Since the Dawn Wall was first climbed in 2015 it’s been the most famous climbing route in the world. Now two young climbers have literally sailed across the ocean to see if they can repeat the famous line.
Sébastien Berthe and Siebe Vanhee are two young Belgian climbers with a penchant for big trips and big walls. Though relatively unknown in the more American-centric climbing media, the two are probably some of the best prepared for such a feat.
The Dawn Wall Attempt Is Over?
Seb and Siebe have stopped their attempt on the Dawn Wall – for now, at least. Pitch 14 had shut them down over and over, to the point where they’d been stuck at the redpoint attempt for over two weeks.
Sébastien had six attempts where he’d made it all the way to the crux before falling. This is after an untold number of sessions working on each move in the week before. Check out his Instagram for a video of a heartbreaking fall on the very last move!
The guys seemed incredibly motivated for such a hard route and we’re sure at least one of them will be back again.
The pair were due to go for a full ground-up push, but it looks like they’ve decided to do a fair bit more projecting before they go for the full shebang. Though they could individually take down the cruxes, would that be possible a full day or two into climbing? It did take Tommy and Kevin nearly seven full seasons to dial in the whole thing.
Siebe writes in a recent post: “Slowly I start[ed] to get a good idea of the dimension of this project for me. I realize how ambitious and impatient I was in the last two weeks. When we topped out on the 28th of January, I thought we could be ready for a push in the following weeks. But after having revisited some of the lower crux pitches I realized I had to finetune and practice the moves a lot more to be really comfortable for a push… the upper pitches require more work, imagine sending everything including the crux pitches and then not being able to pass the four medium hard pitches afterwards? That would be frustrating.“
After a few weeks on the wall, the harder pitches are still needing work. The boys are both dialing in their beta and making progress – but it’s more of a “slow and steady wins the race” than an all-out mad dash.
They’ve both settled into working the route a few days on then a few days off for skin to recover. Siebe has to leave for three weeks for work but is planning to come back. They’ve managed to extend their stay in the US and the park with the new permits, as there’s not much of a queue for this route.
You can come back here for updates or check the Instagram stories of @siebevanhee and @sebertheclimber basically live.
The Dream Team?
Both are also no strangers to climbing the big granite faces of Yosemite national park. Sébastien Berthe climbed The Nose back in 2019, becoming the seventh person to have ever free-climbed it at the time. Notably, he was the first person to climb it ground up – meaning he didn’t do any rappels in to check or practice certain pitches. He just roped up with his belayer Loic Debry and climbed until he had successfully free’d every pitch eight days later.
He’d also been about in 2016 and climbed The Heart Route, then in 2017 the classic Freerider in just one day. He’s climbed multipitches with his Dad since he was 10 years old! Seb made his way over with friends and fellow climbers on a 25-day trip crossing the Atlantic ocean! Seriously, take a look. You can watch a video from EpicTV on Sebastien on the nose and his process below.
Siebe Vanhee also has a crazy resumé with a stint in the famous park. He bolted and made the first free ascent of Fire in the Belly, an 11 pitch 700m big wall in Madagascar. He did the entire thing from the ground up and gave it a grade of 8a+, along with multipitch legend Sean Villaneuva-O’Driscoll. Recently he’s been hanging around the gritstone crags of the UK repeating some hard and scary trad testpieces.
Going into a wall like this without a plan is a recipe for disaster. The pair managed to get in touch with Tommy Caldwell who shared some very specific beta on the route. The topo (like a climbing map) and Adam Ondra’s beta are out there to look at. There is also the film itself (see Dawn Wall film review) and Tommy’s book The Push for more.
Originally they’d planned to try everything – including bringing gear up and stashing – ground up. The Dawn Wall is not the one to try in this style. They did try a ground-up push for a few days to work the lower “easier” routes but even then found this to be a lot harder than it needed to be without the prep in place.
The pair had a fair amount of work to do in a pretty short amount of time. Winter is the only viable season because of the added friction from the crisp temperatures. Firstly the wall needed to be rappeled into purely for stashing food, water, and gear. Then the general plan was to try the handful of harder pitches first to get a general overview of each and their cruxes.
This allowed them to come down and think a bit about the beta and plan how they’d spend their time. They’ve now spent three weeks finishing off the rigging and prep, then dialing in the specific beta for each pitch. For pitch 15 specifically, they spent two full days working the individual moves and then trying to link them all together.
From Siebe’s insta: “We both gave it two goes. On my second go, in the first crux, I told Seb; “I don’t think I’m even capable of doing this move.” Only 5min later, after Seb told me to get my body in a slightly different position, I did that crux move and linked the following moves right away. I was amazed and got a motivation boost! This whole climb is full of subtle body positions. But once understood, we hope our bodies remember.“
At the moment the pair seem fairly confident that they can get the hardest pitches done but are going to stay in the practice phase. They’ve got their videographer Alex Eggermont and photographer Julia Cassou up on the wall with them.
Big Wall “Rules”
The “style” of these hard big walls is basically this: Once you leave the ground, coming back down ends the attempt and you’ll sleep on the wall until it’s done. You can try pitches and fail multiple times but must pull the rope and try each pitch from the start – in order. Both climbers must climb each pitch clean and on lead. Sometimes for much easier pitches, top-rope is acceptable as it’s assumed those could be done on lead at this level.
Going back to a fixed base camp on the wall via a fixed line is generally seen as OK as long as you don’t leave the wall or jug to the top. Friends, documentary makers, and journalists dropping in to say hi and deliver food and water are OK. El Cap also has great cell and 4G connection somehow.
Real Rock Resumé
The pair have been working together on multipitch routes now for a few years. Last year they made the first free ascent of Histoire sans Fin, an 8b+ 200 meter granite route in Switzerland that’s been described as “the best granite multipitch of the grade” in all of Europe.
In the same year, they made another first free ascent, this time on Fly – a massive twenty pitch route over 550 meters in the Lauterbrunnen valley in Switzerland. In 2020 they climbed Des Kaisers Neue Kleider (translates to The Emperor’s New Clothes), a nine-pitch 240-meter classic at 8b+ in Austria.
If you want to nerd out on the climbing specifics you can catch a really good interview with Siebe on the Enormocast podcast. He was hanging at the park’s café while he talked to the host Chris Kalous and gets into the nitty-gritty of big wall logistics and tactics – listen here.
The Dawn Wall Route
The Dawn Wall is made up of 32 pitches over 3,000 feet of granite. The overall grading is around 5.14d or 9a. There are two “crux” pitches – 14 and 15 – that are both graded at 5.14d, though pitch 15 is seen as the overall hardest one. It’s the one that shut down Kevin Jorgeson and forced him to rest while his skin grew back.
It’s likely the hardest multipitch route in the world and the only other person to have climbed it was Adam Ondra. Read Who Has Climbed The Dawn Wall for more info on the route, each separate pitch, and all the groundwork that went into the famous wall.
It also requires a hell of a lot of gear, including a bunch of stuff even hardened trad climbers may never have touched. As the route only is primarily trad and was entirely aid, there are as few bolts as possible and only on some of the anchors. As well as portaledges, they had to buy and borrow some specific aid climbing gear like beaks and hammers to protect the thin cracks at some sections.
As the route is a variation of an old aid route, it does get some traffic. However in general there aren’t many people on the wall – which is a rare thing for any rock in Yosemite. As a result, it’s fairly obvious when people are working it, which gets around on the climbing grapevine quickly.
It’s worth noting that Adam Ondra did the route with just him climbing. His partner was there purely to belay and support him on the pitch.
Back in the winter of 2019/2020 Nalle Hukkataival and Ignacio Mulero were attempting the Dawn Wall but had no luck. The combination of huge amounts of hauling plus the insanely hard pitches themselves were just too much. They didn’t come back last year because of restrictions and don’t seem to be trying again – at least in 2022.
Header image by Alex Eggermont