Hypothetical: Why Tommy Caldwell picked “The Dawn Wall” as his ten year mega-project

Disclaimer: All of these opinions are my own and I haven’t talked to Tommy or anyone in the the Caldwell camp about these ideas. This may be true to an extent and I would love to talk to Tommy one day to ask these questions in person, but for now this is all speculation.

Well, now that that’s over (also, climbing is dangerous), let’s begin.

I’ve often wondered why Tommy Caldwell, master of stone, decided to take on Dawn Wall as a long term project. It seemed like this was really both a hard life challenge and a crazy objective, objectively speaking. Not to mention that Tommy is a pretty incredible dude all around and really didn’t scour the globe to find his last mega-project: The Dawn wall. For those who are unfamiliar, it is a 20-something pitch 5.14+ route with multiple 14 pitches in a row.

For his project, he chose one of the blankest faces that happened to be just around the block. This wall is literally in his back yard as he manages to live in the area. It was probably something that he was staring at 100+ days a year. I guess there is a real strange draw to this project, but in another way there is a real barrier to entry for many.

Just thinking about the Dawn Wall makes me think about whether or not I could even get the non-climbing portions right. Do i know enough about aid climbing to work the route? Do i know enough about pro in Yosemite to do this rig? How much money do you need to spend on ropes, gear and port-a-ledges to be okay? Are there any tactics that I should know about? Should I rap in with a microtrax to work it first?

Obviously i’m not serious about climbing this thing. It’s just way too hard. But if i were to be a V14 climber, for example, this thing would still be pretty serious.

If i was a solid aid-climber (not saying this is aid, but you need some know-how to figure this thing out) and if i had the systems in place, would I have the will to force a line through something that was once considered un-aidable? Warren Harding, a true hero, stayed on this wall for almost a month. He nailed his way up and it took him a month. How could someone even think about this insane climb as a real objective? How could you look up and say, “yeah, this is it, my life’s work right here,” without being a bit scared of failure?

Obviously all these questions are moot since Tommy did climb the climb. He crushed the route, only trying two or three times on the hardest pitches. Sometimes, when I’m at the gym, I climb something twice and send it and say “yeah, that was easy.” Turns out they aren’t 5.14+ insane crimp fests in Yosemite, the land of sandbags.

I should mention that he did try for ten seasons. But still! Last few seasons had he really been able to try the entire route? Not really (in my view). Weather was bad and conditions were bad and some bones were nearly broken which could have been bad.

Looking back on his ascent, i guess the only questions that come to mind are two fold:

One, did he really think he’d get this done and two, did he choose it for a reason? I think yes in both cases. I guess you may also think the same after this article but obviously this is the key point: why did Tommy choose the Dawn Wall?

Best in the West

There are many things that can be said of climbing. One of them is that climbing is incredibly diverse. However, with the addition of bouldering and sport climbing, we as a sport have begun to isolate and compartmentalize certain attributes of climbing. Bouldering focuses on hard moves; being able to do really, really hard moves. Sport climbing relies on being able to climb hard but also incorporate some bouldering moves and then being able to continue on for a whole pitch while resisting pump and being able to continue forward.

To a certain degree, this is not the focus of Big Wall or Alpine style climbing. The idea behind those sorts of climbing is to reach a summit through the ingenuity of man (and hard climbing). However, as we progress, we do assign difficulty to them to class them. Big Wall is not void of grades but exists on a certain other level really. If bouldering is about seconds, sport climbing about minutes then Big Wall is about hours and days. It’s another scale.

For example, if you have bad skin on a boulder problem, that’s cool. Let’s just hang out tomorrow and drink. But on a big wall? Weather is also another factor as on a big wall it seems like you actually get less chances over all during a same day because you can’t go hide out and wait for the wind to change.

Now something else is true about Yosemite versus other Big Wall areas. Yosemite has a style and a weird way of training you to become a Yosemite climber. In my view, the best climber to ever climb in Yosemite is Tommy Caldwell. You can get Sharma and Ondra on any route in the Valley and they will not make it look as good as TC. Why? Because it is such a different thing. It isn’t about dynoing to a bad jug or pulling 40 meters of heinous moves on shit holds. It’s about the Yosemite climbing game which revolves on the rock and the style. And Tommy is the king.

However, I think a big disclaimer is that obviously Tommy isn’t known for his hard boulders in Yosemite or his bold Free Solos in Yosemite. He’s known for pushing the walls to their limit and his limit. He knows Yosemite and if there was anyone who should be on the FA team for the dawn wall it was him just due to his vast knowledge and experience with that rock. He’s one of only half a dozen who have climbed the Nose free and also has done other 5.14s in the valley.

Another example: his ex-wife Beth Rodden climbed Meltdown, the hardest route in Yosemite. Why? I think he had something to do with it, (maybe) showing her a route that he may not be able to do but she could or (perhaps) discussing with her how to send it if his physiology was more well suited to this climb. There must be some magic there that helped Beth. Obviously, Beth climbed it and all the recognition goes to her, but I think Tommy was not only there to just belay.

TL;DR Tommy is king of Yosemite big walls, he was first in line at the show.

Last of an Era

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This point (and the next) is more about the climb itself than TC.

As the Nose went free, so did the idea of that being the future. Obviously, Lynn Hill was incredible but she didn’t just pave the way for the future, she conquered a wall that hadn’t seen a free ascent. Once that was done, who knew what was possible? Obviously many lines went down, and Tommy freed seven (or more?) routes on El Cap alone. Seven! Three of them being in the 5.14 range.

So what made Dawn Wall so special? I think it was because it was always thought of as the blankest of the climbs. That someone who did this was really incredible and it would bring a close to the idea of impossible lines on El Cap. The Dawn Wall, for that reason, has an incredible ability to draw people in. However, you would have to have had the guts to try to free at least six or seven other big walls of that caliber before thinking you could even attempt it.

The Dawn Wall is in this sense a plum: it existed and was ready for the person with the right height to come pluck it from it’s easy resting spot. However, I am convinced that it really needed to be Tommy as he was the only with that sort of experience, know how and ability to pick such a pesky plum. If only Warren Harding had been around to see this all happen. He probably would have fallen off his hot air balloon.

The limelight

In a way, i think a lot of the decisions we make are because of our need to be accepted into a culture or into a society. The Dawn Wall in this sense could have been both a validating experience but also a way to show how Tommy is really deserving of the praise that he got.

He knew that this would obviously get some attention. The amount it did end up getting? Probably not, but i’m sure he was no doubt happy when people decided to see it all in a (mostly) positive way. The climbing community basically got on board 100% which paved the way for reporters to give their two cents on how climbing with “just your hands and feet,” as the media puts it, could be a swell time.

However, I think to show the real point that the limelight was indeed important is that consider the following: The Fitz Roy traverse, a climb that is incredibly hard to accomplish and a feat of human accomplishment, got almost no recognition when Tommy did it with Honnold. Similarly, the Trango Towers and K6 get no media attention but Everest does. Meru is only really known for being a Jimmy Chin project, but got the same amount of attention as any other big mountain adventure film by climbers.

I guess another thing that has been on everyone’s (in the media) mind is Big Wall climbing. Again. And i say again because during the Warren Harding times it was popular. But it has had some kind of revival with the whole Honnold solo parade where he just does inhuman stuff. So anything in the Big Wall, humans-are-awesome, type climbing style which is proper to Yosemite is bound to get some attention from the media at large. Plus, isn’t Yosemite such a nice place to visit? If i were a reporter that didn’t climb, i’d still like to go!

Could it be that Tommy Caldwell was being an anti-hipster about this and just wanted to show everyone this accomplishment and do something that was deserving of both media and climbing media praise? I think yes. Perhaps it did build over time and it was a giant cog that just happened to turn the year he sent. Perhaps someone (i’m looking at you Goal-Zero and Climb On! cream) was greasing the gears? These details are lost but it doesn’t take away that this was both a consideration and a part of the climb itself.

Maybe not though, I feel that one could get so obsessed over such a mocking line that this would transcend the media. However, you need to appeal to your audience sometimes.

…but not that strong…

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Here’s where I may get some hell fire: I think this project was perfect as it was hard for everyone but it wasn’t objectively one of the hardest things in climbing for a human body to endure, from the physical perspective alone.

Consider this: Tommy has 9 fingers. He’s much older than Ondra and Woods. He has no real 5.14+ or 5.15 tick list outside his own crags with his own styles of climbing. He’s an incredible climber, don’t get me wrong, but if a single pitch climb or a boulder problem was shown to both him and Ondra at the same time, i’d be betting on Ondra to send it first. Obviously because Ondra has been crushing comps left and right this is a safe bet and Tommy doesn’t even compete. Should he? (Answer: no).

Obviously, who gives a flying Popsicle? Tommy climbed it first and the whole world had their chance. But did they? Tommy almost booked it up and definately laid claim to it when he started cleaning and thinking and telling people about it. He did all the hard work. Plus he didn’t care about suffering or sleeping in a port-a-ledge or generally being cold or wet or anything really. He did it and it was a lot of work. Work that, in my view, many other pro climbers or elite level climbers wouldn’t put into a singular climb. Not to mention that is is like 20 different climbs in one.

Being a really pain in the rear to get to and to work and to figure out, I think that this project was perfect for TC. He did it, no one is saying otherwise, however he did choose something that was at his level, possible, not the hardest single moves in the world, and totally void of anyone else’s desire to send this thing first. 

Nalle once bitched at Sharma for closing a project when he got there and not letting him try it. No one did this to this route even if it was well within the range of hard climber grades. It’s not even got the 9a grade officially. Who knows? It may be a soft 14 in the future with some new beta.

So, what I’m saying is that this was perfect as it was all the other points before it, and it wasn’t impossible in the grand scheme of things. TC isn’t the strongest climber that we have right now, and soon will be surpassed by the next generation of talent. He is the King of Yosemite but that’s because he’s put the 10,000 hours of climbing in at this place and has earned the right of being the man. But he isn’t the strongest climber in the entire game, in my opinion.

…but he’s strong as hell.

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Ten years.

I haven’t even done anything that long unless you count things i can’t control or have to so they don’t get out of control. I haven’t even been climbing ten years at this point, no less just one route. Where TC may be weak, he is twice fold strong in other respects.

He’s got the head game so locked that it is scary. He knew it was the year, it wasn’t dependent on him. He knew he could do it and he just needed a window. He had everything planned. He ate and creamed his hands regularly. He fueled and organized and said goodbye to a house and his wife and his young child. He did all this and it was worth it in the end, but he didn’t know if it would even pay off. But, in my view, I think he knew all along it was going to go.

Sometimes being strong isn’t about how hard you can pull down on small holds. TC is obviously one of these people who knows what’s up. He was even able to light a fire under Kevin’s rear and get him to conquer this behemoth with him. Shout outs to Kevin who also sent it and was a real hero.

So, really, Tommy is strong. Stronger than anyone before him who gazed up to that wall and wanted to send it. Many have, I am sure of that, but i know that it isn’t because they weren’t stronger or as strong that they didn’t. Is being the head game is locked down in the mind of TC.

The next frontier

Is there a next Dawn Wall? Something the media will love and climbers will unite on?

Maybe not.

I don’t think any of the other subsets of climbing will ever become as popular as Yosemite Big Wall climbing. Not with the American Media at least. My only bet is that maybe bouldering will become as popular as gymnastics in the way that people see it for what is it, barely understanding why something is that hard when it looks so easy in the videos and like you wouldn’t need that much training. But will anyone ever live stream a bouldering session for all of America to see? No.

What could be something else? Maybe more Alpine stuff if the world desires it. Maybe not. My bets are that perhaps soon the media picks up how boring Everest has become and then will begin to race and see if they can find another Everest. Maybe more climbing with people who have conquered adversity, as the gimp-monkeys have.

Who’s to know. If someone was to tell me 6 months ago that the Dawn Wall would be Tommy Caldwell’s biggest career move to date, i would have said bullshit, he’s already sent Flex Luthor. Guess i was wrong.

There are a lot of unknowns in this game however. Who’s to say Zion isn’t the next Yosemite?

Until then, congratulations TC and stop whining about your project being too hard. It’s not the dawn wall.

Thinkin’ and crimpin’,

-CC

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