“The further back you look, the further forward you can see.” – Winston Churchill
Last month, two climbers in central California prompted an unprecedented acknowledgement of the sport the world over. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made international news during the first free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, perhaps big wall’s crown jewel. The feat prompted a deeper reflection into the history of climbing, as well as its future.
Though there may be more difficult big walls to be climbed, none holds a place in the heart of the sport like El Cap does. Modern rock climbing was born in California — in the 1930s, the Sierra Club developed the Yosemite Decimal System (5.10b, for example) to standardize the way climbers described the difficulty of their routes. Only in 1958 was El Cap first successfully summited, almost a decade after the first 8,000-meter peak was climbed in the remote Nepalese mountains.
Consider that for a moment: Maurice Herzog led a team up Annapurna I, a mountain they had never seen, a mountain that had hardly been mapped (in fact, it had only been mapped incorrectly) high in the Indian subcontinent. Herzog’s expedition involved several tons of equipment in climbing to a height some 11,000 feet higher than they had summited their native France in incredibly remote and hostile conditions. They did this eight years before El Cap was climbed by Harding, Merry and Whitmore; a three hour drive from the Bay area in the lovely California autumn, they started their ascent in late September as Kerouac and Cassady were getting into some yabyum and Apple Computers was just a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ three-year-old eye. It took the threesome 47 days, during which they used all manner of tools to make the ascent, from pitons and bolts to ropes made of manila fibers.
Since then, rock climbing has grown up. Today, there isn’t a major city without a climbing gym. Athletes are flown all over the world to work on “projects.” Harder men and women than I put up unfathomable routes in British Columbia and Mallorca and Thailand. Huge competitions run, and huge amounts of money are spent on its image. The sport is attracting a growing body of enthusiasts — it has gone mainstream.
Needless to say, Caldwell and Jorgeson’s accomplishment is profound. The reason this ascent is profound, and at all relevant given the fact that the first ascent was way back in 1970, is that Caldwell and Jorgeson free climbed the route, meaning they used equipment only to protect themselves in the case of a fall, not to aid in ascending. It took the two 19 weather-beaten, physically tortuous days to complete the route, which consists of 32 pitches with levels up to 5.14d. (For context, when the Yosemite Decimal System was devised, 5.9 was set as the hardest climb humanly possible.) The two climbed at night, so the rock was cooler and their hands wouldn’t sweat as much. For a week, Jorgeson struggled with Pitch 15, a 5.14c section that required the two to suspend their entire bodies using tiny slivers of rock as handholds and minor indents in the sheer face as toeholds. Once Jorgeson overcame this, he raced to catch up with Caldwell, who had been waiting (despite the chance of a storm blowing in a foiling their entire attempt) to finish together. And if this climb wasn’t difficult enough, Caldwell, the older and more experienced climber, lost his left index finger to a table saw accident in 2000…
With this triumphant success at the Dawn Wall, climbing has entered adulthood. Its surly and burly and beautiful adolescence is over. What once was impossible has been achieved. It is human nature, it seems, to go beyond what went before. We set our sights on what we think could be, even while knowing it might not. These bold and audacious few look at the world differently than others: they see a path to achievement where most do not — and so human possibility becomes human capability.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are such bold and audacious humans, 21st-century explorers that are willing to see a challenge, accept the work involved, and pursue it despite the overwhelming odds stacking up against them. These pioneers have worked for their entire lives to earn the opportunity to even attempt what they’ve done, let alone complete it. That level of dedication and sacrifice explains Jorgeson’s humble and nuanced sentiment expressed on Twitter: “To anyone writing about #dawnwall, this is not an effort to ‘conquer.’ It’s about realizing a dream.”
So it is time for climbing to take responsibility for itself. And in a way, it is. Controversial though it was, Clif Bar’s decision to drop several of it’s more risk-attracted athletes from its sponsorship last fall — and the respectable and thoughtful response of those athletes — is one example of that newfound responsibility, taken on both sides of the issue. Additionally, industry leaders are deepening their sense of civic engagement and working with government officials to lend popular credibility to climate initiatives.
Climbing is no longer a disenfranchised and unrecognized activity perpetuated by a haggle of dirtbag crazies living on the fringes of society. Well, it is, but it has also become real industry, a pastime growing increasingly accessible to an increasingly un-dirtbag crowd. Check out a hip rock gym in any major American urban center — it’s quite a scene. And that’s okay, it just needs to be acknowledged: climbing isn’t what it once was. For that matter, the world isn’t what it once was. This world is changing as it always has: with an accelerating pace. Some call it a death of culture; I see as an evolution. If we let Tommy and Kevin’s accomplishment inspire, and fully appreciate that what others say is impossible just might not be, then we truly have a chance to achieve what we see is beautiful and good and true.
Looking forward, I’m not sure what I see. I love that climbers, especially the pros, inspire less audacious souls to discover their inner pioneers, to get outside and enjoy the beauty of the natural world. Certainly men and women will continue to push the envelope as they always have, but to what end? Climbing as an Olympic sport? More massive Himalayan alpine-style ascents (solo, no less)? Given the past and present innovative spirit that gave rise to the sport, it seems nothing will surprise us anymore. But my hope is rather simple — that more people gain an interest in the outdoors, start to take note of how beautiful this world is, to get out and enjoy it safely. Then perhaps we’ll see even more positive consequences down the line.
Thus, Tommy and Kevin, thank you. And congratulations. You truly earned the respect you’ve gained. But let us be clear: this is not rock climbing’s apotheosis… it is only the apex of its childhood.