Tommy Caldwell did not reach the summit of El Capitan during his recent expedition on the towering granite monolith in California’s Yosemite National Park, but it was not for lack of effort or determination.
The professional rock climber spent 16 days and nights in a vertical existence on El Capitan’s 3,000-foot face, attempting a seemingly impossible free-climbing route. While 16 days is not a record — the legendary Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) once spent 27 nights on El Cap’s face — it’s about five times longer than a typical climbing party spends while trying to advance up simpler routes.
Tommy Caldwell negotiates a pitch on El Capitan while attempting a difficult route that has never been scaled by a free-climber. Photo: Kyle Berkompas.
Free-climbers use ropes and a belaying partner to secure holds in case of a fall. Caldwell’s wife, Becca, was by his side for 10 of the 16 days. They slept on portable ledges and inside hanging tents secured to the granite; they endured freezing wind, rain, snowstorms and cascading sheets of ice while he aspired to complete the “Dawn Wall project.”
A more apt title might be “Mission Impossible.” Caldwell, for a third consecutive year, was forced to abandon his quest short of his goal. He quit last week, when the climbing season ended, after failing to negotiate the 13th of a series of long pitches on a route that remains unconquered by free-climbers.
His odyssey, however, is not regarded as a failure. This is how elite-level rock climbers ultimately succeed: with stubborn determination.
“The process is so long that you hit walls all the time,” said Caldwell, who completed some of the first 12 pitches after as many as 15 attempts, rubbing his fingers raw. “I hit walls dozens of times, and each time you decide whether you want to keep going or not.”
Most of conquered routes on El Capitan feature fairly distinct crack systems or other features that allow for handholds or footholds. Much of the Dawn Wall route is virtually featureless. “There’s just not a heck of a lot to hold onto, so it makes for incredibly continuous hard climbing,” Caldwell said.
This was his first year attempting the harrowing 13th pitch, which hangs nearly 2,000 feet up the famous wall. He spent six days trying and fell in the same spot during each attempt.
The quest was chronicled on Caldwell’s Facebook page. His posts were sometimes amusing. One of them, posted during a storm, reads: “Spent all day in bed with my wife today. What could be better. Just so happens that my bed is currently in the middle of El Cap.”
The portable ledges Caldwell and his wife used as a base were seven feet long and three feet wide. The two slept head-to-toe, obviously, not side-by-side. Caldwell used a narrower ledge during his higher pitch attempts.
The tents covering the ledges protected against harsh weather. But after a freezing storm, ice sheets form on the granite. Chunks begin to fall as temperatures warm and Caldwell recalled their exploding against the granite and striking the tents and ledges:
“They’d bounce off the portaledge and always in the back of your mind was that some giant block will hit it just right and chop it in half.”
His wife was relieved as a belaying partner by one of Caldwell’s friends, and then by his father. But after the 16th day it was clear Caldwell could not negotiate the 13th pitch, so the quest was abandoned.
The Patagonia-sponsored athlete believes he has the ability to complete the pitch. But to do that, he said, he’d have to complete lower pitches much quicker to spare the skin on his fingers. He assured in an interview that he’ll be back next fall for another try, and on his Facebook page he explained why he’s inspired to keep trying:
“A journey such as this is something I do because of a mysterious deep-rooted curiosity. A want to explore not only what we see, but who we are. I have chosen to immerse myself in things grander than me. To stretch my imagination in a effort to learn what I can dig out of the depths of my being. It would empty without the allure of success. But it doesn’t always end that way. At least for now.”
– Top image of Tommy Caldwell on the face of El Capitan is courtesy of Kyle Berkompas. Other images were provided by the Caldwells. Third image shows Tommy Caldwell attempting the 13th pitch and final image shows the Dawn Wall route