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Climbing the Dawn Wall

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2015

Last week, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent of The Dawn Wall on Yosemite’s El Capitan. It’s been called the most difficult climb ever completed. The NY Times has some good coverage of the climb, including an interactive feature/map of the wall and a 3.4 gigapixel zoomable photograph of the climb in progress. Here’s a 3-minute video of Caldwell navigating Pitch 15, one of the most difficult sections of the climb:

“The crux holds of pitch 15 are some of the smallest and sharpest holds I have ever attempted to hold onto,” Tommy wrote on his Facebook page. Four unique camera angles reveal those minuscule holds and the 1,300 feet of exposure under Tommy’s precarious foot placements. While multiple pitches of extremely difficult climbing remained above, the completion of pitch 15 was considered the last major hurdle to the eventual success of this seven-year project.

It gets intense around 1:30. Jesus, my palms are sweating right now. I feel like I’m gonna pass out! (via @sippey)

Update: I totally didn’t notice but several people pointed this out on Twitter: Caldwell only has 4 fingers on his left hand. He cut off his index finger with a table saw, got it reattached, and then removed again so it wouldn’t hinder his climbing.1

And as if completing the most difficult climb in the world with only 9 fingers and discarding a finger to pursue a passion isn’t quite enough for one life, Caldwell and some friends were captured by rebels while climbing in Kyrgyzstan. Caldwell helped save the group by pushing one of their captors over a cliff.

All the scheming comes to nothing, until at one point three of the rebels go away leaving a lone man in charge of the captives as they climb a steep ridge. Then, near the top …

Tommy Caldwell: Our captor sees that the hillside is easing off and he starts to run ahead. He has been really scared this whole time on this cliff because he’s not a climber. So I asked Beth if she thinks I should do this.

Beth Rodden: And at that point I just thought that this was our best opportunity.

Tommy Caldwell: So I ran up behind him and grabbed him by his gun strap and pulled him over the edge. We were probably about 2,000 feet (610 meters) above the river, but it’s a cliff that is pretty sheer. We saw him fall 20 feet (6 meters), bounce off this ledge, and then fall basically into the black abyss below. I totally panicked. I broke down. I couldn’t believe I’d just done that, because it’s something that I never morally thought I could do and I never wanted to do. And Beth came up and, you know, gave me a lot of comfort as well as Jason and John.

Beth Rodden: I told him he’d just saved our lives and now we had this opportunity to run and hopefully find the Kyrgyz Army.

Reading that story makes my palms sweat almost as much as watching the video. Jesus.

  1. Little known fact: there’s a photo of Caldwell’s severed finger next to the definition of “dedication” in the dictionary.

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