This afternoon, amid scattered showers in Yosemite Valley, 23-year-old climbing phenom Adam Ondra made the second free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan after an eight-day push.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first free ascent of the route over 19 grueling days in January 2015. When Ondra saw it, he knew he wanted to do it faster. "Tommy and Kevin made an awesome job by freeing this route,” the Czech climber told CNN in August of 2015, just six months after the feat. “I would definitely like to try it next year in autumn and possibly climb it faster. Climbing it in one day would be my lifetime dream, but I have never climbed a single pitch on El Cap, so let's not talk about it too early."
Caldwell and Jorgeson spent seven years working out and memorizing the complex sequence of moves that each of the 32 pitches would require. By the time they were done they had established the biggest and hardest climbing route in the world.
Ondra showed up in Yosemite on October 17 with a return ticket home to Brno on November 30, leaving him just 45 days to unlock the 3,000-foot climb. Ondra is the only climber to win world championships in both lead climbing and bouldering and is, without a doubt, the best climber in the world. As I wrote in Outside's December issue, it's "akin to Usain Bolt also being the fastest marathoner alive." That’s the hold Ondra has on climbing. Still, he’d never climbed a big wall before, and had never been to Yosemite.
The Dawn Wall sits on the southeast side of El Capitan. In a valley full of steep, blank granite faces, it is perhaps the barest. Dean Caldwell and Warren Harding made the first ascent over 28 days in 1970, riding out a four-day storm and refusing a rescue attempt by the National Park Service. They reached the summit by aid climbing: using gear, drilled bolts, and ropes to haul themselves up the face.
Two years ago, Tommy Caldwell (no relation to Dean) and Jorgeson made the first free ascent—only using the granite hand and footholds to ascend the climb, and with ropes to catch them if they fell. The pair rated the climb 5.14d, pushing to the very edge of the sport’s difficulty scale at 5.15c. It was a drastic leap in what was thought possible. “Just amazing, really beautifully amazing,” climber Will Gadd told the New York Times. “Like a four-minute mile or a sub-two-hour marathon or Tiger Woods destroying every single major for a year or something, just off the charts awesome.” The entire country, it seemed, celebrated Caldwell and Jorgeson’s ascent. It was covered in USA Today, the New York Times, and on NPR. President Obama even congratulated the two on Facebook: “You remind us that anything is possible.”
But, as always, there was room to improve. During his first two weeks in the valley, Ondra fixed lines the length of the route, then spent a couple days practicing on the hardest pitches, learning and rehearsing the tiny footholds and contorted body positions. “Beautiful, HARD, intimidating and motivating project. Tommy Caldwell was a huge visionary to see this line in the middle of the blank wall,” he wrote on Instagram.
At 3 a.m. on Monday, November 14, he began his ground up push on the Dawn Wall, essentially starting the clock and hoping to beat Caldwell and Jorgeson’s time of 19 days. He cruised through the first nine pitches in six hours. On day two, he ticked off pitches ten to 13, climbing primarily in the late afternoon and evening to take advantage of cooler temperature, when the wall isn't in the sun. On Wednesday, he rested on his portaledge, a thousand feet off the ground, eating freeze-dried bean soup, trail mix, and energy bars. He was climbing well, and though some of the pitches took a few more tries to climb than he had hoped, he was making good progress. Thursday was to be the hardest day—that's when he'd climb pitches 14 and 15, the two cruxes of the entire route. Things didn’t go as planned.
“I ended up attempting just pitch 14,” Onda said by phone from his portaledge on Friday afternoon. “It was not because I would be too weak or the conditions would be too bad, I was just really freaked out and too nervous to climb.” He fell nearly a dozen times before calling it quits for the day.
Though Ondra prides himself at being successful across all types of climbing, the Yosemite style was proving difficult.
“Before I go for something as serious as this pitch, I'm always nervous,” he said. “But usually as soon as I start climbing all these doubts and fears go away because there is not time to think. But this a slightly different style. It's not that the climbing is easy, it's just different. There are positions that are comfortable, where you can think and have these doubts…and all of the sudden you just fall. And that is very, very frustrating and very hard for the mind.”
Shortly after I got off the phone with him, the afternoon sun dipped low enough to cast the Dawn Wall in shade, providing the brisk conditions Ondra needed to grip the tiny, granite holds. He went back to work and sent pitches 14 and 15 before night fell.
“On cloud nine!” he wrote on Instagram the next day. “It has been magical evening. I was focused and calm. The mindset when climbing is actually fun!” By 6 p.m. Saturday evening, Ondra was on top of Wino Tower, where the difficulty of the climbing finally lets up. “Hard to find the words to describe how I feel,” he wrote on his sponsor Black Diamond’s website. “No more hard pitches guard my way to the top.”
On Monday, after the weather forced Ondra to take a rest day on Sunday, he fired off the final pitches by 4 p.m. His goal was to finish the climb in five or six days. In the end, it took eight, largely due to the weather over the weekend. “It would be interesting to do the dawn wall much faster,” he said Monday evening. “I think it is possible but it would take a lot a lot of work. Maybe I will come back and try again some day.”
A dusting of snow fell as he topped out next to a tree at the summit. “It was like a Christmas tree,” Ondra said, drinking a celebratory bottle of wine with his three-man support team. “My present is the summit.”