Lessons learned during my first decade of free climbing on El Capitan.
I really had no chance at being a dentist, lawyer, or anything generally considered respectable. In retrospect, becoming an adventure climber was inevitable. I was bred to crave the outdoors. My earliest memories are of long ski tours in the Rockies, getting blown off my feet by the wind or buried in a snow cave, and of sitting in El Cap Meadow with my sister watching my dad up on the wall—and dreaming of going up there someday. Sleeping in a tent or a van felt more like home than sleeping in a house. If my parents wanted a responsible son who would grow up to make money, they blew it by showing me the wonders of the mountains.
I can’t say I blame them for raising me this way. In fact, I cannot imagine a better way to grow up. When my dad dragged me up Devil’s Tower at age six, people thought he was insane and reckless, but I thought it was amazing, and it gave me a passion to experience and explore. When he took me to Bolivia to climb 20,000-foot peaks at age 14, people thought he was mean for taking me away from kids my own age. But climbing big mountains in far-off countries seemed more exciting than video games and movie marathons, and I came back with a willingness to suffer and work hard to accomplish goals. My father became my mentor and role model, and by the time I set off on my own, I was pretty set on the path of a climber. When I started big-wall free climbing, I already had many of the skills necessary.
In 1996, at age 18,I took my first trip up El Cap, with my dad. By this time I had climbed numerous 5.14 sport routes and naively figured that a route rated 13b wouldn’t be that hard. But I hadn’t a clue about the difficulties of big-wall free climbing and was in for a big surprise. Five days on the Salathé Wall left me battered and bruised. Afterward, free climbing such a huge face seemed ridiculous, something far beyond me. But I romanticize about ridiculous-sounding adventures. Free climbing El Cap became important to me, and I was determined to do whatever it took to get it done. Humbled, I changed my mental and physical approach, and my training. I learned that big-wall free climbing has many layers of difficulty, all equally important. The strongest climber is not necessarily the best, because logistical strategies and tricks matter just as much as brute strength—maybe more. Strong does not mean bulging muscles and iron fingers. It means the ability to endure significant pain and climb day after day without resting. It’s also about knowing what is making you tired and learning how to minimize that. I changed my training to fit these needs, and to do everything to the point of pure exhaustion and pain.
Ten months after that first failed attempt on the Salathé, I started up again. This time, with new perspective and the discovery of a variation around one of the crux pitches, I freed the route, exhausted but hungry for more. It opened my eyes to possibilities I never knew existed. For the next five years I couldn’t keep away from Yosemite. In the spring of 2000,I headed up the Muir Wall with my good friend Topher Donahue. The first four days we made great progress, nearly onsighting the bottom third of the route. But on day five Topher’s wife got sick, and he had to head down to take care of her. At first I felt bummed, but it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. Three days later I teamed up with Beth Rodden, my future wife, to try to free-climb Lurking Fear. Within a week I was completely head over heels for her. Together we climbed the most intense and remarkable slabs I have ever seen. The desire to impress one another and spend time together increased our willingness to suffer through sweltering temperatures and razor-sharp crimpers. We were having the time of our lives. We pushed ourselves hard and climbed until every fingertip bled; we invented new taping techniques to allow us to continue. We were a driven team that worked well. We both did some of our best climbing on Lurking Fear, and after two months of constant work we completed the first free ascent.
The next season I returned to the Muir Wall with another good friend, Nick Sagar. He was originally exclusively a sport climber and in more recent years had shifted his focus to bouldering. In the midst of previous sport-climbing trips together, I had convinced him to climb Moonlight Buttress and the Nose in a day, and that was his only real traditional climbing experience. Normally I’d be apprehensive about partnering with such a novice trad climber for an El Cap free-climb, but Nick learns fast. We did get off to a bit of a rocky start, though. Pitch one was a 5.9 flaring chimney that left Nick panting and battered. He almost threw in the towel right then. On pitch two, a 5.12 layback, he yelled to me from a hundred feet above, “What color cam is it if my fingers fit all the way in the crack?” I wish I could say he was kidding, but he wasn’t. True to form, after a few days he had it dialed: purple if your fingers go in all the way, gray if they go in part way. His sport climbing and bouldering background made him strong as hell and it paid off. After two weeks on the route, we topped out on Nick’s second El Cap route and cracked open his celebratory home brew. It was his first free El Cap route and my third.
Five days after the Muir Wall I decided to try to free the Salathé in a day. Hans Florine and I started at three in the morning and after nine hours and 25 pitches, we were already looking at the crux headwall pitch. I was scraped up and cotton mouthed, but excited because I had never climbed that fast before. About two-thirds of the way up the pitch I had a full physical breakdown. I felt like a truck had hit me. It reminded me of the way I had felt the first time on the route with my dad. Aid climbing and jumaring at a crawl behind Hans to the top was all I could do. It became painfully clear that free-climbing El Cap in a day offers another whole set of challenges.
That winter I had a slight setback: I cut off my left index finger in a home remodeling accident. Feeling traumatized, I wondered if I would ever be able to climb anywhere near my previous level. But with the determination my dad taught me as a kid, I made it my mission to move forward and trained with more passion and dedication than ever. I returned with Beth to the Salathé the next spring, stronger and more driven. Surprisingly, I freed the route in a day on my first attempt.
Over the next couple of years I did two more El Cap free routes: the West Buttress with my wife and Zodiac with Topher. Both climbs were incredible, and helped me refine my big-wall free-climbing and address my El Cap addiction. I had seemingly found a formula that worked for getting me up these climbs, and I was ready to step it up another notch. Little did I know how big of a step I was to take.
“I don’t know if I have this in me anymore.” The Dihedral Wall pushed me to say these words for the first time in my climbing career. I have always subscribed to the theory that I cannot back down, even an inch, or I will never reach my true potential. But there I was, 1,800 feet up El Cap feeling like I might actually be at the end of my rope. My arms were seizing every time I lifted them above my head. Blood seeped from holes in my fingers, knees, elbows, shins, and forehead. I had been relentlessly abusing my body on this climb for over two months and was wrecked. Perseverance is great, but this was getting ridiculous. Several times I had spent more than an hour on a redpoint burn only to hopelessly pump out or have a foothold crumble, sending me down for more abuse. In fact I had fallen over a dozen times, having to reclimb pitches each time. Here I was only one pitch from almost sure success but feeling like I could go no further.
I had chosen the Dihedral Wall because it was one of the most obvious lines on El Cap. The first time I climbed it, I rope-soloed it as an aid route over three days because I wanted the experience of being alone on a wall. Freeing the Dihedral wasn’t a new idea, as Alan Lester and Pete Takeda free-climbed 50 percent of it in the early nineties. Todd Skinner and Paul Piana also worked on it extensively in 2001 and 2002, pioneering the variations that would eventually link the complete free ascent. At first, it looked nearly impossible, but beautiful. Dihedrals soared on for hundreds of feet without a break. When the cracks petered out, face holds seemed to appear and were just big enough and close enough together to make me think it might go free. The dihedrals are surrounded by immense, featureless slabs that sometimes stretch uninterrupted for over 1,000 feet. Throughout the bottom half, the cracks are usually thin, only occasionally big enough to accept more than a fingertip. Higher they become bottomless and flaring. If it could somehow be climbed, it would be one of the most extraordinary free-climbs I had seen.
The Dihedral Wall consumed me. I climbed more intensely and for longer each day than I ever had before, four or five days a week from sunrise to sunset. On my biggest days I would start at five and climb from the ground to the end of the last hard pitch, 1,800 feet up, self-belayed on my fixed lines. I would then rappel to the ground by noon, eat lunch, and go bouldering until dark. Bloody stumps replaced my fingers, my toenails fell off, and my muscles were so constantly sore that I forgot what “normal” felt like. I imagined I looked like a grimacing 90-year-old hunchback.
The route raised my tolerance for pain and frustration, and taught me the true meaning of hard work. It also gave me great satisfaction, the intense feeling of living each day to its fullest. The sustained nature of the route seemed absurd. Of the first 15 pitches—out of 26 total—there was one 5.14, one 5.13d, three of 5.13c, three of 5.13b, and four of 5.12.
Since nobody could withstand the countless hours of belaying it would take to get me up this climb, at first I worked the route solo, which, with no distractions, enhanced my appreciation of the route’s magnificence. I noticed every crevice, edge, and bulge. I memorized every feature, whether it was a gigantic dihedral or a hairline fracture. I took time to watch the swallows tackle each other in mid-air and plummet toward the ground, separating just before the treetops. I would catch myself saying out loud, “That is so cool.” The view became etched in my mind, as did the thousands of moves I rehearsed. Silence no longer felt uncomfortable; I was alone with my thoughts and motivation.
After two months the route was starting to come together. I started to link long sections of pitches, then entire pitches, and pretty soon had top-roped most of the hard climbing. Soon I would be ready to attempt the route, so I developed a plan of attack. I decided to climb from stance to stance in a continuous ascent, because it was the best style I thought I could use.
There are climbers who spend countless hours debating style in an attempt to establish a pecking order, and honestly it reminds me of the reasons I did not like high school. I believe people should strive to do climbs in the best style they think possible for themselves, but refrain from criticizing others for what they choose to do. El Cap is for having fun and having an adventure, not for having fights and criticizing others. This does nothing but boost egos and show disrespect for people who share your passion. As long as you are not harming the rock or the route, and if you are honest about what you have done, you should be able to climb in whatever fashion you want.
For the final push, Beth and my friend Adam Stack offered to come along to belay and help in any way they could, giving me the moral, emotional and physical support that’s as crucial to my success as any other aspect of climbing. Their generosity astounds me—they put aside their own lives to help me. I am lucky to have friends like that, and would never have free-climbed El Cap if it were not for them.
We started up for the redpoint at five o’clock on the morning of May 18. The weather was unseasonably cool and perfect for free-climbing. The wall looked ominous in the early morning light, and I could almost hear them challenging me. I started up the enormous face feeling very minute. The rock is polished, and the finger locks (from old piton scars) are far apart. Every time I reached from one finger lock to the next I feared that my feet would slip and I would go skidding down the wall until my 100-pound belayer got yanked up to the end of the anchor rope. But as the ground receded, I got into the swing of things. The climbing soon felt natural and I began to find the rhythm that I had discovered over the past weeks.
Months of conditioning paid off, and 5.12 was feeling like 5.10. The first four pitches took about an hour and a half, and I reached the crux pitch around eight o’clock. As I started the pitch my heart was racing and my body trembling. I laybacked up a foot-wide dihedral with no crack. There were almost never visible footholds, so the only way I was able to stay on the wall was to pinch the outside corner of the dihedral and press my feet hard against the wall. The rubber on my shoes was tested to the max, I felt strain in my back, strain in my fingers, and strain in my neck. The rock got steeper, but a crack appeared and gave me something relatively substantial to hold onto. With no feet in sight I had to continue climbing without pause. I tried to remember to relax, but my body started shaking. As the crack ended I made a full span right to a sloping ramp, smeared my right foot high, and dynoed for a shallow finger lock. I was beginning to get pumped and had to focus hard, compose myself, and then delicately traverse on barely visible holds to a belay stance. Once there I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I had managed to do the crux of the route without falling. But I knew I still had a tremendous amount of hard climbing ahead.
For the next three days, climbing from dawn to dusk, I desperately fought my way up pitch after pitch. I fell many times; the route took its toll. By the end the first day I was bleeding from beneath most of my fingernails. On the second day my feet were so swollen I thought they might pop through my shoes. By noon on the third day I just wanted it all to be over. But I was almost done: only one hard pitch remained.
As I started up the pitch my body quivered with pain and fatigue. I had been concentrating for three days, and my mind was tired. A shallow groove led to a small layback crack and the final few feet of hard climbing. If I fell here, a fixed pin that was at least 20 years old and driven into mud would hopefully catch me. I did not want to test its integrity. I pressed my bloody fingertips against a tiny side pull and smeared my feet into a glassy dish. Just as my fingertips reached the opening my foot slipped. Panicking, I desperately pulled my foot back up, smeared it again, and slotted my hand into a bomber jam above. I reached the ledge, threw my hands in the air, and screamed as loudly as I could.
I was ecstatic. So much pain, suffering, and hard work goes into these climbs that when finished I feel indescribably fulfilled. It does not happen for me to this extent on hard sport routes or boulder problems; big-wall free-climbing is special in that way. Something about climbing thousands of feet, with tens of thousands of moves, sets it above anything else. Momentarily, I forgot about my countless wounds and aching feet—and that alone made all the suffering worth it.
Three weeks after completing the climb I was still visibly tired. My first day back climbing felt horrible. I felt lethargic for months but at the same time satisfied deep inside. The Dihedral Wall had forced me to work harder than ever before and helped me realize, once again, that climbing gives me energy, passion, and makes me feel more alive.
The Dihedral Wall was only one step in a long chain of events in my life as a climber. I am a free climber through and through. For me it’s purity at its finest, demanding a level of focus and energy I have not found anywhere else. It combines the boldness and adventure that big-wall climbing has always possessed, with physical attributes that can be maintained only through dedication and passion.
Each of the six El Cap routes I have freed has taught me something new. Many people think that the major climbing problems have all been done, the big peaks climbed and the major lines conquered. I beg to differ. For me free-climbing has opened nearly endless potential. It gives a new generation the opportunity to explore and discover all over again. People are realizing that the great walls of the world may be possible to free-climb, and more people are embracing that every day. In the nineties maybe one free attempt took place on El Cap a year. These days you might find three, four, even five free parties up there at once. They may be pioneering a new line or climbing an existing one. I am sure this will soon expand to all the great-wall destinations of the world, and in many ways it already has. But I feel like the potential has barely been touched and that free-climbing will revolutionize big-wall climbing as we know it.
Free-climbing possesses a flow and movement that is addicting. I crave the burning in my fingertips, the pump in my forearms, and the puzzle of a crux sequence. Free-climbing requires less gear and is often faster, opening the door for huge alpine-style ascents and big link-ups. It’s also a more natural way to climb and a more sustainable resource. Once established, a hard free route is usually unchanged by climbers, whereas most hard aid routes change a little with each hammer blow.
Granted, most of these are just my observations and opinions, but I know this for sure: big-wall free-climbing has allowed me to live a fuller, more interesting life than I could have imagined. Anticipating a big Valley climb, I feel my pulse quicken, my body weightless, and my fingers tingling. Maybe it is the beauty of the immense glimmering walls, maybe it is the memories of numerous adventures and the dream of countless more, and maybe it is because Yosemite is where I fell in love with Beth. The Valley will always draw me back, though I doubt that I will ever do another climb as amazing as the Dihedral Wall. But then again you never know.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: California, Yosemite Valley.
Ascent: Dihedral Wall, 2,700’, 26 pitches, VI 5.14 (the first 15 pitches alone contain one 5.14 pitch, one 5.13d, three 5.13c, three 5.13b, and four 5.12). Tommy Caldwell. May 19-22,2004.
A Note About the Author:
Tommy Caldwell, 27, grew up on the rocks. For the first 15 years of his life he spent his weekends and holidays traveling the U.S. climbing with his father. His father also took him to Europe and Bolivia to experience mountaineering. At the age of 15 he found his passion in sport and competition climbing. When he turned 18 he started traveling full time and climbed in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South Americas. He became obsessed with free-climbing El Cap after his first attempt in 1996. Now he has freed more routes on the Big Stone than any other climber; the routes include the Salathé Wall, the Muir Wall/Shaft Variation, Lurking Fear, West Buttress, and the Zodiac. He resides where he was raised, in Estes Park, Colorado.