In THE PUSH, Tommy Caldwell reflects on the experiences that allowed him to free climb The Dawn Wall...
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In an excerpt from his new book, Tommy Caldwell describes a breakthrough moment during his push with Kevin Jorgeson to free climb the Dawn Wall on Yosemite's iconic monolith, El Capitan.
"In a way, the Dawn Wall is a throwback. In the late eighties, many thought that the difficulties of rock climbing had nearly reached a ceiling. At some point the holds would simply become too small. But then people began climbing on the undersides of overhangs, where the holds are comparatively large and difficulty comes from a style reliant more on power and spectacular, gymnastic-style movements. For twenty years that style defined the cutting edge, and near-vertical, small-hold climbing, with its excruciatingly tedious technique, became a forgotten art.
I imagine that’s one reason why the climbing community thought that El Capitan was climbed out. Parts of the Dawn Wall were simply too blank, too smooth. While the first twelve pitches weren’t much harder than what had been done in the past on this kind of rock, pitches 14 and 15, set smack in the middle of this three-thousand-foot monolith, brought it to the next level.
The next three pitches—the two cruxes, followed by the dyno pitch—had kept me up at night for years. Climbing them individually is very different from climbing them after nearly a week on the wall. Like trying to run a four-minute mile after finishing a marathon, from the couch it sounds possible. But doubt looms as a constant threat, like a virus ready to attack.
We spend a few hours swinging back and forth on the rope, feeling the holds and mapping the sequence with chalk marks. I stroke and whisper to the holds, asking them to be kind to me today. We each take a warm-up burn, and then wait until the right moment for our first try. For me, this is just before dusk, when the rock has had the maximum time to cool from the midday sun, but there is still enough light to see without a headlamp. Before climbing I sit cross-legged on our belay portaledge and meditate. I listen to the hum of my body and reduce my world to the bubble of the pitch. I block out the exposure. I nod at Kevin and he nods back, and then I step off the portaledge into a cold blast of air blowing from the valley floor straight up the wall. Right away I notice that I’m not trusting my feet. I try to compensate by pulling harder with my fingers. I climb twenty feet to a resting position, and try to recompose.
Pull yourself together, you can do this.
But doubt has already seeped in. I step up the tempo. I pull hard on the razor-sharp holds, too hard. My body position is off, my foot slips, and I feel a microscopic shift in my left middle finger. I let go and swing onto the rope. A drop of blood falls and is whisked away by the wind. I look at my hands. Damn it. There is a perfect V-shaped gash in my left middle fingertip. I have Kevin lower me back to the portaledge. I apply pressure to stop the bleeding, then wrap it in tape.
"I just felt a little off that time,” I mumble, staring at my finger. “I feel strong though. Conditions are perfect.”
Kevin is only half paying attention, thinking about his own attempt. I let him stay in the zone. Since most of our rehearsals of this pitch have been in the dark, Kevin decides to wait. When daylight fades to black, he clicks on his headlamp and sets off. As he climbs the easier part at the beginning, he makes small talk.
“I remember the first time you showed me this pitch. I thought you were crazy for thinking it would go free.”
I understand his strategy. He is trying to relieve the pressure, act as if this is just another practice round. After twenty feet of climbing he rests for a few minutes on decent footholds. As he pulls into the first crux sequence his body begins to shake. I’m sure he’s about to fall. But he lets out a herculean grunt and, somehow, manages to climb through to another micro-stance.
"Yeah, Kevin, that was crazy!” I shout.
“I showed that move who was boss,” he replies.
I can’t help but chuckle at his light but determined mood. He alternately shakes his hands for a minute, resets his focus, and pulls into the second crux. He climbs flawlessly, absolute perfection.
“Oh, hell yeah, that felt great,” he shouts. He hangs from a finger-width edge and pumps a fist. I can’t see his eyes, but I can sense his fire. He rests for another minute and I hold my breath. Just one more sequence of desperate climbing. Stealthily, fiercely, he growls and then crosses his right hand over his left. Places his left foot on a pea-sized bump and presses it hard. He reaches far with his left hand until he is spanned out like Christ on a crucifix. He inchworms his fingers onto a razor blade, hops his right foot in, directly under him. He crosses his right hand over again. For a moment, he hesitates. The universe falls away beneath him. Ever so carefully he reaches his left hand to a good hold. The moment he touches it, his other limbs cut lose but he hangs on and shuffles his feet onto the ledge that marks the end of the pitch.
My eyes bug out.
“Did that just really happen?” Kevin mutters through labored breath.
“Oh, yeah it did!” I yell.
Kevin makes his way back to the portaledge—on the traverse pitches, it works better for each of us to lead. When he arrives I grab his shoulders and shake him like a rag doll. “That was freaking incredible!”
“Thanks, man.” He gives me a big hug and looks in my eyes. “Now it’s your turn.”
I sit for a few minutes, somewhat dumbstruck. I’ve never considered that Kevin might actually outclimb me. I’ve always been impressed by his climbing skill, but this is a whole new level. Before this attempt, he hadn’t cleanly climbed pitches 12, 13, or 14. Pitch 14 is the hardest stretch of climbing he’s done in his life, and he did it by headlamp after a week on the wall. Since 2010, we had failed to set a new high point. And now Kevin just did it. I am both exceedingly proud and green with envy.
On top of it, the odds are momentarily against me. On a climb where molecules of skin contact make all of the difference, I now have only three fully functioning fingers—including my thumb—on my left hand. Next to my missing index finger, my sliced-open middle finger is covered in tape.
As these thoughts swirl in my head, they’re overtaken by a determination that I have rarely experienced in life. I must find a way. I look again at my torn fingertip.
I wrap my finger tightly in a fresh layer of tape, switch on my headlamp, and start climbing. I feel light and airy, aware of every detail. A few moves in, blood seeps through the tape. My headlamp casts shadows across the stone. I become disembodied. Time slows. Through Kevin’s stare I can feel his unwavering focus, willing me to stay attached to the wall. I feel his strength flowing through the rope.
I climb through the first sequence perfectly, rest for a moment, and notice my breath rising in the darkness. I enter the second sequence. My feet dance across microscopic ripples. I place my fingers on the holds one at a time, letting the texture of my fingerprints settle into the granite. I get to the next resting position, pause, and take a few breaths, exhaling forcefully. Just six more feet. I pull into the final moves.
My hand blurs into focus under the beam of my headlamp. I watch my fingers curl, my knuckles extend up. A tiny roll of skin pushes itself behind a micro flake. Excitement wells in my chest, building.
I know I will not fall. I can’t fall. I mirror Kevin’s moves, extend into the crucifix position, cross my hand steadily but powerfully to the good hold, then drop my feet onto the ledge. I let out a scream that leaves me hoarse for two days."
Excerpted from The Push by Tommy Caldwell. Copyright © 2017 by Tommy Caldwell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tommy Caldwell is a member of the La Sportiva Climbing Team.
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