Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson brought Rock Climbing to the front pages in 2015. The Dawn Wall became the hardest big wall climb in the world and five years later still holds up. The formidable wall has now been attempted by more than just the original pair.
The list of who has climbed the Dawn Wall is fairly short. Just Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, and Adam Ondra have climbed the Dawn Wall free - using just their hands and feet, and a rope for safety. Another team have made an attempt too, plus others have climbed a similar section of the wall before but in a different style - read more below.
What Is The Dawn Wall?
Yosemite National Park is almost the centre of the climbing world. There are a range of huge walls in the park with Half Dome and El Capitan being the standout formations. El Cap is the biggest at 1,000 metres (3,300 foot) at it's peak with a huge choice for routes along it's width.
The Dawn Wall is actually a section on the wall near the top that the sun hits at dawn. The line that Tommy and Kevin climbed went from the ground up through this section of the wall to finish and was named the "Free Dawn" or "Dawn Wall Free".
The wall itself had been climbed before through a few different variations - but all by aid climbing. Aid climbing is where various bit of aid like metal hooks or beaks are placed on the rock, clipped into with "aiders" (basically small fabric step ladders) or pulled on.
Aid climbing is using any way possible to get up and is an older style - though still practiced. The first route that went through this section was named the "Wall of Early Morning Light" and first climbed in the 1970. Three more aid routes "Mescalito", "New Dawn" and the "Reticient Wall" take similar paths, some of which cross over or share some pitches.
The Dawn Wall Route - "Free Dawn" / "Dawn Wall Free"
Tommy Caldwell started looking for a way to climb this section of wall free in 2007. Free climbing meaning with your hands and feet only with rope and protection only to stop a fall - not to pull on or cheat your way up. He spent years looking for climbable sections, cleaning the rock and putting bolts into the wall where traditional protection wasn't possible.
The route starts up the "Mescalito" route, diverges for some new pitches then goes back into Mescalito for a few more. It then traverses left and onto the infamous pitch 15 that shut down Kevin Jorgeson for a week, the dyno route or the down-climb and around option that Tommy took.
After this it goes straight up through a few new pitches and goes up a few pitches close to the New Dawn line, crossing onto the original route for a bit and up on to the famous "Wino Tower". From here to the top it shares or mixes up pitches from the "New Dawn", "Mescalito" and others. It finishes at the same point as "The Tempest".
It was the first free climbed route on this section of El Cap and marked a huge step forward in big wall difficulty. Free climbing this part of the wall without using aid was once thought impossible.
Take a look at an amazing high resolution picture of El Capitan with all of the routes marked here. You'll see a yellow line marked "Dawn Wall" that shows the "Free Dawn" route and how it intersects with the old aid lines marked in red.
The First Ascent - Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson
After years of working the pitches and finding a viable route Tommy had to find a partner. Pro boulderer Kevin Jorgeson came on board even though he had literally never climbed a big wall before. Jonathan Siegrist was also part of team for a while. Watch some of his videos on the experience. At one point world famous climber Chris Sharma joined the pair though weather and park shutdowns forced them down.
Eventually it was just Tommy and Kevin who stuck together over years of heart breaking failure. On December 27th 2014 they started up and after 19 full days on the wall without coming down - they topped out the hardest big wall climb in the world.
On January 14th 2015 the pair climbed onto the summit to see their family and friends as well as the world's press waiting for them. Obama tweeted a congratulations at the them, they went on Ellen, and graced international headlines. As the first pair who has climbed the Dawn Wall they'll go down in climbing history.
Dawn Wall Climbing Style + Ethics
Ethics and climbing styles have changed greatly over the years. Tommy and Kevin established what they think is a fair way of climbing the wall. They swung leads on the easier pitches where there wasn't much point in proving they could both lead each pitch. On the hardest pitches they both had to climb on lead and any falls meant pulling the rope and trying the pitch again.
Essentially as long as you don't come down and everyone climbs the hardest pitches "clean" then it's a free ascent. Falling back in the day might have meant going all the way to the ground. However it's generally accepted that this modern style is a good mix of fair logistics and allows the sport to go forward in difficulty.
The Dawn Wall Movie + Book
The movie Dawn Wall came out in 2018 to critical acclaim. It won the SXSW film festival audience award and multiple categories at the Trento film festival. It's a brilliant look into the struggles of the pair and holds up on it's own as an excellent documentary and not just a climbing film.
Tommy Caldwell also wrote a book - The Push - about his experience and life to that point. It really adds a new depth to him as a person and as to the motivations behind the Dawn Wall.
Adam Ondra Climbs The Dawn Wall - First Repeat
Adam Ondra was known for establishing two of the hardest climbs in the world back to back. He had never visited Yosemite but had spent years looking at routes and making a list of what he wanted to do. In 2016 he visited Yosemite for the first time, having never done any real big walls, and immediately got on to the Dawn Wall to put ropes up and starting working pitches.
After ticking off some other Yosemite classics while he was in America, Ondra returned to try the Dawn Wall after setting up a base camp half way. He was belayed by Pavel Blazek who didn't climb and was just there to support him - Read a great interview with him here.
On the main attempt Ondra took eight days in total to complete the entire wall, sleeping at base camp. He fell many times on the hardest pitches 14 and 15, as well as many others but every time pulled the rope and tried again. His ascent is notable also because he climbed every pitch on lead whereas Tommy and Kevin swung leads on easier pitches.
Third Attempt To Climb Dawn Wall
In 2019 Nalle Hukkataival and Ignacio Mulero were reportedly fixing jug lines and working some of the routes. Not only is the wall full of incredibly hard single parts but they had to get used to the huge amount of hauling and work needed.
In January 2020 they attempted the second ascent of the Dawn Wall but didn't manage it due to falls lower down and hard winter weather. The best temperatures for the wall are cold and crisp but with a bit of sun on the wall to stop moisture.
Another attempt is likely by the pair but there are a bunch of factors against them. The USA is still hard hit by COVID so travel restrictions are likely. Yosemite is open but by reservation only plus the air quality in recent months has forced closures - with climbers bailing because of the conditions. Still, being able to say you're someone who has climbed the Dawn Wall will probably be too alluring to give up.
How Many Pitches Does The Dawn Wall Have?
There are 32 pitches in total on the Dawn Wall. There is one 5.9, four 5.11, eight 5.12, twelve 5.13, four 5.14a, one 5.14b, and two 5.14d pitches.
What Is The Hardest Pitch On The Dawn Wall?
The two hardest pitches on the Dawn Wall are both 5.14d / 9a, pitch 14 and 15. Pitch 15 was the one that forced Kevin Jorgeson to take rest days for skin to heal halfway up the wall. Tommy Caldwell and Adam Ondra agree that 15 is the hardest of the two.
What Shoes Did They Use On The Dawn Wall?
Tommy Caldwell worked with La Sportiva to create shoes specifically for the Dawn Wall and Yosemite big walls. The TC Pros were used by both Tommy and Kevin on the Dawn Wall and are hailed as the perfect big wall shoe.
How Long Is The Dawn Wall Route?
The Dawn Wall route is roughly 3,000ft or 915 metres tall. The actual climbing doesn't go in one straight up line and skates around so it's more actual climbing in total.
Is The Dawn Wall The Hardest Climb In The World?
The Dawn Wall is the hardest big wall climb in the world - no doubt. Check out more of the hardest climbs in the world.
How Can I Watch The Dawn Wall?
The Dawn Wall is available to stream or download on Amazon Video.
How Do Climbers Get Down From El Capitan?
Climbers walk off the back. The face of El Cap is the hard part, the back is just a series of rocky hills that lead down to the floor of the valley. The hike down takes a few hours and hiking just to look out across the valley is a popular activity on it's own.
You can rappel back down as well but you either need a bunch of fixed rope or to deal with constantly rethreading the rope and swinging to the belay station every pitch or two.
How Did They Poop On El Capitan?
Let us introduce you to the pinnacle of climbing technology: the Poop Tube.
Simply drop trou and squat over a bag. Wipe away evidence and deposit into the bag. The bag goes into a covered tube that closes up and gets hung as far away from your food as possible.
Pee goes into a very obviously marked as not water bottle. Yes you have to walk this all down to the toilets at the end. Climbers used to (and sometimes still do) pee into the cracks at the back of the wall. Trash used to be thrown off the wall. Neither is OK or really tolerated any more.
How Is The Dawn Wall Different From Free Solo?
The Dawn Wall is more of an all out assault on incredibly difficult rock. It's about perseverance and determination, without much of a danger factor. Though they're high above the floor there is little chance of death, mainly just smaller injuries.
Free Solo in comparison is mainly about the incredible risk as any mistake could lead to a fatal fall. They're both incredible in their own right and equally as impressive to most climbers.
How Hard Is The Dawn Wall?
Tommy and Kevin say the Dawn Wall is around 5.14d or 9a overall. Big wall climbs are generally rated as what the hardest pitches are rated. If the wall is mainly a low grade and just has one or maybe two harder grades, the rating might be just a grade or two lower than the hardest.
It's hard to say definitively because it's better to look at the pitches individually rather than overall. Grading is also subjective and Yosemite is often sandbagged (grades are lower than what they should be) because grading back in the day was different. Tommy continues this tradition and even Ondra was surprised with how hard the pitches were compared to what they had been graded.
Is It Possible To Free Solo The Dawn Wall?
In this lifetime we'll probably never see anyone free solo the Dawn Wall. The hardest free solo was 5.14a / 8b+ and both were single pitches only 25-30m above the ground so it's possible to survive though bad injury was very likely.
The first pitch of 5.14a on the Dawn Wall is only on pitch 7, after this there are three more at 5.14a, one 5.14b and two 5.14d pitches further up. Unless we see a quantum leap in climbing ability or Spock resumes his patrol it's not likely.
How Many People Have Climbed The Dawn Wall?
Just three people have successfully climbed the Dawn Wall - Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, and Adam Ondra. Nalle Hukkataival and Ignacio Mulero have tried and will likely be back for another attempt.