Five Reasons Why the Dawn Wall First Free Ascent Has Pushed Climbing Forward

Tommy Caldwell on January 7, 2015, on the Dawn Wall route of Yosemite's El Capitan. He and Kevin Jorgeson completed the historic first free ascent of the route today; Photograph by Brett Lowell, BigUp Productions (BigUp is one word)
Tommy Caldwell and partner Kevin Jorgeson tackled an unprecedented amount of sustained, difficult climbing up 3,000 feet to  complete the first free ascent of the  Dawn Wall route onYosemite’s El Capitan; Photograph by Brett Lowell, BigUp Productions

To take climbing to the next level, you have to innovate, which is just what Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson did to complete one of the most significant ascents in climbing history. The achievement represents the realization of Caldwell’s vision to find a way to free climb the Dawn Wall—widely considered too steep and too difficult for free climbing.

Here are five reasons why the Dawn Wall has been cutting-edge from the beginning and has pushed the sport of climbing to the next level.

It’s Not a Crack Climb

Climbers call the vertical cracks in any cliff “lines of weakness” due to the fact that they are relatively easier to climb than a seemingly featureless vertical rock face that appears as smooth as glass to an untrained eye.

The glacier-polished granite of Yosemite is blessed with thousands of vertical cracks on all its major formations, which is how it became the rock climbing crucible that it is today. With good climbing technique, cracks are relatively straightforward to climb. You simply jam your hands and feet into the crack and follow it upward.

Cracks also have the benefit of being visible from the ground. A climber, using a pair of binoculars, can inspect the wall and easily see the route from the ground—just follow that vertical crack line from the bottom to the top.

Until now, all 13 of the free climbs on El Cap have been mostly crack climbs. The southwest face of El Capitan contains the most prominent collection of vertical cracks.

The Dawn Wall is the first El Cap free climb to really depart from this tradition of following the “lines of weakness” to the summit. You might say that the Dawn Wall is a “line of strength.”

It took a lot of vision on Caldwell’s part to find a stretch of free-climbable rock, which isn’t a crack climb, and on this scale. He spent two years drilling dozens of bolts by hand, a process that takes 45 minutes per bolt, in order to add protection points on a rock face devoid of cracks. He had to scrub dirt off the tiny hand- and footholds and remember their sequences perfectly in order to link the moves.

Thanks to Caldwell and Jorgeson, and their vision for what a free climb on El Capitan could look like, future climbers looking for a good challenge will certainly be turning their attention to the seemingly blank faces located between the cracks.

Coldest Winter Nights

Yosemite is America’s most crowded National Park, with a busy tourist season during the summer months. Even climbers tend to flock to Yosemite in greater numbers during the warmest months of the year. Prime climbing months in Yosemite are typically believed to be in May and October.

When Caldwell and Jorgeson first started working on the Dawn Wall together about six years ago, they would typically try to climb in November. Soon they realized that this wall was simply just too hot for the high-end free climbing. Because the route is not a crack climb, the style of climbing involved grabbing some of the tiniest, most frictionless holds imaginable.

Climbers prefer cold conditions because they believe friction is better between their skin and the rock. Hands sweat less and the rock feels “stickier.” On the southeast-facing Dawn Wall, which collects sunlight for most of the day, Caldwell and Jorgeson discovered that in order to use these holds they needed to climb in January at night.

What Caldwell and Jorgeson have inadvertently done over these past two weeks is pioneer an entirely new season (and time of day) for free climbing on El Capitan. Climbing in January at night by headlamp is an out-of-the-box idea for free climbers, but Caldwell and Jorgeson have shown that this is what it takes to succeed in free climbing at the upper limit of the climbing scale.

Redefining “Team Free”

Over the years, big-wall free climbers on El Cap have debated over the various “styles” of ascent. The method employed by Caldwell and Jorgeson over the past 19 days has left many in the climbing community scratching their heads about what to make of their style.

The goal for Caldwell and Jorgeson was simply for both climbers to free climb every pitch. At least one person had to lead every pitch, and once that pitch was led, then it was OK for the second person to free climb that pitch on top-rope.

It became confusing because, once the two climbers hit the block of really hard pitches, from pitch 14 through 20, they each free-climbed these pitches out of order from each other. Jorgeson battled to complete pitch 15, while Caldwell continued leading every pitch up to pitch 20. After Jorgeson led pitch 15, and pitch 16, then he top-roped pitches 17-20 while catching up to Caldwell.

This style really stretches the definition of “team free” to its limit due to the fact that both climbers ascended each pitch of the Dawn Wall in succession to their own high point, but out of order in relation to each other.

Regardless of what you call their style of ascent, the fact remains that for Caldwell and Jorgeson, this was a hard-won effort and the result of seven years of work and dedication.

Tweeting El Cap

The Dawn Wall has stood right at the cutting edge of adventure media since Caldwell and Jorgeson first set foot onto this 3,000-foot rock climb. The fact that El Cap gets perfect cell-phone coverage has allowed the climbers to communicate the details of their ascent to an engaged audience. They’ve posted daily Instagrams and Facebook updates. Jorgeson has held live Q&A sessions on Twitter using the #askdawnwall hashtag.

Unlike all major sporting events, which have stadiums that are designed as much as television studios as they are playing fields for athletes, big-wall climbing areas present numerous challenges for capturing the media assets that depict the incredible performances take place on the side of the wall.

Jorgeson and Caldwell were originally criticized for maintaining such a strong social media presence during their climbing days due to the fact that being on Facebook seemed to be at odds with having a true climbing adventure. What’s so fascinating is how this perspective now seems incredibly outdated by today’s standards. It speaks to the fact that cameras, cell phones and being constantly interconnected on social media have grown to become so much a part of all our lives, that it would seem odd without it.

“I almost feel obligated at this point to continue posting,” said Caldwell on day 10. “It’s been a tough balance. It was something I was uncomfortable with at first. But I feel such overwhelming support and such feedback that I feel obligated to continue posting to Instagram and Facebook. It’s become such an integral part of this climb.”

So Much Hard Climbing

The bottom line is that the Dawn Wall is significant because it contains more hard pitches of rock climbing than any other big-wall free climb yet established. There are 17 pitches—half the route—rated 5.13 or harder. The fact that Yosemite’s two hardest pitches, pitches 14 and 15, are located right in the middle of the Dawn Wall is what makes this route so challenging.

It’s safe to say that it’ll be a long time before anyone repeats this rock climb.

Caldwell is one of our 2015 Adventurers of the Year. Vote for the People’s Choice daily until January 31.


  1. Daily News, Thursday, Jan 15
    January 15, 2015, 8:59 am

    […] did it! Caldwell and Jorgensen top out on El Capitan.  NatGeo’s take on it here, and a beginner’s guide to what it’s all […]

  2. Jan
    January 15, 2015, 2:34 pm

    Yosemite is not the most crowded Nat’l Park in the US.
    The Great Smoky Mountains NP is #1…by 6million more visitors per year!
    Grand Canyon is #2
    Yosemite is #3

  3. TheSaucyMugwump
    January 15, 2015, 3:14 pm

    “spent two years drilling dozens of bolts by hand, a process that takes 45 minutes per bolt, in order to add protection points on a rock face devoid of cracks”

    So your heroes installed dozens of pitons, with them being a technique which has rightfully been dismissed as the rock climbing equivalent of spray-painting gang symbols on city buildings, so they could make a free climb? The words “hypocrites” and “vandals” come to mind.

  4. Phillip Lake
    Brandon, MS
    January 15, 2015, 4:29 pm

    CONGRATULATIONS: what a massive undertaking and achievement for both of you and the art of rock climbing. Maybe this could be added to the Olympics (hey – just saying). WTG gentlemen

  5. Gabe dadi
    January 15, 2015, 6:21 pm

    saucymugwump — go fuck yourself. None of those bolts are visible from the ground or do structural damage to the rock. If you really care about el cap so much protest the amount of trash that accumulates on the nose every year. Or better yet- participate in the nose wipe, repel off the top of el cap and make a difference yourself. Self righteous assholes like you who can’t see past their own bias to celebrate one of the greatest accomplishments in the sport of climbing, make me physically ill. Kindly go push your extremely left wing agenda elsewhere, or better yet just not say anything at all.


  6. Brian S
    January 15, 2015, 7:51 pm

    1) Bolts are not pitons. 2) Don’t worry you cannot see them from the ground. A car being in Yosemite is more disruptive to wildlife and the essence of conservation, but I don’t see you making an argument to that point. 3) Sometimes, people, insecure in their own accomplishments, blindly criticize others. It doesn’t do a darn thing to make anything better.

    Learn the facts, get educated, and come climb sometime! It’s a great time, and maybe you would enjoy it. Please don’t limit yourself to criticizing others.

  7. Howard
    January 15, 2015, 11:40 pm

    I thought James T. Kirk made that climb in Star Trek 5.

  8. Doug
    January 16, 2015, 10:54 am

    I disagree with the last statement. Now that someone has done it, I bet it’s scarcely a year before someone repeats it, and does it all in order.

    And someone who doesn’t know the difference in bolts and pitons is a feckless pretender who doesn’t know the first thing about rockclimbing, and has no legitimacy to make that kind of judgment. Go troll somewhere else.

    It’s funny enough watching all the media fawn over ‘free-climbing’, while showing video of someone jumaring up the wall, but then they can’t be expected to know all the intricacies, and they are celebrating the accomplishment, not criticizing.

  9. Peter Hayes
    Salt Lake City, Utah
    January 17, 2015, 7:54 pm

    I think we can all agree that suacymugmump is way out of line here. When I did my first rock climb in 1963 the standards, equipment and style of climbing was different, even primitive, compared to climbing now days. Tommy Caldwell has a long and valued history of climbing in Yosemite, and I am quite sure that history will tag him as a Master, a Pioneer, a Titan of a climber. He probably did the thing people do when they set about adding gear to an established route: Ask the First Ascent Team. There are countless cases where climbs have had bolts added by subsequent climbers in this manner, and inevitably a service was done for the climbing community at large. By adding bolts and then sending the route, Tommy has pushed the Big Wall Free climbing bar so high that for decades this route will stand as a monument the most elite climbers will aspire to do. What “Action Direct” did for sport climbing, this route has done for Big Wall Free climbing. Saucy-thing has zero concept of the difficulty this climb entails. The Dawn Wall has never been a trade route up The Captain, and there are dozens of other routes that get climbed hundreds of times a year. If someone wants to do an aid ascent of the Dawn Wall in the manner of the First Ascent, then that party need only skip any bolt placement that has a new hanger, which is quite easy to do. Tommy & Kevin dd not sculpt holds. They used what was provided…and what I’d really like to see published is the volumes of notes I know they took for each of the really hard sections. Agreed, the general media has no concept what so ever of what was accomplished when Tommy & Kevin finished the route; however, their interest will do much for the industry. I’ve led 5.12a thin slab, and that was nerve wracking, required laser focus, and hurt my finger tips. I could not imagine what .14d “slab” is like…let alone pitch after pitch of it. Kudos to Tommy & Kevin. They have carved out a place in climbing history right next to Wolfgang, Chuck, Frank, Yvon, Royal, Hans, Alex, John, David and Fritz.

  10. […] Five Reasons Why the Dawn Wall First Free Ascent Has Pushed Climbing Forward […]

  11. drew s
    January 23, 2015, 10:34 pm

    Nice Bish!

  12. Saibaba
    Secunderabad, India.
    January 24, 2015, 10:29 am

    An excellent work on rocks, worth emulating. Congratulations to both of them.

  13. Randy
    January 24, 2015, 4:27 pm

    Tommy Caldwell certainly envisioned and led the Dawn Wall climb and richly deserves recognition for his achievement, but for NatGeo not to recognize Kevin Jorgeson as an Adventurer seems less than generous. It’s reminiscent of the Edmund Hilary/Tenzing Norgay story.

    • Mary Anne Potts
      February 5, 2015, 5:23 pm

      Hi Randy,

      We actually made Tommy an Adventurer of the Year for the Fitz Traverse he made in early 2014. Our Adventurers of the Year are actually selected from the year prior. But don’t worry, we’ve got an eye tuned to Kevin for sure. Thanks for the comment.

      Mary ANne

  14. B Rotts
    Hartsburg, Mo
    January 25, 2015, 5:13 pm

    Just back from Patagonia and had to pause on this dialogue…and felt the need to dial in on this ethics controversy. In 1970 Cesare Maestri, an Italian mountaineer then perceived at the very top of his game and now largely held in disrepute, seiged the coveted Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre in Patagonia. Cerro Torre stands in a class of mountaineerings “A List” of big walls of which El Cap is obviously one (but with a considerably more leisurely approach to it.) He set 400 bolts to accomplish his attempt and failed just 60 meters short of the summit. A large snow cap overhangs and was then declared by Maestri as impossible to overcome. Nine years later Americans Jim Bridwell and Steve Brewer completed the route by skirting underneath the summit cornice and on to the summit not using new bolts. From there on hundreds had followed using those bolts with relish. That completely ended in 2012 when American Hayden Kennedy and Canadian Jason Kruk completed a very difficult, natural line up the Southeast Ridge and, on their descent rappelled the Maestri route and then did the final chop of all those bolts so that the origninal, engineered route became, for now, impossible. There was a great outcry from those who wished to travel that historic but technically, easier Maestri route while others commented that it was little different then climbing scaffolding and allowed “undeserveds” to the summit and mountain honored now that they, along with those bolts, are now gone.

    When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson earlier fixed bolts at key locations they obviously did so with the integrity which is now the spirit of our time. Both climbers are well regarded for their ethics among the sport and in 2006 Caldwell and his partner Topher Donahue established the first, free ascent of the east face of Cerro Torre. Their style is bolts placed for essential protection should a fall occur while climbing without using the bolts for assistance. Quite different then the Patagonian story that gave a stairway to the casual climbers that followed. Of course others will follow but only time will tell to what extent.

    As an aside, it was that same climber, Jim Bridwell, who helped set the ropes and riggings for Captain Kirk in Yosemite for Star Trek 5. Perhaps a day will come when self-contained, mechanical levitation-devices that made the futuristic vision of “The Captain” climbing the “The Captain” without partners, ropes or bolts possible for all of us. Until then these necessary bolts are the edge of our sport and their disposal, when the time comes, is quite simple and leaves virtually no trace. Should that day come I would warrant that mountaineering will forever devolve to a gym activity with no spiritual link to this moment. When I climbed El Cap in the early ’80’s we welcomed each old bolt we found along our with with happy faces. Now many are gone because they are just steel. A mountain and those who test themselve’s against its’ stone have a way of making them ultimately dissolve or disappear in the end.

  15. El Capitan | la Valerosa
    February 5, 2015, 8:00 am

    […] Five Reasons Why the Dawn Wall First Free Ascent Has Pushed Climbing Forward […]

  16. […] climbing forward”, was one of the frequent statements, as expressed for example in an article that’s very worth reading on National Geographic‘s Adventure […]

  17. […] January, when climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen were completing a passion project on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, it caught the attention of the media, a rarity in a niche sport, who covered it so […]

  18. […] Tommy Caldwell, who in January successfully completed the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan, can relate to the spirit of this challenge. “Climbers are starting to […]

  19. […] Google Street View team captured two scenarios with Tommy Caldwell climbing the Dawn Wall, considered El Cap’s hardest free climb, but poured most of its energy into the Nose. Alex Honnold, a renowned free-solo climber, climbed […]