By 1970 there were many routes on El Capitan pioneered by a variety of Yosemite climbers and earlier routes were being repeated with more free climbing and with faster times.
In 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (not related) decided to climb a relatively blank section of El Capitan to the east of the Nose Route where the sun first hits the cliff each morning. Harding named it: The Wall of Early Morning Light. No one was interested in this seemingly contrived route: it didn’t follow natural crack systems but instead, followed acres of blank wall. This appealed to Harding (probably at least partly because others disliked it) and he and Caldwell decided to do the route in a single push from the ground. Harding invented the “bat tent” (covered hammock) for this route as there were no ledges to rest or camp on.
In order to get over the blank sections Harding drilled holes (with a rawl/hand drill) and pounded in hundreds of expansion bolts. The over-use of these was considered bad form by most of the Yosemite elite climbers, especially Royal Robbins who was irritated by Harding’s renegade attitude.
With bolts you can climb anything by brute force and this was counter to Robbins’ idea that it wasn’t about getting to the top, it was the style in which you did it that mattered most.
I was climbing with some hotshot Brit in Yosemite once, and he said, “My God, Harding, you can’t do anything!” I said, “I know, but I can do it forever.”
The climb took 27 days and in the middle of it, during a storm and with no communication with the climbers the Park Service organized a rescue which was rejected.
When Harding and Caldwell topped out the media was on top waiting for them, something that had never happened before. This pissed off Royal Robbins who no doubt thought other, more aesthetic climbs done by more wholesome climbers deserved media attention, not this contrived bolt ladder done by Harding.
Robbins decided to take decisive action and went up on the route with the intention of erasing it by chopping out the bolts. Once he got part way up he realized that Harding had put up another masterpiece and even though it was done with what Robbins considered too many bolts, the route was a great one and Robbins thought it should remain intact.
Over many years those bolts have been replaced and the route’s name has been shortened to the Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell, who has no doubt climbed every route on El Capitan and is considered one of the best rock climbers in the world, decided to attempt to free climb the Dawn Wall and over many years he worked out the moves and on this latest effort along with Kevin Jorgeson he did it in one, continuous push.
Harding died in 2002 but I’m guessing that wherever he is, he’s delighted that his route turned into the hardest free climb in the world.
This entire history is beautifully documented in the film Valley Uprising which I highly recommend.
*In researching whether the above image was taken in Eugene or Portland, I asked my old climbing buddy Chris Jones to comment:
I never climbed with him, but, considering that it’s Harding, I had a more classic (if not classy) one-time episode with him – I got stinking drunk with him (and a few others) at the Telluride film festival in 1985. Might have been the high point of my climbing career, although he barely remembered me the next day.