Adam Ondra and the Evolution of Valley Climbing

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Tommy Caldwell, Peter Croft, Alex Honnold, Cedar Wright, and Conrad Anker weigh in on Ondra’s ascent of the Dawn Wall and the future of climbing in Yosemite Valley.

Adam Ondra’s eight-day ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI, 2014) was impressive, but it’s part of a bigger wave of fit, tough-as-nails, new-generation climbers taking Yosemite by storm, and perhaps the signal of a new chapter in the Valley’s history.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson started establishing the route on Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan in 2007. After seven years of searching for a path to the top and working out the moves, the mainstream media caught on, documenting their final 19-day linkup and bringing the Dawn Wall into the public consciousness. That’s one reason Ondra’s second ascent has gotten so much attention.

Even so, his historic climb was but one of many this year; 2016 was a big one for El Cap free climbing. From Pete Whittaker’s pioneering rope solo of Freerider (he’s the first to do so) to Babsi Zangerl and Jacapo Larcher’s third free ascent of the Zodiac (possibly the hardest climb a woman has completed in Yosemite to date. Go Babsi!), the famed monolith has been caught in a lightning storm of sends.

“I think we’re entering the gold rush of Yosemite climbing.”

In the history of Valley climbing, “This year was a quantum leap,” said Cedar Wright. “It’s November and no one’s on El Cap but free climbers—at least ten different parties were free climbing El Cap at once, and we’ve never seen anything quite like that, especially since they’re all sending,” he said.

Caldwell said that might be a continuation of the “media fluke” that brought the Dawn Wall so much attention. He also suspects it might be a matter of fashion. “El Cap is suddenly on the radar. It’s suddenly a popular place to climb. I think we’re entering the gold rush of Yosemite climbing,” he said.

The Significance of a Second Ascent

“I started hearing the idea [of Ondra planning a second ascent] forming about a year ago,” said Caldwell. Did he expect the Czech phenom to send? “I was initially unsure. I went up there with Jonathan Siegrist and Chris Sharma and Kevin. All those guys have the skill to climb it, it was just whether they would have the ability to deal with all the other junk. It’s pretty miserable and tough to get the right conditions. You need someone who’s willing to put up with a lot.”

“I didn’t really expect anyone to try it so soon, but when I heard that Adam was going to try I figured he would probably succeed,” said Honnold. “I think he got pretty lucky with the weather and it all played out well for him. And of course, he’s an immensely talented climber who had everything it takes to climb the hardest wall in the world.”

Ondra’s 8-day climb is commendable, but not to be compared with the first ascensionist’s own time.

“The credit goes to Tommy for putting in the work in terms of figuring out where the route went and how it would go. It’s nice to see the second ascent come through in good style,” said Conrad Anker.

Valley veteran Peter Croft agreed. “The black and white difference is that Tommy and Kevin didn’t know it was possible and Adam did,” said Croft. “The exploratory genius of piecing together that masterpiece is even now a bit unreal. Adam has gone to great lengths to underline that fact and acknowledged the benefits of all their intricate beta and overall logistics they supplied him with.”

That humility is one quality that make’s Ondra’s ascent commendable. “A lot of people show up in the Valley trying not to be too forthcoming with what they’re doing because the tendency is to show up in the Valley and just get the slapdown,” said Cedar Wright. “But Ondra showed up super honest about what he wanted to do with the willingness to fail and still doing everything to succeed,” said Wright.

The Evolution of Training

Though Ondra has a history of difficult multi-pitch routes and traditional first ascents under his belt, he’s known primarily as a sport climber, a history that may have been more of an asset than a detriment to his traditional objectives in Yosemite, contrary to what many longtime trad climbers may have thought.

“You’re not going to perform at a high level on El Cap without sport climbing or gym training these days. It’s pretty much unheard of,” said Wright, crediting the new wave of super strong climbers in part to increased focus on gym training and overall fitness.

“Adam wasn’t weighed down by any preconceived notions—he just showed up and tried his best.”

And that fitness carries across disciplines.

“I think the main takeaway is if you show up for an objective and you already have the technical skills required, in some ways it might be better not to be burdened by the history of the expectations,” Honnold said, comparing Ondra’s climb with his and Caldwell’s own success on the Fitz Roy Traverse. The Traverse had foiled veteran alpinists for years, but Honnold and Caldwell, rock climbers with little high alpine experience, were able to accomplish it on their first attempt.

“Adam wasn’t weighed down by any preconceived notions—he just showed up and tried his best,” said Honnold.

What’s Next

Honnold says this year might signal “the beginning of truly hard, world standard climbing in the Valley,” though only time will tell.

“This being the hardest big wall it is, of course, a big step up and at this point, it’s hard to see the next one. In Yosemite, though, there is a lot more than just technical difficulty. Ask any tourist. There is just a hell of a lot of pure bigness here,” said Croft.

As for the future of the Dawn Wall?

“If it wasn’t for Ondra, I think it would have been a long, long time before there was a second ascent,” Caldwell says. “But who knows, maybe people are starting to move toward that style of climbing. People are getting more into the experience of it rather than just putting a check in the box, being able to say they can climb at a certain grade. Adam was able to embrace that aspect, which may be why he seemed to have such a rich experience up there.”

Wright says he wouldn’t be surprised to see Ondra complete a single-day ascent of the Dawn Wall a year from now. “I’m sure he will be back. With a month of hard work on the route, he’d be prepared to climb it in a day. I really believe he could do it,” said Wright.

The interest in longer, more experience-driven routes might also translate to increased interest in big mountain climbs elsewhere in the world, and Conrad Anker expects the trend to funnel more talent into those pursuits. “The logical progression to harder climbing in the Valley is harder climbing overseas—in Patagonia and the Himalayas. That’s the progression of the sport. This is a step in further advancing the ability of all climbers,” he said.