YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — The tip of El Capitan, 3,000 feet above its base, glowed in late-day sunlight while a full moon rose at the other end of the Yosemite Valley on Saturday. In the shadows halfway up the sheer granite face were a pair of dots, the latest to attempt one of rock climbing’s greatest challenges.
There are about 100 routes up El Capitan, first summited from the valley floor in 1958. But these dots, climbers named Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, were trying something that had never been done. They were scaling the Dawn Wall — as smooth as alabaster, as steep as the bedroom wall, more than half a mile tall — without the benefit of ropes, other than to catch their falls.
“If they get it completed, it will be the hardest completed rock climb in the world,” said Tom Evans, who first climbed El Capitan 48 years ago and has chronicled assaults on it for decades, through his camera lens and a blog. “This will be the climb of the first half of the 21st century.”
After a week of slow, steady progress, and with good weather forecast for the next week, optimism was building that Caldwell and Jorgeson would complete a task they had worked toward — studying, training and failing on a couple of prior pushes — for several years with single-minded obsession.
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Through his lens, Evans watched Caldwell complete the precarious 15th of 32 pitches, or sections, of varying difficulty and length.
In the chilled twilight of the meadow below stood a few other photographers, a couple of friends of the climbers, and several tourists who had ambled into the scene, craning their necks. Evans led them in a whooping cheer that reached the climbers 1,500 feet above.
“Things have been going unbelievably well,” Caldwell said during a phone interview Sunday afternoon from a temporary camp, 1,200 feet up. “We worked on this so long, and it feels kind of like a different route this time. We’re just more prepared, the weather is working out great, and it’s been going super well. Having said that, this climb is never going to get done without some doubt and some moments like ‘Oh, my God, are we going to be able to do this?’ ”
Evans said that only about 13 of El Capitan’s climbing routes had been free climbed, meaning that moving upward is done only with hands and feet. The Dawn Wall, so named because its southeast orientation catches the first light of morning, is far harder than any of the others, climbers said.
“What makes the Dawn Wall so special is that it’s almost not possible,” the renowned climber Alex Honnold said. “The hardest pitches on the Dawn Wall are harder than I’ve ever climbed.”
The wall’s relentlessly smooth face has few cracks to penetrate or nubs to clench. One short section requires a sideways leap, feet and hands off the wall, to holds the size of matchsticks. There are overhangs. Water creeps through some of the few fissures, and ice periodically drops from above. A scale used to gauge difficulty ranks several parts of the Dawn Wall among the toughest to climb in the world.
“People have done single-pitch climbs rated harder,” said filmmaker Josh Lowell, whose Big Up Productions has chronicled Caldwell’s attempts at the Dawn Wall for years. “But this number of pitches, it’ll certainly be the hardest big-wall climb ever — by a mile.”
Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) were the first to climb the Dawn Wall, in 1970, using ropes and countless rivets over 27 days.
About 2008, Caldwell, from Estes Park, Colo., began to seriously ponder whether the entire length could be free climbed in one push, meaning no relief or rest on the valley floor.
Part of the difficulty of such a quest is the cumulative effect on the mind and body. Climbing for days in a row can rub fingers raw. Sleeping in slings amid the elements can be taxing, if not dangerous.
Caldwell, now 36, was not sure it could be done, or if he was the one most capable of doing it. Jorgeson, a 30-year-old from Santa Rosa, Calif., heard of the quest and contacted Caldwell to see if he wanted a partner. The two have spent much of the past five years training on El Capitan, mapping out their strategy and practicing every Dawn Wall pitch, perfecting sequences, positioning and holds.
The best time of year to make the full attempt, they decided, was winter. With the rock fully exposed to the sun, the cold temperatures of the season help keep hands from sweating and maintain better friction between the rock and the rubber soles of the climbers’ shoes.
Caldwell and Jorgeson tried to climb it all in 2010, but storms halted their progress about a third of the way up. Jorgeson broke an ankle during a 2011 attempt on the kind of fall that climbers occasionally endure during the most difficult maneuvers. Caldwell persisted but was stymied for a week by the 14th pitch, the toughest of the route, and went back down.
Late last week, Honnold visited Caldwell and Jorgeson, needing about an hour to go with ropes as high as the two had free climbed in several days. He brought shelled pistachios and dark chocolate.
Honnold lives in Yosemite but climbs all around the world. He has tried to get Caldwell to come with him, but Caldwell has demurred, focused intently on the Dawn Wall. Now he and Jorgeson are as close as they have imagined to completing it.
Climbing mostly in the late afternoon and into the night, using headlamps and the lights of the roped-in camera crew recording the expedition, Caldwell and Jorgeson moved steadily. On Thursday, each made it past the 14th pitch.
Back in Colorado, Caldwell’s wife, Rebecca, waits for updates from her husband while caring for their 20-month-old son, Fitz.
“I don’t think it was a reality that this could really, really happen until Pitch 14,” she said.
Nos. 15 and 16 are considered nearly as hard, and she was relieved to hear that Caldwell had navigated the 15th on Saturday night. Jorgeson made three attempts at it before calling it a night.
“Battling,” he posted on Twitter.
On Sunday afternoon, Jorgeson was full of optimism.
“It’s far from over, but you can’t ignore the fact that it has gone well so far, and it does feel a whole lot different than previous attempts,” he said shortly before attempting Pitch 15 again.