Dawn Wall climber Kevin Jorgeson aims high to recruit new climbers
When Kevin Jorgeson climbs the stage for his Sonoma Speaker Series appearance on April 2, it will be a much easier climb that the one that got him there – a 19-day effort on one of the most difficult routes on Yosemite’s El Capitan, the Dawn Wall, with teammate Tommy Caldwell.
The spectacle in early 2015 of Caldwell and Jorgeson clinging to a 3,200-foot vertical face of granite went viral, as they say. The 19-day effort was widely publicized, day by day, pitch by pitch, first on social media, on climbing and adventure websites around the world, then to newspaper front pages and major network news like “Good Morning America.”
Since that time, Jorgeson and Caldwell have leveraged the climb’s success in a number of ways, most recently with the screening of the documentary “The Dawn Wall” at Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival last month. It won the Audience Favorite award (and is currently rated 100 percent fresh by critics, based on six reviews, on Rotten Tomatoes).
The film was as much the point of the climb as the other way around, as directors Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell have been involved in the effort from since 2009, when Caldwell first began working out the pitches.
Still, the spectacle of a media feeding-frenzy over a climbing team is nothing new. When Warren Harding (the climber, not the president) made the first “big wall” ascent of the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite, in 1958, the National Park Service made him take a few days off because the crowds watching from the Valley floor were too large.
In fact, the Dawn Wall itself was first climbed in 1970, when it was still known as the Wall of the Morning Light, by that old soldier Harding, by then a crusty 46. He and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) even drew a national audience, and their success too was broadcast on national news networks. But their climb was “old school,” with pitons, fixed bolts and other mechanical aids. Later climbers emphasized a purer style without destructive hardware hammered into the wall. Despite generations of eager climbers flocking to Yosemite ever since, the Dawn Wall still hadn’t been free climbed, without aids, 45 years later.
“All climbers free-climb, we don’t even call it free-climbing, it’s just climbing,” said Jorgeson. That means no cams, nuts or pitons to support the climber’s weight, just a rope in case of a fall (a helmet’s always a good idea, for the same reason).
Because of the technical challenge of the wall, they spent six years not only planning their ascent, but practicing it: rehearsing all the moves on the wall itself, and finally solving the “crux pitch” just a month earlier.
But it was the 15th pitch (of 32, each one shorter than the length of a climbing rope, usually 50 to 60 meters) that almost got the better of Jorgeson. On the final climb, which took place from Dec. 27, 2014, to Jan. 14, 2015, he needed 11 attempts over seven days to master that pitch alone, before the two-man team could attack the remaining pitches to reach the top.
It signaled that Jorgeson – then 30 years old, who started climbing at the Vertex climbing gym when he was 11, and had been bouldering and climbing in Yosemite since he was 16 – might belong to a lineage of respected if not legendary climbers who have launched their careers on the walls of Yosemite.
There was Yvon Chouinard who founded Patagonia, Royal Robbins who launched a clothing line, Doug Tompkins who founded the North Face and Esprit – Yosemite Valley climbers all, from the same time period in the 1950s. It’s worth noting that while their success as climbers lasted a few years (Robbins for instance made the second ascent of the Dawn Wall, in Harding’s wake, a couple months later), but their business success lasted a lifetime.
The tradition continues to the present day, and Jorgeson points to the example of Chris Sharma – a Santa Cruz climber who starting winning national contests when he was 14, and at 25 was declared the best climber in the world by NPR in 2007.
“He was an original teenage phenom in the sport,” Jorgeson says admiringly, “and now he has a family, he owns a climbing gym, he designs shoes, he does all sorts of stuff.” Sharma’s climbing gym in Santa Ana started in 2013, and he has since opened one in Barcelona. “That’s the way you stay a professional climber,” said Jorgeson. “You start to diversify how you do it.”
Sharma is now just 36 – two years younger than Tommy Caldwell, a venerable 38. Jorgeson, now 33, admits that climbing even into his 40s is unlikely. It’s not only a highly competitive sport, it’s one for a narrow window of time: Eight months after Caldwell and Jorgeson’s success on the Dawn Wall, 23-year old Czech climber Adam Ondra led all pitches up the same route, completing it in less than half the time, just eight days.
But Jorgeson keeps his focus on what lies ahead, not who’s catching up, and he’s been making his moves for years. He started a sports agency called Pro Climbers International in 2009; he’s heading oneclimb.org to install climbing walls in neighborhood Boys & Girls Clubs to encourage young climbers (he’s already installed one in Sonoma); and he’s deep in the planning stages for a $6 million climbing gym in downtown Santa Rosa, to be called Session.
“I’m spending a lot of time trying to bring more climbers into the sport,” he told the Index-Tribune. “I think the world is a better place with more climbers in it. It connects you to your community, it connects you to your body, it connects you to your environment – especially when you take it outside and start to appreciate the ecosystems that we live in.” Lofty goals, to change the world through climbing gyms.
Still, there’s that narrow window thing, and for professional athletes the route to the top doesn’t get easier with the years. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s footnote: Whether or not Kevin Jorgeson ends up in agate type or stays in the headlines depends on Kevin Jorgeson.
Email Christian at email@example.com.