The Recipe for Climbing Success

Millions of us have marveled at Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson completing their epic free-climb journey up El Cap’s Dawn Wall. It’s amazing, impressive, and interesting. Here’s some thoughts on it from beneath my hat of climbing historian (see,  and

What we witnessed was a pair of guys pulling off a challenge at the current edges of extended technical climbing. They dug deep into elite talent and epic determination. What’s especially unique though is how well suited this climb was for fans and spectacle. Dawn Wall free went from Caldwell’s next vision for El Cap to a live-feed super-climb that fascinated climbing fans and climbing media, to an international news event. The ascent applied sport-climbing tactics to a new scale, and it set a new standard for rock climbing publicity. As much as I congratulate and admire those guys I also hope against hope that this doesn’t set new popular expectations for what climbing is about.

When I interviewed Tommy Caldwell for my article in Alpinist 39, he was quick to say that “95% of my climbing is private, just me and a partner, and I never want to give that up.” To emphasize his point, his success as a sponsored climber is rooted in thousands of hours and millions of feet of climbing he’s done simply because he’s wanted to do it. What’s more difficult to know is how much the ensuing pulse of publicity and money into the climbing world may draw both new and established climbers into climbing as a spectator sport. Money and attention are necessary ingredients to anyone’s life, and celebrity is nothing new. When celebrity becomes the game though, anyone is wise to watch out for the inversion of value, where the sponsors and audience who pay the piper call the tune.

This was the biggest and blankest granite free route yet conceived, and the strategy for success had to be about breaking the project into manageable bites, and accessing the most demanding sections when all ducks were lined up. Over a period of eight years since Caldwell’s first foray they explored, defined, practiced, protected, fell, refined, fell again many times, and redefined and re-practiced and honed themselves to get each move on each series on each section of each of the 32 pitches. Just managing ropes and anchors to safely access over 3000 feet of stone was a feat in itself. To their enormous credit, they paid attention to not inhibit other climbs or climbers. As best I know they pulled their ropes when they weren’t on the wall, they took care to not place anchors that would notably change the character of the original Wall of The Early Morning Light aid line, and they directed their access lines away from other routes.

I’ve climbed the Nose and the Salathé Wall, and I’ve rapped off The Captain as a photographer, and I can vouch that both climbing and photographing take an impressive amount of brute work, mettle, and safety management. (By the way, the single act of letting myself off from the top was momentarily more heart-thumping and pants-wetting than any moment climbing the routes.)

The inspiration to find our climbing potential can take as many paths as there are climbers, styles, mountains, boulders and crags. But climbs that attract an audience often tip the scales—as has happened for far too long on overloaded Mt. Everest. The Dawn Wall free has been a unique confluence of elite climber vision and character, and route prominence and accessibility. Plenty of other climbs over the years stand out as just as noteworthy or more, especially if you measure with metrics of taking on climbs in a single push into uncertainty and adventurous terrain. Even Caldwell himself on El Cap; his 2005 free ascent of both the Nose and Freerider in a single day still sets the bar up there, and his traverse of the Fitz Roy group of spires in Patagonia with Alex Honnold last year makes the Dawn Wall seem like a gym membership. There’s room in the world for all these types of climbs, but there’s a lot more money and recognition in the Dawn Wall. In general I suppose only Tommy Caldwell can say which of his climbs has more heart. But there will now be even greater temptation for climbers and sponsors to assume that worthwhile climbing is a search for technical difficulty achieved with extensive rehearsal.

Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall Path shows the way to climbing success. It starts with private connections between climber, partners, and terrain. Climb what has meaning for you in the style that challenges you, and make it more about the route transforming you than you transforming the route. When you’re ready to take on a climb that sets a new world standard, the means will open up for you, and the world will pay attention.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap's east face.

Kurt Smith climbing Zenyata Mondata solo, an aid route El Cap’s east face.


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