When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015 it was news around the world. So much so that my students, knowing I was a climber, started asking about it.
They were confused about one part in particular: sleeping on the wall. “Why don’t they just come down at night, sir?” one pupil asked, when they were nearly 2 weeks into the ascent.
I explained how big El Capitan is and how long it usually takes to climb the routes, the complexity of the climbing and how ascending hundreds of metres to the crux pitch would tire them out. Still, as Jorgeson spent a week desperately trying to redpoint the crux pitch, he had a point. Of course, sleeping on the wall for a few nights is totally normal, as least to climbers, but spending 16 nights in a portaledge in January is a little more avante-garde even by our standards.
He’d hit upon an interesting point. Returning to the ground seemed to invalidate the ascent in some way (even though that’s exactly what Warren Harding did multiple times over the 18 months it took him to make the first ascent of The Nose). All of the pitches had already been led, the goal this time was to lead them all in order (sort of, the pair were out of sync as Jorgeson struggled and Caldwell progressed higher up the wall).
Are our criteria for success artificial?
The more you think about it, the more an ascent such as this, with multiple rest days, resupplies and high profile cameos from the ground, starts to seem, ironically, artificial. It’s a proof of concept, really. I’m not suggesting that any of this invalidates their ascent, but when we step back we should see it for what it is - far removed from the normal activities of rock climbing. Staying on the wall is for show - and it was a good show, drawing millions of eyes.
With big wall free climbing, particularly at the upper levels, it starts to become apparent how arbitrary some of our measures of success are. Can you only belay at the hands off rests? Do both of you need to lead the pitches? Do they need to be seconded clean? As the Yosemite free climbing scene progressed in the 1990s these questions were being tackled - and people weren’t coming up with the same answers. Sure, there were egos, sponsorship and a dose of mistrust involved, but there was also the start of an understanding of how success is a social construct.
We love to have a hard and fast line to cross, but we don’t always take the time to see how that line has shifted as the sport evolves. Sometimes it evolves organically; the changing patterns of climbing behaviour and fashion smooth the journey to acceptance.
“John Allen (16yrs) frees Great Wall, but uses chalk”
Mountain Magazine, 1975
Boulder problems which would once be considered not worth recording become not only relevant, but a big deal. Routes which don’t go the top of the mountain start to be accepted as valid goals in their own right. Rising free climbing standards remove aid points to such a degree that using them now would be considered a failure.
“you’ve got to give the rock a chance”
John Kendrick, Factor Two episode “Sally Can Wait”
Even freeing a route wasn’t without controversy, as Mountain reported in the 1970s about the first ascent of Great Wall at Clogwyn Du’r Arddu, “John Allen frees Great Wall, but uses chalk.” I could go on, headpointing, redpointing, yoyoing, rapbolting, ground up and placing bolts have all stirred debate on what constitutes a valid ascent. As John Kendrick told me of his early climbing days, even before curved nuts and cams, you couldn’t toprope, because “you’ve got to give the rock a chance.” Although as you can see in this photo, John didn’t always follow his own advice, here toproping Brown’s Eliminate, E2 5b, at Froggatt in the 1960s.
In my own climbing I had a major culture shift just over a decade ago. At the time I didn’t do a lot of sport climbing, and when I did I was usually climbing onsight. I’d redpointed a few routes, but the practice was minimal and I was usually doing them within half a dozen attempts. I decided to see what I could do if I spread the effort over several days, so I started trying some harder lines in the Peak District.
The results were surprising, at least to me at the time, but they should have been obvious. My maximum grade* went up several notches in the space of a few months, but I also became a lot stronger and several routes that had felt impossible a few weeks earlier felt easy after this training. I learned much better movement, I started to understand the difference between being pumped and being powered out and I came to learn that, when something feels out of reach, it’s probably a little closer than you think.
The key to all of this was reframing my own idea of success. Instead of flashing that route, it became doing a link between bolts, climbing the crux static, finding a better sequence or simply feeling calm in extremis. Actually doing the route had to be secondary, to me at least, even if at a community level that’s what gets the credit.
In the past decade I think the constant drip of top level climbers succeeding on long term, multi-year ascents has trickled down. This is no doubt influenced by new people coming into the sport with a different perspective. There’s a cultural transition still in progress to climbing as the gymnastic exercise. It’s been there for years, from John Gill’s bouldering prowess to Lynn Hill’s early training, but I think it’s becoming more dominant. The public success criteria are also shifting. The ongoing siege project isn’t just the realm of elite climbers these days.
Success in climbing can seem like such a simple and obvious thing, but satisfaction is often intrinsically linked to a cultural acceptance of that success.
For so many of us it amounts to spending time in great places, taking a literal and metaphorical journey with good friends and a sense of belonging and acceptance both within the landscape and the culture. That seems much simpler to capture in some ways, but I still find the old goals niggling away and wonder when, or if, I’ll succeed in the bigger picture?
* Maximum Grade is obviously contentious language in this context. Changing my tactics did make me a better climber, but the fact my redpoint grade went up when I started redpointing more seriously is hardly evidence of this.
It’s all nonsense though, really?
Of course, all this talk of new cultures and long term projects could be undermined by a simple fact that’s being displayed at the moment. Many of the younger, top-end competition climbers are so well and roundly trained that they are making short work of yesterday’s long term projects, as witnessed by ascents of Hubble and Big Bang in the UK this year. Matt Wright, Buster Martin, Will Bosi and more are putting a dedication to training to good use. Maybe they don’t even need to siege things?
Then again, not everyone is happy to see people using kneepads on Hubble. C’est la vie!
I’m working on a lot of different projects at the moment, from writing a Coen brothers and Colin Kirkus inspired screenplay, to fleshing out a multi episode audio documentary project.
Factor Two will have a new episode soon. It’s a look back at Hard Grit, where it came from and the cultural influence it had in the climbing world. I’m also working a piece about Fred Padula’s iconic El Capitan film from 1978.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!
You can help me out by sharing these articles. From here on in I’ll be aiming to publish one on the first Monday of each month, and most months there will also be a little extra on the third Monday too.