Dawn Wall – “I was always going to make it”

Shortly affter climbing the 1,000m Dawn Wall, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell give us the lowdown.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson complete the Dawn Wall climb in Yosemite Park, California, for the first time
What do you mean you can’t see the holds? © Corey Rich/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos
By Tarquin Cooper

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson just completed the climb of the decade with their first free ascent of Dawn Wall in California's Yosemite National Park. Speaking just a day after completing the epic 19-day climb, they tell us about that killer pitch 15, the terror of icefall and just how wrecked their hands are.

So guys, you must be pretty stoked?
KJ: I'm still in a state of shock and riding high.

TC: Ah man it feels good! We've been working up to this for a long time. It's a really incredible feeling actually. Everyone's in shock by how much attention this climb has got.

Climbing Dawn Wall in Yosemite Park, California, by night during the first ever ascent of the cliff
Climbing by the light of night © Corey Rich/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

How are your hands?
KJ: They're beat. They hurt pretty bad every morning when I wake up. They're going to take a while to return to normal. The backs of my hands are covered in scabs from the cracks. The tips of my fingers are covered in these rock hard callouses. Underneath the callouses are deep bruises from all the really sharp holds we had to grab. And I've got puncture holes in my index and middle finger from my battle with pitch 15. That pitch took a lot of damage.

I held up pretty well. Except I lost my voice!

Speaking of hands, how is it climbing with a missing digit?
TC: Definitely, it's harder to climb without that finger. [Tommy sawed his left hand index finger off in a DIY accident several years ago.] When I cut-off my finger I thought I might not be able to climb as well as I could. It made me work a lot harder and re-directed me to the path that I'm on today.

Climber Tommy Caldwell's missing finger
Yes, Tommy Caldwell is missing a finger © Corey Rich/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

Biggest challenge?
KJ: There were definitely dark moments while battling pitch 15 because the whole route was dependent on the line. I had moments of real disappointment when I didn't succeed on that pitch. But I resolved that I was going to do it. The problem was I'd never get more than four attempts in one night before my skin was cut and bleeding. It was not like I could try 50 times. [Kevin succeeded after seven days.]

TC: I've been working on this thing for so long and I've failed a lot. I've tried it over and over again. The biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to become a better climber. I finally figured out a way and the climb just went really well for me. I felt like I was on a roll the whole time, it was extraordinary.

Climber Tommy Caldwell during the first ever ascent of Dawn Wall in Yosemite Park, California
No harness needed for Tommy Caldwell © Corey Rich/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

What was the scariest moment?
KJ: The hairiest moment was the morning after a really cold windstor, when giant deadly pieces of ice were falling off the top of the wall and exploding as they hit the wall right above us, whizzing past our heads. That was the only moment I was really scared for my life.

Eight-year-old kid question: how do you poop?
KJ: We just go in a ziplock bag, put it in a bucket and lower down. It's really not that big a deal. We had supplies of food and water brought up every five days.

Ken Jorgeson takes a break on a tiny ledge whilst climbing Dawn Wall in Yosemite Park, California
That’s a spot for a photo op © Brett Lowell/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

A lot of people are confused by free climbing. What's your explanation?
KJ: We climbed that wall using ropes only to protect falls.

TC: Free climbing is essentially what most people think of climbing. We have the ropes for if we fall but don't use them to climb.

The feeling you want to retire on?
TC: There are a few moments. When I got to the Wino Tower, 20 pitches up, that was the end of the real difficult section. That was a big moment. Also the last night we slept on the ledge, 300ft from the top. We only had a little bit of climbing left. That morning, listening to music, watching the sun come up, it was such a powerful moment, we'd been on this incredible journey where we fought through so many things.

KJ: I want the only take-away to be for people to ask themselves, what's my Dawn Wall? Everyone has a big project in life they want to do and that's what resonates. Dreaming big, teamwork, collaboration and perseverance. Those are human attributes we can all relate to.

Climbers top out on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite Park, California, for the first time
Victory on the Dawn Wall © Bligh Gillies/Big UP Productions/Aurora Photos

So, what's next?
KJ: I'm excited to take a little rest and recover and spread the word for people to find their own Dawn Wall.

TC: I love living the climbing life and I'm going to continue that, travelling the world with my wife, climbing beautiful climbs.

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