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There's a lot of talk in the media at the moment about Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell Free ascent of the dawn wall of El Capitan.

This wall's been climbed before but this is the first time it's been free climbed. What are Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell doing differently now that hasn't been done before?

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The Dawn wall is one of the largest and most difficult climbs in the world, it's nearly 1000m of blankness, there isn't a lot to hold onto all the way up.

Dawn Wall's climbing route

But you're right, it has been "climbed" before. The Dawn wall was first climbed in 1970 by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell. These climbers used a different technique to what Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell are using today.They (Harding and Caldwell), and everyone else after them, used Aid Climbing to climb this wall. Where as Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell are Free climbing the Dawn wall. So what's the difference?

Aid Climbing

Aid climbing uses a series of specialist tools to scale the wall. These vary considerably from mechanical cams to sharp bird beaks. The idea of this "aid" is that you place it on (or in) the rock above you and hang special ladder like devices called "aiders" from. You then climb the aiders and place another piece of gear, repeat. All your weight is taken by the gear on the wall. You don't really climb (the rock at least) with your hands and feet.

Climber using aid

Free climbing

Not to be confused with Free soloing (where no rope is used). Free climbing is what most people think of when they think of climbing. You climb using your hands and feet. You still place protection using similar tools to aid climbing but these are below you, not above you and are designed to catch you should you fall. The climbers use special sticky shoes to aid friction with their feet and often tape hands but apart from that they pull on the rock using their hands and feet.

Climber free climbing

So Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell are the first people to climb the Dawn wall without using aid.


A lot of people get Free climbing and Free soloing mixed up. For completeness Free soloing is when you climb as in free climbing but without the protection (or rope) to prevent serious falls. No one has ever free soloed the Dawn Wall.

Climber free soloing

Update

Since writing this, Alex Honnold has (amazingly) free solo'd El Capitan (nor a major motion picture :) )....he didn't do the same route as Jorgeson and Caldwell he did Freerider (which at VI, 5.13a is slightly easier than the dawn wall (New Dawn).)

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    No one has ever free soloed the Dawn Wall. And odds are good no one ever will successfully free solo the Dawn Wall. – ShemSeger Apr 15 '15 at 21:22
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    @mattnz: There were specific moves that they attempted and failed dozens of times. Free soloing it would be suicide. – Ben Crowell Apr 16 '15 at 15:18
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    Honnold's solo is mind-bending. Whether it was wise, even for someone of his caliber, is another issue - the rise in standards in the half-century since my first climb is remarkable, but the cost in lives is sobering. After this feat I suspect that Dawn Wall will be free soloed before too long. What @BenCrowell may not know is that Honnold has climbed Freerider many times, and practiced the moves until he knew them inside out. He is so good that even the hardest moves are well below his max. Someone will take a similar approach to Dawn Wall. A solo would be highly dangerous, but not suicide. – Tullochgorum Jun 12 '17 at 16:52
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    @Liam If it's going to be done, Honnold is the most likely person to do it. I guess now that he's set the bar so high that no one can speak in absolutes about the future potential of climbing achievements. I don't know that Honnold has climbed the Dawn Wall at all yet, but a wise man wouldn't attempt it until he's red-pointed it a couple times and is confident he can do it again without ropes. – ShemSeger Jun 12 '17 at 17:40
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    @ShemSeger - well, one thing we can be pretty sure about is that no-one is going to be soloing a wall like that on sight for a very long time, if ever... – Tullochgorum Jun 12 '17 at 21:28
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Liam's answer is spot-on, but I would like to add some details.

"Dawn wall" is actually not the name of a route, but of a portion of the south-east face of El Capitan, which you can see in the figure below:

enter image description here

Figure: the south-east face of El Cap. From www.xRez.com

The first ascension of El Cap passing through the Dawn Wall was realized in 1970 by Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell after 27 days on the wall (source). The name given to this route was Wall of the Early Morning Light (WEML).

Since then, other routes have been established on the Dawn Wall, most notably (source):

  • Mescalito VI 5.7 C3F or A2 (FA:October 1973. Charlie Porter, Hugh Burton, Steve Sutton)
  • New Dawn VI 5.7 A3 (FA:June 1972. Charlie Porter)

Caldwell and Jorgeson's route is called Free Dawn and it resulted from the combination of 14 pitches of Mescalito, 2 pitches of Adrift, 4-5 of WEML, 2 pitches of Tempest and 8 new pitches (source).

What is remarkable about their ascent, apart from the very remarkable fact that it was a free ascent, is the amount of time and work that they had to put into finding a path that would allow for the route to be free climbed.

It was not a "mere" free ascent of a pre-existing aid route, even if some people seem to think that what Tommy and Kevin did was "just" a free ascent of the old WEML route.

In total, this super-project took 8 years (from 2007 to 2015), and a lot of this time was spent just looking for a viable route.

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