Thursday, January 15, 2015

Climbing Commentary: The Dawn Wall Project

Yesterday another piece of climbing history was marked. Like a waypoint on an endless journey, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made their mark after free climbing all pitches on the Dawn Wall, El Capitan, Yosemite.

Photo by Max Whittaker for the New York Times grabbed from the NY times web post at
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/15/sports/el-capitans-dawn-wall-climbers-near-top-yosemite.html?mwrsm=Email

While photos of the great walls of Yosemite are awe inspiring, being there injects astonishment into the bloodstream.  And climbing on the glacial granite there is like no other experience, yet for climbers it's almost just another great day outside on rock.  Tommy and Kevin's accomplishment is of such a grand nature and climbers all around the globe were following their progress.  How exciting it has been to see the national media cover their story among the daunting and disheartening stories of gun violence, ISIS and terrorism, politics and human suffering.  While we should never lose focus of the atrocities in the world that need our thought and thoughtful action, we also welcome that injection of wonderment and optimism.  Tommy credits his optimism for much of his climbing success.  And as I read a book on Learned Optimism (by Dr. Martin Seligman), I am reminded that Tommy is a model of this psychology and am motivated to learn and practice more!

As a climber though, I also cannot help but analyze the feat accomplished on the Dawn Wall.  Their ascent is considered perhaps the hardest free climb in the world.  With the explosion of climbing popularity that is creating so many talented climbers today, no doubt this waypoint will be remembered as just that - another mark on the timeline that provided opportunity to the next optimistic elite climber to achieve the next level of triumph.  For now at least, many of us still seem to remember the great pioneers of rock that have cleared the path for the great pioneers of today. But I am honestly concerned that as time marches on these pioneering achievements will fade and become lost.  Time has a way of eroding all things.  For now, may we all remember and respect those who have gone before us and created opportunities we would otherwise not had.

And if you want to analyze the specifics and style of this recent achievement, check out this documentation of great big wall hard free climbs over the years.  It helps to put in perspective what great climbers have done and how they did it.  Tommy and Kevin did this climb all in one push - meaning they never retreated to the ground between attempts on the harder pitches. They went up with every intent of not coming down until they finished the project free and clean (no falls).  But they did have support. Food and supplies were brought to them. Cameras and climbers on adjacent routes were all around them capturing their struggles and successes.  What is next for these climbers and others like them? We can never capture the same moment twice - which is one of the unique and attractive things about climbing. The route, the conditions, the company, the energy all change each time we climb - this can make the same route feel different each time we climb it.  And no doubt a new style of climbing is evolving and will continue to be molded by new talents, approaches and perspectives.  As long as we do not lose site of the past that brought us here, we can appreciate the value.  I have never thought of climbing as a competition (which is only one reason I feel indoor wall climbing is so completely different from real rock climbing).  Great achievements like The Dawn Wall Project is on one incredible level - beating someone to "the top" is quite another.  And if you observe video or photographic footage of Tommy and Kevin during their quest, it will become obvious that their attitude is far from competitive. Soak up some of the comments they make when asked what they were doing and why. Tommy precisely describes how rock climbing really is unlike more familiar and culturally popularized sports. He says "It's about spending our lives in these beautiful places and forming these incredible bonds." Of finishing the climb with or without Kevin, Tommy said "More than anything I want to top out together....It would be such a bummer to finish this thing without Kevin. I can't imagine anything worse really."   Kevin echos a non-competitive sentiment. "This is not an effort to conquer. It's about realizing a dream."

Thanks guys, for representing our beloved sport in such a mature and gracious light.

Check out this close-up of the Dawn Wall

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