Vigour, February 2015


Pioneering achievement or highly contrived publicity stunt? Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson may have conquered the ‘unscalable’ Dawn Wall in Yosemite, but they face an uphill battle to convince some quarters of the worthiness of their achievement, says Duncan Craig

IT WAS not so much a case of divide and conquer as conquer and divide. No sooner was the sun setting on Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s Dawn Wall triumph, than the doubters were attempting to gain a fingerhold. Fittingly, given the medium over which the 18-day endeavour had played out, the pointed remarks came via social media. Here was a wall first conquered nearly half a century ago, the carpers pointed out. The duo endured neither adverse weather or extreme cold. They neutered the majestic 3,000ft slab of granite by dividing it into 31 bite-size chunks, and gave themselves no deadline to finish. There were cosy mid-cliff camps, a glut of supplies (some brought by other climbing luminaries, who dropped by), generous sponsors, and the lights for their late-afternoon and early-evening ascents were provided by camera crews. Were their fingers swollen from climbing or Tweeting? Most unforgivable, if they’d fallen (and they did, numerous times) they wouldn’t have even died. 

There’s no doubt that the high-profile nature of the challenge jarred with some. The implication being that to borrow a phrase if there had been no-one to watch them drive by, Caldwell and Jorgeson would never have bought that Porsche. Please. This was tantamount to an obsession for both. Caldwell, the initiator, spent years planning, dreaming. Jorgeson, who came on board later, was no less monomaniacal in his fixation. Neither fits the show-pony mould, anyway. Jorgeson does a fine line in self-deprecation. The nine-fingered Caldwell, for all the reverence he receives within the climbing community, is almost unknown outside of it, as inscrutable as the forbidding walls of granite to which he is drawn. Not for him the mortality-brandishing free-solo climbs of Alex Honnold, who last year scaled 2,500ft El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico in three hours with no ropes or safety equipment, not even a helmet. Caldwell’s courage is no less profound; it’s simply that his modus operandi, his outlook, is more measured, more far-sighted. When he was forced to push an armed kidnapper off a cliff in Kyrgyzstan after he and fellow members of an expedition had been held captive, he didn’t race home to the television news studios or part-finance a histrionic documentary about their escape. He was so tormented he barely spoke to anyone for a year.

The nature of corporate interest and sponsorship in such endeavours can indeed stick in the throat (and Caldwell and Jorgeson were far from the worst offenders). Armchair critics hark back to the gentleman amateurs of old, purists from the Heroic Era, stoically enduring penury as well as myriad other deprivations, all for the ideal. It’s a seductive thought, and an utter fallacy. Want to know who the pioneer of exploration sponsorship was? Dig out a photo of two men standing at the wheel of a ship making its way steadily through an Antarctic ice field. They gurn clumsily at the camera while conspicuously sipping Oxo, their unease at this awkward detour into the world of product placement clearly apparent. Who are they? None other than Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his right-hand man on the deck of the Terra Nova. Heinz was another corporate giant of the day invited to pin its flag to the mast of the 1910-1913 British Antarctic Expedition, better known as the race to the South Pole. Shots of members of Scott’s team gratefully tucking into baked beans while sitting on boxes bearing the Heinz logo are easy to find and equally jarring.

The lights for their late-afternoon and early-evening ascents were provided by camera crews. Were their fingers swollen from climbing or Tweeting?

This was nothing new, even then. Captain Matthew Webb was the first to conquer the Channel in 1875. Smeared in porpoise fat, he swam for 39 miles (the changing currents conspiring to create an agonisingly tangential route) before making landfall in France. It was an astonishing achievement, not least because he breast-stroked the whole way. Public appearances and lucrative book deals followed and he lapped them up. A few years later he could be found performing publicity stunts such as floating in a tank of water at a horticultural show for 128 hours, like a sort of prototype David Blaine. Had Twitter been around at the time there’s little doubt Webb would have been rapaciously cultivating followers. So let’s not get misty eyed about that era. Corporate bucks were not only desirable but essential, and modern-day sponsors are as alive to the lucrative symbiosis of espousing the core values behind such feats as Rolex was with a certain Edmund Hillary in 1953.

When Scott arrived at the South Pole he famously found Roald Amundsun’s Norwegian flag already fluttering. It broke him, and he was dead within weeks, never to see his beloved Britain again. The Herbert Ponting picture of Scott, Oates, Bowers et al at the South Pole on January 17, 1912 is one of the most torturously eloquent expressions of stiff-upper-lipped despair you’ll see. This is the nature of “firsts”. Brutally binary, death or glory, and it’s how some, with their atrophied attention spans, measure such endeavours today. Caldwell and Jorgeson did not have this luxury. What they attempted was more nuanced, the media-ready soundbite asterisked with small print. Yes, they were using ropes but not to climb. Yes, the face had been conquered before, but not by free climbers. They weren’t doing it first, they were doing it differently.

And often that’s the way today. It’s one of the legacies of the tireless adventure pioneers over the past century and a half. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is interesting on the subject. When I interviewed him last year he was in philosophical mood, lamenting the dearth of remaining targets for his type. He painted a picture of hungry lions prowling a shrinking habitat in search of prey long-since killed off. All that remained was exploration carrion. “There are no more real firsts, they’ve all been done. At least on land,” he said. “What’s left is ocean and space these will be the new frontiers of adventure and both are technical in nature, with huge resources needed. You’re moving further away from the spirit of such things.” Indeed. Look at the Red Bull Stratos project, Felix Baumgartner and his supersonic freefall from the edge of space. You watch that, gulp, and are mesmerised but then what? You can’t ever hope to replicate such a thing, or come close. It’s quite literally another world. Watch Caldwell and Jorgeson in action and you see two humans rabidly bloody-minded, inhumanly focused, but otherwise just like you and I executing a skill that has been fundamental to mankind since we roamed a primordial swamp. Obstacle identified. Obstacle overcome.

And the climbing community surely the only one that matters when it comes to passing judgement on such an enterprise certainly felt no ambiguity towards the Dawn Wall attempt. For them, hammering rivets into a wall and threading them with ropes, and relying just on fingers, toes and superhuman powers of concentration, are as far removed as football is from rugby. They queued up with their superlatives. “The hardest big-wall climb ever, by a mile,” said one observer (nearer half a mile, but yes). Honnold certainly had no desire to indulge in his safety net-free antics here. He said pointedly: What makes the Dawn Wall so special is that its almost not possible. The hardest pitches on the Dawn Wall are harder than Ive ever climbed. If Jorgeson didn’t know what Honnold meant by this before, he certainly does now. His public yet private, impossibly lonely battle with the inestimable Pitch 15 was the defining drama of the attempt the sideways traverse, the splitting flesh, the knuckle-sized protrusions from which the whole enterprise hung above a chasm of failure. “I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed,” he Instagrammed after yet another failed attempt. It was horribly compelling. 

What the detractors also forget is that, while the terrain of challenge and endeavour may have changed, the spirit that drives it has not. We have in ourselves an innate desire to set goals and to reach them, collectively planting that flag of human accomplishment ever further, deeper or higher. Achievement has always been relative, not absolute. Still battered, sore and jubilant from his heroics, Jorgeson told Vigour last week: “It’s great that there’s so much attention on the Dawn Wall and the fact we did this, but people will forget the details and our names in time and that’s OK. I just want people to ask themselves, “what’s my Dawn Wall?” It’s impossible to know how long he spent crafting those lines, but a more concise summary of the nature and objective of such endeavours, in their purest sense, it would be difficult to conceive of. The protagonists are unimportant, as to a large extent is the plot. All that matters is the influence it has on the audience. The Dawn Wall, for a short period one gloomy, 21st-century winter, captured the world’s imagination. We looked up to follow this extraordinary duo and, in doing so, set our sights just that little bit higher.