WTF is a Dawn Wall?! A Laymen’s Guide to What the Hell Happens Up There

How in the world … ?

The media has been in a frenzy covering the ascent of the Dawn Wall, a route on Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan. Two climbers—36-year-old Tommy Caldwell and 30-year-old Kevin Jorgeson—are attempting to climb the route, which is arguably the hardest free climb in history. Caldwell first started scouting out the climb over a decade ago, and after six years of perfecting the climb’s moves, the team has nearly completed the route.

After scouring the comment sections of recent publications, we’ve compiled a list of the most popular questions posed by readers. Explained in the simplest terms we can muster, here are the answers to your curiosities:

A photo posted by Kevin Jorgeson (@kjorgeson) on

 

How does the process of climbing this wall work?

The Dawn Wall is 32 pitches tall (roughly 3,000ft / 914m), and each pitch is essentially one rope length. The process is as follows: let’s say the team has decided that Tommy will climb first—he leads up a pitch, placing gear into the rock as he ascends to protect against a fall. Meanwhile, the second climber (Kevin) belays Tommy—securing the rope to catch Tommy in the case of a fall. Once at the top of the pitch, Tommy builds an anchor to secure himself to the rock face. Tommy will then belay Kevin from the top. They’ll meet at the anchor, and continue onward to the next pitch.

If they’re free climbing, why are they using ropes?

Confusing, right? Here’s why: free climbing means “free of aid” and implies climbing up a wall with one’s hands and feet. When free climbing, the climber does use gear (ropes, harnesses, belay devices, and more), but the gear is only used to catch the climber when he/she falls. This is contrary to aid climbing, where one pulls on gear placed by the climber into the rock to help aid or assist the climber up the wall.Confusion also occurs when mixing up the terms free climbing and free soloing. Free soloing (as Alex Honnold is known for) is to climb without the use of any protective gear.  Still confused?

See our basic explanation of the different styles of rock climbing.

How do they get their food?

In big wall ascents, such as Tommy and Kevin’s, climbers bring haul bags full of supplies to sustain life on the wall. The climbers don’t climb with these on their backs, but instead set up pulley systems at their anchors to haul the bags up after they finish the pitch. Since Tommy and Kevin are on the wall for so long, a group of fellow climbers are assisting them by bringing up more supplies as needed. These porters access the climbers by using devices that help them ascend fixed ropes on the wall (thus, they’re not rock climbing).

You can find out more in our interview, Tales from a Dawn Wall Porter.

What are they eating?

Interviewed for National Geographic, Tommy explained: “One of the nice things about climbing in the winter is it’s like a refrigerator up here. We brought a giant tupperware with bell peppers, avocados, cucumbers, salami sandwiches. We have three double portaledges set up. It’s like a five-star hotel up here!” Both Kevin and Tommy have reported that eating well on the wall has been a contributing factor to their success on the route thus far.

What gear do they take with them?

At the least, they’re taking technical climbing gear, portaledges for sleeping, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, small stoves and cookware, extensive outerwear, and extra ropes for hauling their gear. Kevin and Tommy also have various electronic gadgets to stay connected with the world while on the wall.

Where do they sleep?

Tommy and Kevin sleep on a portaledge, which is essentially a hanging tent system that the team secures to the wall. While sleeping, they tether themselves to the wall for safety.

A photo posted by Tommy Caldwell (@tommycaldwell) on

 

How do they do they go to the restroom?

It’s called a poop tube. See video below:

Why are they climbing at night?

Cooler temperatures yield less hand sweat and better friction on the rock. High friction is essential when you’re standing on holds smaller than a Tic-Tac!

A photo posted by Kevin Jorgeson (@kjorgeson) on

How do they make money?

It’s well-understood that making a living as a professional climber is remarkably difficult. Climbers receive sponsorships from brands like Patagonia, Black Diamond, Adidas Outdoor, and others. Compensation from these brands is minimal and few climbers in the world manage to make a living from the sport.

Aren’t they damaging the rock?

Yosemite “clean climbing” ethics emphasize reducing human impact on the rock whenever possible. For example, when natural protection is available (say, a crack for placing gear) bolts are not used. In purely blank sections of the climb, bolts are placed into the rock. Tommy has been vocal about trying to use the least amount of bolts possible, and strictly uses natural protection when available.

What’s the latest news?

1/14/15: After 19 long days on the hardest and longest free climb ever, Tommy and Kevin have made it to the top!

 

Also, a daily video roundup has also been published so you can stay in the loop with what happened. See the day-to-day Dawn Wall Diary here.


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