Nineteen days after they set out to achieve one of climbing’s most difficult challenges, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of the 3,000-foot rock known as El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on Wednesday, marking the first free ascent of a notoriously difficult section called the Dawn Wall.
Caldwell and Jorgeson reached the summit just after 6:00 p.m. EST, where a contingent of 40 friends and family members, plus a group of reporters, stood ready to greet them, having arrived via an eight-mile (13-kilometer) hike around the backside of the mountain.
The crowd had already begun toasting the duo’s accomplishment with champagne.
The ascent represents the realization of Caldwell’s vision to find a way to free climb the Dawn Wall—widely considered too steep and lacking enough cracks or seams in the rock for free climbing—a dream that began seven years ago, when Caldwell began exploring this historic granite face.
“This is not an effort to ‘conquer,'” Jorgeson said Tuesday on Twitter, from 2,000 feet (610 meters) up the side of El Capitan. “It’s about realizing a dream.”
From the start, two and a half weeks ago, the climbing world has been charting their progress. But as the pair moved up the wall and first Caldwell and then Jorgeson successfully made it past the most difficult sections, a much broader, global audience became captivated by the imagery of two men clinging to the most improbable-looking surface of rock by the very tips of their fingers, thousands of feet above the ground.
Free climbing means using one’s hands and feet to ascend a rock’s natural features, employing ropes and other gear only to stop a fall. At roughly 3,000 feet (915 meters) tall, the Dawn Wall comprises 32 “pitches”—or 32 rope-lengths—of climbing.
Caldwell’s and Jorgeson’s goal was to free climb all 32 pitches—without falling and without returning to the ground in between. If one of them fell while attempting a pitch, he would have to try that individual pitch from its beginning again.
They began their ascent on December 27, and committed to living up on the side of El Cap for as long as it took each of them to free climb every pitch in succession. Their base camp consisted of three portaledges—each one a six-foot by four-foot (2-meter by 1-meter) platform with tent fly, suspended by nylon straps and hanging from bolts in the sheer granite wall. For breakfast they ate whole-wheat bagels topped with cream cheese, red bell pepper, cucumber, and salami or salmon. At night, they sipped whiskey. Every few days, one of the friends waiting on the ground ascended 1,200 feet (366 meters) of rope to bring the team a new cache of supplies and water.
Over the first six days, they made quick work of the initial 14 pitches—some of the hardest pitches of all. During their five previous attempts at the Dawn Wall, spread out over as many years, they had never even made it past pitch 12. When they both accomplished pitch 14 on January 1, it seemed as though the duo stood a real chance of success.