If you want to find out how Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen got from 2008, when Jorgensen was a rookie big wall climber, to 2015, about to attempt the first ever free solo of El Cap, can I suggest you watch the film “Dawn Wall”? It’s ostensibly about their attempt, but a lot of it is also about Caldwell’s life, and it’s where I got most of my information for this blog, with of course a large larding of “research” on the internet. It’s an extraordinary film to watch, beautiful and heart-wrenching and very, very tense. Because, of course, their climb did not go smoothly…
At the start, they were doing the climb somewhat under the radar, albeit with a cameraman accompanying them and watched by a climbing world which knew what was happening. Caldwell may be shy and retiring but he’s also a professional climber and he makes his living from this stuff, so lots and lots of his El Cap climbs had been filmed over the years, and clearly, he had a film in mind when he was making the attempt. When they set off there were a few fans in the meadow below and a professional photographer who wanted to be there to capture their attempts. So far, so froody. They set off and climbed without incident, more or less, to Pitch 15, where they set up camp.*
Pitch 15, you will recall, is the pitch which had never been climbed, even by Caldwell. The way their free climb went was like this: one of them would attempt the pitch while the other belayed him. If the first climber fell before completing the pitch, he would go back to the beginning and the other one would attempt the pitch, and so it would go on until both of them had climbed it. They attempted pitch 15, and, relatively quickly, Caldwell climbed it. Whoo-hoo! And then Jorgensen tried. And fell. And tried again. And fell. And tried again…. and fell again…. and again…..
*”Camp” in these circumstances is not a tent; it’s a portaledge, an artificial ledge affixed to the rock face on which climbers rest and sleep and pooh and cook and pretty much everything else during a climb except climb. It’s a crazy concept to anyone not used to it, but for Caldwell and Jorgensen it was second nature – except when the winds got up and started lifting the ledges and banging them against the rock, which was definitely squeaky bum time. Did I mention they were doing this climb in the middle of winter? Not just because the wall was empty of other climbers then, and there would be fewer observers, but also because the cold meant the atmosphere would be dryer and therefore adhesion to the rock better. Despite the fierce cold they often climbed bare-chested or in just a tee shirt, which gives you an idea of just how much energy they were expending simply to stay on the rock.