Adam Ondra, a 23-year-old from the Czech Republic considered by some to be the world’s best climber, thought he might cruise up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Following the free-climbing route that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson blazed over 19 days nearly two years ago, having received advice and support from both men, Ondra hoped to complete the nearly 3,000-foot ascent in five or six days.
For two days this week, he scampered up the sheer granite face that rises from California’s Yosemite Valley. He made it through the first 13 pitches, out of 32, then stopped on Wednesday for a day of rest.
But the Dawn Wall is considered one of the hardest big-wall climbs in the world, daunting for its size, its vertical face and its lack of holds. On Thursday, it stymied Ondra, at least temporarily.
“Yesterday, I was to climb some of the crux pitches, starting with Pitch 14, which is the hardest,” Ondra said by telephone on Friday morning from his portaledge hanging on the wall of El Capitan. “But I failed to climb it, which was really devastating and really heartbreaking.”
He planned to attempt the section, with a rating of 5.14d, at the highest end of rock climbing’s difficulty scale, again on Friday evening. What he had hoped could be a five- or six-day climb may take 10 days or more — and rain and snow were forecast for the weekend. Ondra has found the Dawn Wall more difficult than he imagined.
“The faster you do it, the more valuable it is,” Ondra said. “But as I found major difficulties yesterday, I will be happy to do it in any time.”
Hours later, as evening enveloped the Dawn Wall, Ondra successfully navigated Pitch 14. He was on his way up.
In climbing, as with so many pursuits, doing something first — the first ascent — is the major prize. Dean Caldwell and Warren Harding were the first to climb the Dawn Wall, in 1970, but they did it by pulling themselves up with an extensive set of ropes.
What Tommy Caldwell (no relation to Dean) and Jorgeson did two winters ago was free-climb the Dawn Wall, meaning they used only their hands and feet to pull themselves up. Ropes were used only to catch their falls, move between the pitches they needed to conquer, and collect supplies from the ground.
“We were on the shoulders of Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell’s effort on the Wall of Early Morning Light,” Jorgeson said, referring to what later became known as the Dawn Wall. “And Adam is standing on the shoulders of Tommy and me. I’m stoked that the world’s best climber is taking on the Dawn Wall.”
Ondra is hoping to add his own stylistic twists to the Dawn Wall. Speed is one, part of an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-faster trend in climbing, alpinism, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. But speed is just one element of style in climbing.
“Impossible to possible is one style,” Jorgeson said. “But we left a lot of room to improve.”
He and Caldwell took more time than planned partly because Jorgeson spent six days trying to complete Pitch 15. He commended Ondra for, among other things, connecting fixed ropes as he climbs. Caldwell and Jorgeson hung ropes from top to bottom before they began their ascent.
Ondra got to Yosemite in mid-October and climbed the Nose route of El Capitan with his father. He spent the next few weeks surveying the challenge of the Dawn Wall. He talked extensively with Caldwell and Jorgeson and made forays to various sections of the climb to practice.
Jorgeson, Ondra said, gave him a “master class” on jumaring, a method to ascend ropes quickly — a useful tool when traveling on a vertical wall between the portaledge and a pitch that might be 1,000 feet away. Ondra had little practice at it, he said. Jorgeson also let him borrow his aiders, essentially nylon ladders used to move about.
Caldwell and Jorgeson climbed the Dawn Wall one pitch at a time without coming back to the ground. The average pitch was close to 100 vertical feet, and they advanced to each pitch only after completing (or sending, in climbing terms) the previous one. Between pitches, they returned to portaledges to rest and eat.
Ondra followed their pursuit from afar in early January 2015, along with countless others around the world. As he conquered other climbs and contests, he put the Dawn Wall on the list.
“It was so attractive to me because it was a superhard route on a beautiful wall, El Capitan in Yosemite, where I had never been before,” Ondra said on Friday. “It is a place I always dreamed of going to. The Dawn Wall is so obviously the hardest big-wall climb in the world, so that was the challenge. I was inspired by what Tommy and Kevin did, and I wanted to check it out myself. I must say that it’s definitely more difficult than I expected.”
On Thursday, Ondra’s feet slipped out from under him six times on the first part of Pitch 14. He made it past that section on the seventh try, but then lost his grip on the final maneuver of the pitch.
“It was devastating,” he said. “It took a lot of my skin, and also a lot of my psychological and physical powers. I decided to call it a day and go back to the portaledge and sleep.”
Ondra’s burgeoning reputation as a climber stems from his expertise across disciplines, from sport climbing to big walls to bouldering, on all surfaces. But the Dawn Wall is presenting a new, unexpected challenge.
“Here you have to climb much slower, much more precise, because all you have on this vertical wall is tiny razor blades for your hands and your feet,” Ondra said. “If I’m climbing really slow, I kind of feel like, ‘Hmm, this is weird.’ Like a fish without water. The more I climb here, the more I realize that this is the way to go.”