A couple weeks ago Adam and I received a call from his mom. She had just watched a segment on the news about a climber named Tommy who’s climbing a new route up El Capitan. “Isn’t that the climber you saw while you were in Yosemite?” Adam and I looked at each other – the news? The Dawn Wall had made the news? A couple days later I spoke with my parents. They had watched a similar segment on TV. And so it went – every family member or friend I talked to asked me, “Did you hear about those climbers in Yosemite?” I was baffled that Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s push on the Dawn Wall had broken into mainstream media, not because the attention wasn’t well deserved, but because it is extremely rare for our community to capture the attention of non-climbers. But, as I said, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand exactly how our sport works. As a result, climbers, including myself, have felt a full spectrum of emotions in response to the sudden spotlight on our community – excitement, frustration, anger, and amusement. While everyone is thrilled that these amazing athletes are getting the attention they deserve, it comes with the price of misinformation and criticism.
The Dawn Wall is a route on El Capitan (in Yosemite National Park, CA) that Tommy Caldwell has been working to free climb for the past seven years. This single sentence contains much of the information that has been causing so much confusion and misinformation. The best way I’ve heard it described is like a game of telephone – what starts out as accurate material gets reworded by non-climbers and slowly evolves into the ridiculous coverage we hear about on the news. One extremely inaccurate news report stated that if Caldwell and Jorgeson succeed on their climb, they would be the first climbers to scale the 3,000 foot cliff called El Capitan. In fact, there are over 100 routes going up El Cap, so although no one has ever free climbed the Dawn Wall, many people have climbed other routes on El Cap. Another major misconception is in regards to free climbing versus free soloing – two very different terms used in climbing jargon that are misused all too often. While talking with my sister’s friend about inaccurate news reports on the Dawn Wall, he told me, “Yea, I totally know what you mean – they said that Tommy and Kevin were free climbing and I definitely saw ropes in the video.” Actually, they had their facts straight when they made that statement. Free climbing is in fact what they were doing. The defining characteristic of free climbing is that the climber is not using gear to make upward progress, rather only to catch the climber if he or she should fall. On the other hand, free soloing means climbing without a rope or any gear. (Rather than trying to use climbing jargon, many non-climbing media outlets have attempted to describe their style of climbing by explaining they are using “only their hands and feet”, now a joke among climbers.)
So what’s the big deal? Why is this specific climb getting so much attention? The Dawn Wall will forever go down in climbing history as a groundbreaking ascent. (After 7 years of working on this route, and 19 days starting from the ground, Tommy and Kevin topped out the climb on January 14.) It has pushed the boundaries of what is possible in the world of climbing because of the sheer difficulty sustained over 3,000 vertical feet.
“Climbing doesn’t matter, not in the grand scheme – what matters is what it means to us as individuals.” – American climber Gregory Crouch from the book The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre
All the attention surrounding the Dawn Wall created more than a good laugh for climbers. As with most news articles, it drew a great deal of criticism to the sport. While many accusations rolled easily off the shoulders of the community, more than a few assertions struck the Achilles tendon of many climbers. One person commented on a NY Times article, “Strikes me as a dumb way to spend one’s time. Dangerous, and for what purpose? A thrill. One should devote such considerable energies to something more constructive.” Another commenter stated, “I see stupid stunts like this time and time again and I continue to ask why? Pure ego, it accomplishes absolutely nothing and puts your life at risk, till someone has to rescue you. Dumb.”
I believe it is natural to question “why”. In fact, most climbers will admit to asking themselves this very question at one point or another during their career. However, it saddens me that people jump to such presumptuous conclusions rather than making the effort to understand. For many people, including myself, climbing is not just a hobby or sport – it’s a lifestyle. It’s about living simply, seizing the moment, and pushing yourself to the limit in order to discover just what you’re capable of. It’s also about living within a community of like-minded people who share the same ideals and passion for life. In an interview with the NY Times, Tommy says, “I would love for this [the Dawn Wall] to open people’s minds to what an amazing sport this is. I think the larger audience’s conception is that we’re thrill seekers, out there for an adrenaline rush. We really aren’t at all. It’s about spending our lives in these beautiful places and forming these incredible bonds with friends and family. It’s really a lifestyle. It’s super healthy, and the climbing world is some of the most psyched, great people around. And if that love can spread, that’s really a great thing.”
Climbing may not be saving the world, solving world hunger, or curing terrible diseases, but when you live life passionately you inspire, and inspiration is a powerful tool. In a recent Enormocast episode interviewing Kelly Cordes, Kelly exclaims, “Passion matters. I’ve known people that play the piano beautifully. I think that matters. I don’t know shit about music, but I think that passion in life matters.” So what makes music any different from climbing? Music has the ability to share emotions, create memories, and express oneself, just like climbing. There are so many lessons that can be learned from climbing – hard work, determination, self-reliance, and mental strength to name a few. I believe that inspiring others to pursue their dreams through the use of these characteristics is a worthwhile outcome of anyone’s time. Living an authentic life, one that creates happiness rather than a life lived by default and filled with regret, is reason enough to pursue a dream like the Dawn Wall.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
Interested in reading more about the Dawn Wall? Read this in-depth article for all the details:
Interested in learning more climbing jargon? Check this out: