The Dawn Wall Goes Free

On January 14, 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the successful free ascent of the Dawn Wall, the hardest big wall free climb in the world.

“It takes optimism to be up here in the first place, but it’s so easy to fall, on any move, that I can only dream of how hard it will be to keep it cool when the day comes,” Kevin Jorgeson wrote of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in a 2009 email to the Black Diamond headquarters.

Now, five years after Kevin teamed up with fellow Black Diamond athlete Tommy Caldwell on the project and seven years after Caldwell first began working the route, that day has finally come. On the afternoon of January 14, Tommy led the final pitch of the route, followed by Kevin. Their ascent marks the completion of the most difficult big wall free climb in the world.

For both climbers, the project was a labor of love.

“Several times I have given up and moved on, worried I might waste too much of my life searching for something that does not exist or that is too hard for me,” Tommy wrote in a 2010 Black Diamond catalog. “But I have invested so much, and am unable to resist El Cap’s magnetic pull.” Season after season they returned, the blank face in the center of El Cap drawing them. And now their seven-year battle has come to a close.

Tommy Caldwell free climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall

After a day of climbing, Tommy Caldwell applies Climb On salve — a blend of beeswax and oils-to his fingers. Caldwell lost his left index finger to a table saw in 2001. Doctors tried to reattach the finger, but ultimately Caldwell opted for amputation. It hasn’t slowed him down. After spending 19 days on the wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park for their historic first free ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on January 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond | Corey Rich

The Beginning: 1970

A media cloud similar to the one currently circling Tommy and Kevin descended on Yosemite Valley 44 years ago, in October of 1970. Attention was fixed on Warren Harding and his partner, Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy), who were making the first ascent of the Wall of Early Morning Light (which would later become known as Mescalito and finally the Dawn Wall). Their ascent was controversial. The duo employed bat hooks, aluminum rivets and placed roughly 300 bolts during their 27-day ascent. Many felt that their style had cheapened hard climbing in Yosemite in order to sell it to the masses. But at the time, it was hailed as “the most difficult rock climb yet accomplished,” by the 1971 American Alpine Journal.

2007 – 2009

Tommy was first inspired by the Dawn Wall’s blank, steep face and free climbing potential in 2007. He tentatively explored its possibility, motivated by the difficulty it presented.

“I have little interest in a life of leisure,” he wrote in 2010. “So I think up these super projects to push me hard and make me thrive.”

And the Dawn Wall would do just that. In 2008, Tommy committed himself further to the project, feeling out its feasibility. Kevin, a climber most well-known for his highball boulder ascents, joined Tommy the following year. Together, the duo sussed out the moves, still unsure that the line would go free. “It’s at the limit of possibility,” Kevin said of the crux pitch. But after two months of exploring, they had stuck all but a handful of the moves, and they were sure it could be done.

2010 – 2011

Committed to the project, the two returned in 2010, climbing the first 12 pitches of the 32-pitch route, only to be stymied by a snowstorm that blanketed the Valley. They waited for the next season. And with re-enlivened spirits, they returned. But on one of the crux pitches, which involves an eight-foot dyno, Kevin was waylaid. He lunged for the move, his foot hit the wall, sticking in the corner and rolling. He made an appointment with his physiotherapist from the belay and promptly retreated. Tommy pushed on, belayed by his wife, Becca Caldwell, but, confounded by Pitch 13, was forced to retreat as well.


For the first half of the following season, Kevin aimed his adventurous spirit in a more fluid direction, rafting the Colorado River while Tommy pushed on, joined by Jonathan Siegrist. Their decision to add another team member stemmed from a need for “more energy, more backup, more talent, and all around good times on the wall,” as Kevin explained on his blog. The trio worked diligently to redpoint Pitches 14 and 15 in order to position themselves for a ground-up ascent. But 2012 was not the year for the send.

“I’m starting to see the cycle; when your skin is thrashed, your whole life smells like urine, you’re mentally exhausted, thirsty and hungry, you can’t wait to have dirt under your feet,” Jonathan blogged.


2013 brought another team member to the wall: Chris Sharma. But the government shutdown delayed the climbers’ push, and once on the wall, a haulbag attached to Tommy’s harness took a 200-foot whip, delivering a near season-ending blow to his lower back. After a few weeks of rest, the tenacious Tommy returned to the wall, sending the crux pitch of the route, Pitch 15. The pitch, at 5.14d, is one of two of the most difficult pitches of free climbing in the Valley. The other is Pitch 14 of the Dawn Wall. Despite Tommy’s success on the crux, there was not enough time left for a ground-up ascent, and although either Tommy or Kevin had redpointed nearly all of the pitches on the route, Pitch 14 remained undone.

2014 – 2015

Tommy returned to the wall for his sixth season and Kevin for his fifth. In mid-November, 2014, Tommy redpointed the remaining pitch, writing on Instagram, “After six years I finally sent this beast of a pitch… This officially means all the hard individual pitches have been redpointed.”

A ground-up summit push—no simple feat—was the only thing left to be done.

In the days leading up to the successful send of the route, as it became clear that this Dawn Wall season would be the Dawn Wall season, Dawn Wall fervor enveloped those on the ground. The duo’s upward progress was closely watched by the multitudes that followed their progress through livestreams and Twitter posts, and Tommy and Kevin’s years-long battle for the ascent proved to be perfect fodder for a viral story. ABC, CBS and NBC news trucks kicked up dirt in the Valley. Tommy and Kevin were the David, and the Dawn Wall was the Goliath.

Dawn Wall

Pitch 15, rated 5.14d, of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park gave Kevin Jorgeson the most difficulty during his and Tommy Caldwell’s historic first free ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on January 14, 2015. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond | Corey Rich

But as Tommy made it through the most difficult climbing of the route, reaching Wino Tower, where he felt a push for the top would end in success, Kevin was thwarted by Pitch 15 for seven days. His fingers were shredded by the sharp microholds. An ominous weather forecast loomed. Speculation swirled as to what Tommy would do. Would he continue on without Kevin? If he waited, would it mean forfeiting his chance at a free ascent?

But Tommy trusted his partner, and on January 9, Kevin sent Pitch 15. Together, they climbed the remaining pitches, achieving the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. After pulling over the top of the last pitch, they shared a hug before making the final scramble to the summit.

They had made history: the most difficult big wall in the world has gone free, and the duo’s dream of climbing it has come true.

“To free climb the Dawn Wall will mean catapulting forward what is thought possible in the world of big wall free climbing,” Tommy wrote. He was right. As Yosemite mainstay Tom Evans said, it is “the climb of the first half of the 21st century.”

Blog post courtesy of Black Diamond. Source:

Header photo courtesy of Black Diamond | Jimmy Chin

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