'It Looked Impossible': New Film Follows Free Climbers Up The 'Dawn Wall'

Nov 20, 2018
Originally published on November 27, 2018 12:46 pm

In California's Yosemite National Park, the summit of the iconic El Capitan rock formation looms 3,000 feet above its base. Though El Capitan's vertical granite has always presented a challenge for climbers, its southeastern face, known as the Dawn Wall, is thought to be the most punishing.

And yet, for several days in January 2015, national media crews and a growing crowd of people stood at the base of the rock, craning their necks as they watched free climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson slowly make their way up the Dawn Wall. Free climbers can use ropes to catch them from falls, but not to help them climb.

Jorgeson and Caldwell spent years planning their 19-day climb. "You could compare it to choreographing a gymnastics routine or a dance," Jorgeson says of the preparation. "It's highly precise."

Part of the planning involved figuring out where in the rock's seemingly impenetrable surface they might find a small grip on which to rest a toe, plant a finger or anchor a portaledge-style tent.

"These little tiny razorblade edges sometimes form [in the rock], and if you train yourself properly, you can learn to support your body weight," Caldwell explains. "Then, if you practice it enough, you can learn to move from one edge to the next."

Caldwell and Jorgeson's historic climb is captured in a new documentary The Dawn Wall.


Interview Highlights

On free climbing the Dawn Wall

Caldwell: El Capitan itself had been climbed a lot. Historically, it was climbed by aid, where you sort of attach these ladders to the wall and you climb the ladders. Free climbers got a hold of it in the early '70s, and so we started climbing it [with] just our hands and feet and the ropes were there to catch us. And there [were] about 12 routes on El Cap that had been free climbed, but they followed these distinct crack systems. To the right of center, though, was this big, vast, blank looking face, and to me that was the next level. It looked impossible.

On supporting themselves with just their fingers

Jorgeson: Climbing on El Capitan is extremely technical. You have to imagine that it's as sheer and as vertical as the side of a skyscraper. But what's cool about vertical climbing is that it's very balance oriented. So if you have a nub big enough to stand on your feet, it often doesn't take a whole lot to grip onto for your hands in order to make it all work. It's this really delicate dance at times. Other times, it's really powerful and physical, but sometimes it's just really precarious balancing act moves. ... Picture a thimble or just your thumb sticking out from the wall — just a little tiny surface area.

On how they secure the ropes while free climbing

Caldwell: A 200-foot rope is what we use. And as the first person climbs, they put in protection into into cracks. If there's no cracks, occasionally there's little holes drilled that have these bolts in them. And so, every 8 to 20 feet, you clip into one of these protection points. And so if you can envision that, if you're climbing above a protection point, say you're 10 feet above it, and you fall — you're going to fall 20 feet, plus a rope stretch. Then your belayer is holding the other end of the rope. That's your climbing partner.

So the first person goes up putting in these pieces of protection. They stop. They belay. And the second person follows them up. And then you repeat that process over and over again until you get to the top.

On portaledges, the tents that secure to the side of a wall

Caldwell: It's our little nest up on the wall. It's a hanging cot. It has a metal frame that's strung with fabric in between and it hangs from straps in a single clip-in point, and then a tent goes all around it. It's your little pod, and on El Capitan specifically, you end up spending a tremendous amount of time in these portaledges, it becomes your home. It's where you cook. It's where you sleep. It's where you eat. It's where you go to the bathroom. Anytime you're not climbing, you're in these portaledges.

On the dangers they faced as free climbers

Caldwell: On the Dawn Wall specifically I think our main danger was ice fall. We needed to climb in the middle of the winter for the conditions [to be right]. ... So we climbed in the middle of the winter, which meant every morning when the sun would hit ... ice chunks would come flying down the wall. So you have to figure out ways to deal with that kind of stuff.

Complacency was a big one, since we were up there for 19 days, just overlooking being tied in properly. If you're a new climber, in some ways, you're safer, because you're aware of everything, you don't get complacent. But when you've been doing it as so long like we have ... one of the dangers is you just get too comfortable in that environment.

On seeing Yosemite from 2,500 feet up

Jorgeson: It's one of my favorite aspects of climbing is that it gives you these unique perspectives on the world that hardly anyone else gets to experience. So being up on El Cap, I mean, you get a perspective of Half Dome, you could look out to the west, you get to see Yosemite Valley through a really unique lens.

Roberta Shorrock and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. For several days in January 2015, national media crews and a growing crowd of people in Yosemite National Park were craning their necks upward anxiously watching two men hundreds of feet above on a vertical cliff of the famous El Capitan rock formation. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were attempting a 3,000-foot free climb up a sheer wall that was previously thought impossible to ascend. The ascent took 19 days, and their remarkable feat was captured by a crew of documentary filmmakers, themselves rock climbers.

The new documentary, "The Dawn Wall," is now available for streaming on iTunes and will be available On Demand December 4. As you'll hear, Tommy Caldwell became an accomplished rock climber early in his life but had to overcome some shocking and traumatic experiences before taking on his historic climb, including losing the tip of his index finger in a table saw accident that many people thought would end his career. Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson spoke with FRESH AIR'S Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson, welcome to FRESH AIR. When most people think of rock climbing, they're probably thinking of something different from what you do, free climbing. You want to explain the difference?

TOMMY CALDWELL: What we do is we free climb on extremely large rocks, specifically El Capitan, the biggest rock face in North America. We spend multiple days up there, and we sleep in port-a-ledges. And, yeah, it's just rock climbing on a much grander scale.

DAVIES: Right. And, Kevin, I mean, people who go to a gym and come up with ropes - you guys don't use ropes or other tools to help yourselves advance up a face, right?

KEVIN JORGESON: Yeah. The key distinction to keep in mind is that our ropes are only there to catch us if we fall. It's not like we're facing death with every move that we make. That's not our discipline. Our discipline is pushing the difficulty barriers, boundaries - pushing the difficulty boundaries of the sport. And that means you're falling all the time. You're falling and failing way more often than you're succeeding. So you can imagine the ropes are a pretty important part of the process.

DAVIES: Right. But the ropes are slack when you're climbing, right? Every advance must be made with your own hands and feet, and that's all, right?

JORGESON: Yep. That's exactly right.

DAVIES: Right. It seems, from watching this, there are times when you're supporting much of the weight of your body on the fingers of one hand, maybe just two fingers. Right? How do you do that?

JORGESON: Yeah. I mean, climbing on El Capitan is extremely technical. You have to imagine that it's, you know, as sheer and as vertical as the side of a skyscraper. But what's cool about vertical climbing is that it's very balance-oriented. So if you have a nub big enough to stand on for your feet, it often doesn't take a whole lot to grip onto for your hands in order to make it all work. It's this really delicate dance at times. Other times, it's really powerful and physical, but sometimes it's just really precarious balancing act moves.

DAVIES: You say you stand on a nub?

JORGESON: (Laughter) I called it a nub, yeah.

CALDWELL: (Laughter).

DAVIES: What is that?

JORGESON: Like, picture, like, a thimble. Or just, like, your thumb sticking out from the wall. Just a little tiny surface area.

DAVIES: So it's a matter of sort of how you distribute your weight and find leverage, just the right places at the right times?

JORGESON: It's - I think a good analogy is choreography. And you could compare it to choreographing a gymnastics routine or a dance. It's highly precise, and that's part of how Tommy and I spent those six, seven years preparing, was figuring out how to unlock the puzzle. And that consists of the choreography, of the moves themselves across the rock.

DAVIES: When you're climbing, you have to advance with your hands and feet, but you are tethered to a rope. How is the rope secured to the rock face so that it can catch you if you fall?

CALDWELL: Right. So you have - a 200-foot rope is what we use. And as the first person climbs, they put in protection into cracks. If there's no cracks, occasionally there's little holes drilled that have these bolts in them. And so every, you know, 8 feet to 20 feet, you clip into one of these protection points. And so if you can envision that, if you're climbing above a protection point - say you're 10 feet above it - and you fall, you're going to fall 20 feet plus rope stretch, if that makes sense. And then your belayer is holding the other end of the rope. That's your climbing partner.

So the first person goes up putting in pieces of protection. They stop. They belay. And the second person follows them up. And then you repeat that process over and over again until you get to the top.

DAVIES: And so the protection - you stick something into a crack in the wall, and then I guess it has these spring-loaded things that expand and make it really stick to the crack. Right?

CALDWELL: Yeah. There's various kinds of protection, and we carry a whole quiver. But I guess primarily what we use is devices called camming devices, which have the springs like you're talking about. There's also nuts, which are just basically these little, you know, almost like - you can almost think of it like a bolt and a nut. Like, that kind of nut. And you just slot them in V-shaped sections of the crack.

And, you know, rock's strong. These things can hold thousands and thousands of pounds. You know, the whole system works better than you would ever imagine it would if you weren't a climber.

DAVIES: Yeah. Now just me imagining it, it seems terrifying. What are the dangers? When can things go wrong?

CALDWELL: I mean, there are so many possible dangers. On the Dawn Wall specifically, I think our main danger was ice fall. We needed to climb in the middle of the winter for the conditions, for the friction on our skin needed to be quite cold. So we climbed in the middle of the winter, which meant every morning when the sun would hit the wall, the water that had frozen onto the wall the night before would shed off the wall, and ice chunks would come flying down the wall. So you have to figure out ways to deal with that kind of stuff.

Complacency was a big one. Since we were up there for 19 days, you know, just overlooking being tied in properly, or - yeah. I mean, you know, if you're a new climber, in some ways, you're safer because you're aware of everything. You don't get complacent. But when you've been doing it such as - so long like we have, that becomes one of the dangers, is you just get too comfortable in that environment.

DAVIES: Right. And you mentioned a port-a-ledge. This is kind of like a portable tent that hangs from the side of the mountain that you sleep in?

CALDWELL: Yeah. It's our little nest up on the wall. It's a hanging cot. It has a metal frame that's strung with fabric in between. And it hangs from straps into a single clip-in point, and then a tent goes all around it. So yeah. It's your little pod. On El Capitan, specifically, you end up spending a tremendous amount of time in these port-a-ledges.

It becomes - you know, it's your home. It's where you cook. It's where you sleep. It's where you eat. It's where you go to the bathroom. Anytime you're not climbing, you're in these port-a-ledges.

DAVIES: I'm interested in how you got into this. Tommy, what were you like as a kid?

JORGESON: (Laughter).

CALDWELL: I was actually super shy, undergrown kid who was kind of mentally delayed. I had a father who was very masculine. He was a mountain climber himself, a mountain guide and a schoolteacher. And so getting into it was, you know, that's just kind of what we did as a family. But I got into it maybe a little bit more intensely because my dad was looking for, you know, something that would build confidence in his son and kind of tough him up a little bit.

So we'd go on pretty, pretty extreme adventures when I was like 4 or 5 years old. I learned how to be, you know, thousands of feet off the ground by the time I was 6 years old, which is not a normal way to be raised.

DAVIES: In the film, you describe your dad - who was also a bodybuilder, right? Competitive bodybuilder. You said in the film he was loving but he definitely made you suffer. In what way?

CALDWELL: Yeah. Yeah. Elective suffering, yeah. I mean, he was super loving. He is super loving. He's, like, my biggest fan. I mean, there were times where I think he even took it too far, and he recognizes that in retrospect. Like, you know, we would do these ski tours when I was 4 and 5 years old, and I remember one particular ski tour where I fell down this hill and fell into this hole in the ice, basically, and was suspended upside down by my skis with the ball of my hat bobbing in the water.

And luckily, my skis were strong enough to support me. But if it would've gone a little bit differently, I would've gone under the ice. You know, things like that where, like, man, it's a good thing I made it through my childhood. It was a little touch and go at times.

DAVIES: Yeah. Kevin Jorgeson, how did you get into this? What kind of kid were you?

JORGESON: My earliest memories are of waking up on the, you know, side of a river. You know? My dad was a rafting guide, and my childhood was spent rafting, and hiking, and hunting and just always in the outdoors. Climbing was something that has been innate for as long as I can remember. My parents tell stories of me climbing trees, and cupboards, and fences, and ladders and things like that before I even have memory of them. So I think it was something that's always been super natural for me, but I didn't find the sport until I was 11, when I went to the grand opening of a local climbing gym.

DAVIES: You specialize in bouldering, right, Kevin? Explain what that is.

JORGESON: Yeah. So I started climbing indoors, and after a maybe five-year obsession with competition climbing, I turned my attention outdoors. And I was really obsessed with a discipline called bouldering, which is just short powerful climbs that are maybe 20 feet or less. But then as time went on, I started to really get inspired by the bigger boulders. And I got really focused on a discipline called highball bouldering, which is like bouldering with consequences essentially. So now the boulders are not so short anymore. They're not so safe. They're, you know, 30, 40, 50 feet tall. So there's this element of risk that I was attracted to - not necessarily just for the risk but for the beauty that these large boulders presented. I was just more inspired by them.

DAVIES: And so you would go up those boulders without any - without a safety rope?

JORGESON: Yeah, exactly. So I really liked taking this dangerous proposition of climbing a really hard, really tall boulder and somehow reducing the risk to a point where I felt comfortable going for it. So I would often - because I was doing first descents - throw a rope off of it first, clean the holds because often there were - had some lichen on them, or they were dirty. I rehearsed the moves so that I knew what I was doing. I wasn't going to figure it out on the fly with all that consequence. And then when I felt ready, I would go for it. I would pull the rope and put some foam mats - we call them crash pads appropriately - at the base and chalk up and go for it.

DAVIES: And you never got seriously hurt?

JORGESON: Nope - uh, is that true? Let's see. I mean, I broke a wrist once, probably rolled some ankles - but nothing critical.

DAVIES: You both made it to this moment. That's good.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. They're featured in the documentary "The Dawn Wall" about their historic 3,000 foot free climb up a difficult rock face on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. Their remarkable 3,000 foot free climb up a vertical rock face on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is the subject of a new documentary film. It's called "The Dawn Wall." There's a remarkable part of the story that takes place in Central Asia involving Tommy. Tommy, you and some fellow climbers went to the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. What were you doing there?

CALDWELL: Yeah, so this was my first big international climbing expedition. I was sort of an aspiring professional climber. I was living on about $50 a month. And I was dating a girl who got invited on this trip, and I managed to kind of weasel my way on as a rope rigger. And it was a big opportunity for me. I was all of a sudden with some really good climbers going to one of the most beautiful mountain regions in the world in Kyrgyzstan. And so we organized this trip. We flew into this really remote mountain valley in Kyrgyzstan. And we're dropped off by a helicopter. We're about 30 miles from the nearest road. And while we were there, a rebel group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan came through this region. The political situation is kind of complicated. But, you know, in some ways, it boils down to opium trade for funding the Taliban. And we were in this mountain valley. So they saw us up on the wall. They saw, you know, a big base camp with a bunch of equipment. I think they had dollar signs in their eyes. They took us hostage. And not too long after that, the Kyrgyzstan military - the Kyrgyz military showed up. And this war broke out all around us. We had to abandon all of our food and clothing, along with our captors, and basically hide under gunpoint for six days from the Kyrgyzstan military.

DAVIES: And this began with when you were up on a rockface and suddenly there's random gunfire coming up at you? These were the rebels signaling to you that you were to come down and submit, right?

CALDWELL: Yeah, our moment of getting taken hostage was when we were sleeping in our portaledges about 1,000 feet up a wall. And the rebels showed up at the base of the wall, and they had these kind of long-range sniper rifles. And they shot up at us. And we had two portaledges up there. They were about 4 feet apart, and they managed to get these bullets right between the two portaledges. Yeah, it was pretty terrifying.

DAVIES: Right. So they're marching you around after they have a skirmish with the Kyrgyzstan army. And, well, you end up being marched for six days with essentially no food by one of these guys. And there's a desperate plan that you guys figure is your only way out of this. You want to explain what happened?

CALDWELL: Yeah, I mean, the whole time we were looking for ways to escape. And our captors were becoming progressively weaker - as were we, but we were actually holding up a little bit better because we were mountain climbers. And our captors had actually hiked over this big mountain pass before they even got to us in the first place. So we sort of started out in a little bit better shape. And at some point, we realized - or actually the other members of our expedition came up with the idea that our plan to escape would be to overtake our captors. And I wasn't on board with this. I didn't want to - you know, I didn't - you know, we had watched them kill people in front of us point-blank. And I didn't want to have anything to do with that. But on our sixth night of captivity, we were climbing up this really steep mountain side. We were left with just one remaining captor because the lead member of our - of the rebel group had gone back to our base camp to try and find some food.

And it just became painfully obvious - a storm was rolling in. It seemed like it was going to rain. We were on the verge of hypothermia. I was certain that we weren't going to live if we got exposed in the storm on the side of this mountain. And so, yeah, it became obvious to me that our only chance of living through this would be to push our captor over the edge of this cliff because we were in really exposed terrain. Yeah, it actually wasn't that - the logistics of it were quite easy once we made the decision. So that's how we got out of there. I pushed him off the cliff. He bounced off a ledge about 30 feet below us and then fell out of sight. And then we ran for about six miles to the nearest Kyrgyz military outpost.

DAVIES: Right. And as it happened, you just happened to be the one of you who was in position to actually do this - to grab the guy's gun strap and push him over the side. Do you remember that moment - what it felt like?

CALDWELL: Yeah, I remember it quite vividly. Like, I don't think you forget that kind of stuff really. I mean, it was this overwhelming outflow of emotion. I was really concerned about what - you know, I was dating Beth Rodden at the time, who was another member of the expedition. And she was really against us taking matters into our own hands. So just before going and doing this, I kind of went up to her. And I was like, I think, you know, the other members of our expedition who have been talking about this, they don't really want to do it. Do you think I should do this? Do you agree this is our only way to live? And she didn't say anything. And so that was sort of my - just - that told me that she was going to be OK with it.

So once the decision was made, I scrambled across this ledge as he was climbing this really steep section. I grabbed the gun strap and pulled him off and - yeah. I mean, it's hard to articulate. I mean, I think it was so intense of a moment that I remember it as almost like a dreamscape. I remember the stars. I remember the moon. I kind of remember the colors around us - the colors and the nighttime kind of swirling in my vision and then me sitting on the ground and just putting my hands on my head and kind of rocking back and forth and being like, what did I just do? I can't believe I just did that.

DAVIES: Right. Well, people who are in the military are trained for this. And it's very, very hard. You had to confront whether you could kill somebody. And as it turned out, you didn't, right? But you didn't know that.

CALDWELL: Yeah. We didn't know this for several months. But a reporter who was researching the story actually found out that the guy that I had pushed was in prison in Kyrgyzstan. You know, he'd fallen down the mountain. He'd miraculously stopped on a ledge that was down there, you know, out of sight from where we were. And he lived through it.

DAVIES: Well, and, of course, you were with Beth Rodden then, who was your girlfriend and climbing partner, right? I mean - and you stayed together. You got married. And you had - you shared this trauma. I mean, she had - you guys had both seen your captor shoot somebody in the head and then this thing. Do you think - I don't know. What was it like for the two of you to have - you know, enter into this relationship having shared that kind of experience?

CALDWELL: I mean, it was pretty intense. When we started dating - we started dating a couple months before this expedition to Kyrgyzstan, so the whole romance was fresh. After that experience, we couldn't part. We couldn't be away from each other. The psychological effects of what happened to us affected us all quite differently. And I was really traumatized for about a year. But after that year, I think that I found the whole experience quite empowering. And that might actually be because I was the one who actually did the pushing. Like, at some point, I was like, man, I had the strength inside of me. I found the strength. And I went from being kind of worried about that to being proud of that. And so I became kind of a strong figure.

Beth, on the other hand, just - you know, she just had a hard time. There was probably about six years where any time I would leave her side, she would get pretty scared. And so I just didn't leave her side. And we got married. And it was - you know, it seemed wonderful in a lot of ways. Like, we had this bond that, really, you don't find in everyday life because we had been something - through something that was so intense together. Yeah.

DAVIES: And the marriage, in the end, didn't last.

CALDWELL: Yeah. The marriage, in the end, didn't last. I think we realized that it just didn't start out in the best way. It was - you know, there was a lot of co-dependency issues. And at some point, she started to resent the fact that she felt like she needed me there all the time.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the subjects of the documentary "The Dawn Wall," which is on iTunes. They'll talk about their historic climb up the Dawn Wall after a break. And we'll have reviews of the TV series "Escape From Dannemora" (ph) and "Dirty John" and the movie "The Favourite." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE & NOMAD DOUGLAS' "SUMMIT MUSIC")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson about their remarkable free climb up a 3,000-foot vertical wall of the famous El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Their 19-day ascent is chronicled in the documentary "The Dawn Wall," which is now available for streaming on iTunes.

DAVIES: El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is this amazing rock formation that a lot of people have seen. It's been climbed by many people. But there's this one rockface, the Dawn Wall, which had not been climbed. Explain why it's called that and why it seemed almost impossible to climb up to that point.

CALDWELL: Yeah, so you're right. El Capitan itself had been climbed a lot. You know, historically it was climbed by aid, where you sort of attach these ladders to the wall, and you climb the ladders. Free climbers got a hold of it in the early '70s. And so we started climbing it, you know, with just our hands and feet. And the ropes were there to catch us. And there was about 12 routes on El Cap that had been free climbed. But they followed these distinct crack systems.

To the right of center, though, was this big, vast blank-looking face. And to me, that was the next level. It looked impossible. It looked like there was nothing to grab onto. But I'd climbed so much on El Cap at that point that I was the one person that knew on these faces that looked blank from afar, these little, tiny, razor-blade edges sometimes form. And if you train yourself properly, you can learn to support your body weight. And then if you practice it enough, you can learn to move from one edge to the next and blade edges sometimes form. And if you train yourself properly, you can learn to support your body weight. And then if you practice it enough, you can learn to move from one edge to the next. And the idea of linking all of these little tiny holds for 3,000 feet was the fascination behind it.

DAVIES: So you spent years surveying this and trying different parts of it. Right? You're essentially kind of - what? - developing a map of these razor-like holds.

CALDWELL: Yeah, exactly. I gathered a bunch of rope, and I walked to the top of the wall. And then I would rappel down, hanging from the rope, and swing back and forth and analyze the surface of the rock, run my fingers over it, feel all the holds, trying to unlock this incredibly complicated, vast puzzle. So that took about a year, and then that's when Kevin joined the project.

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. So you climbed in January because, you said, the friction is better between your shoes and the rocks.

CALDWELL: Yeah. And being cold was absolutely crucial because - yeah, the friction is better, but what that means is, you know, like, the rubber on your shoes is harder, so it doesn't sort of tear when you stand on these little tiny footholds. The skin on your fingertips is a bit harder, so your skin doesn't tear as easily. And it took us a lot of years to figure out that being really cold was absolutely necessary. So that's why we'd climb at night.

DAVIES: Right. So you could climb on a cloudy day but not a sunny day because you needed the lower temperature?

JORGESON: Exactly. So the overcast day was kind of the same as climbing in the shade.

CALDWELL: Yeah. It's funny. The side - that side of El Cap is this giant solar collector. So when all the crowds of people started to gather at the base, they were standing in Yosemite Valley. And it was like, you know, 25 degrees, and they're all shivering in down jackets. And we're up there on the wall. And it's - you know, nobody really knows that it would be, like, 80 degrees in the sun. And we'd be up there without our shirts on, and everybody would just be looking up being like, those guys are so hardcore. They don't have their shirts on, and it's so cold.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: The route up was divided into pitches. You want to explain what a pitch is?

JORGESON: I think the best way to describe pitches and, you know, all the lingo of big wall free climbing is to think of it like the Tour de France and the way that it has stages. Big wall climbing has pitches. And pitches are basically a rope length or less so, typically, somewhere between a hundred, 150 feet. And they begin and end in natural resting points. So it's not just an arbitrary stopping point for each pitch. It's a place where you can let go with both hands.

DAVIES: All right. So it's kind of - you can get from one to the next, and then you get a little break.

JORGESON: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: And some are harder than others. Pitch 15 was particularly challenging. You want to describe it?

JORGESON: Yeah. So for the first 12 or 13 pitches, you follow a faint but still present kind of crack system. But then it completely dead-ends. It just stops. And 300 feet or 400 feet to your left, another kind of corner crack weakness system begins. And in between is just porcelain. And these are the two crux pitches of the entire route, Pitch 14 and Pitch 15. And you're actually climbing from right to left. You're not gaining any elevation on the wall whatsoever. But because you're climbing between two distinct weaknesses in the wall, it's just totally blank.

DAVIES: Oh, so you have to - you're moving laterally. And at this point, I mean - what? - there are 32 pitches in the climb, so you're, like, close to halfway up. You're - what? - 1,500, 2,000 feet off the ground.

CALDWELL: Yeah, I would say 1,300 feet up.

DAVIES: Right. So how did you - I mean, after trying for years, what made the difference? How did you figure out to climb across the porcelain?

CALDWELL: I mean, we had worked out so many details. I mean, I trained extra hard for the previous six months leading up to it. I had decided for the first time in my life to try and drop weight. So I had lost, like, 10 pounds in weight. And so, you know, I was super lean, super strong. The moves were wired completely - you know, perfectly into my mind. And then interesting - one of the big breakthroughs was, on previous years, we had been climbing every day for months on end, and the skin on our fingertips would get really, really rock solid. Like, the calluses would get really thick. And on this year, we decided to take a two-week break and let those calluses shed off our fingertips. And so on these really tiny razor-blade holds, having softer skin actually was better because the skin could mold behind the holds a little bit. And so my skin consistency - you know, it sounds so weird to talk about skin consistency...

(LAUGHTER)

CALDWELL: ...But you know, it made a really big difference. And so - you know, that was part of it. But also, there was so much leading up to it that it created flow state. Like, I was just operating at a higher level than really any other time in my life. I mean, maybe it's happened three or four times in my life where I reach this really optimal flow state. And I was in that flow state. It felt magical. I felt weightless. You know, I felt like I could fly kind of. And that's sort of why you climb. In a lot of ways, you're trying to reach the state that just wouldn't happen in normal, everyday life.

DAVIES: Wow. So Tommy gets through Pitch 15, and he starts making his way up. And we have a moment in the film here where Tommy has reached Wino Tower, and Kevin is still back having not crossed this lateral Pitch 15. So this is a moment where, Tommy, you could go ahead and make it up to the top, probably, on your own. Were you guys communicating with each other at this point?

CALDWELL: Yeah. I mean, we were belaying each other. You know, after I did that Pitch 15, every night, I would go and I would climb another pitch of the route. I would get farther away from Kevin's high point. And each time I would do this, I would feel kind of progressively worse (laughter), you know? And so when I got to Wino Tower, it should have been this moment that was sort of the realization of this seven-year goal. Like, I knew success was absolutely inevitable at that point. But it - yeah, it didn't feel right. It felt hollow. And so I think, in a lot of ways, that's the power of this story. It was like we had to decide what was more important, the personal victory or sort of the brotherhood that we had developed over all these years of climbing.

DAVIES: And Kevin...

JORGESON: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...How did you finally pull it off?

JORGESON: Oh, man. So the Pitch 15 battle, it consisted of seven days, basically, of attempts and failures and rest. It all came together on my seventh day of attempts. I'll never forget it. It was January 9. When I woke up, there was something different in the air. I looked outside, and it was cloudy for the first time on the entire trip, which is awesome because what that meant is that I was going to be able to climb in the daylight instead of the darkness. And there was also this nice, icy updraft blowing up the wind. So when I stuck my hand out the portaledge, there was this nice, cold breeze, which is great conditions for climbing.

I had just taken two consecutive days of rest, so my skin was in the best condition that it had been in the past week. The condition of my skin was one of the primary reasons I was failing on Pitch 15. My skin was all cut up and torn. Throughout most of my attempts, I was covering them in super glue and tape and just trying to push through it, but it just wasn't working. But after taking two days' rest, I was able to climb without some tape on one of my fingers, which made a big difference. And the other thing that happened is that I decided to change my choreography at the hardest part - at the crux sequence - just to kind of - I thought I would have a better chance for success, but I also wanted to trick my body into a new routine. You know, when you try something 10, 11 times and you get the same outcome, your body almost expects to fail when you get to that point. So part of it was physical. I truly thought that it was the better way. But part of it was also mental. Yeah. On my second try that day on my seventh day of attempts - I think it was day 14 of being on the wall - it all came together, and it felt amazing as you could imagine. I mean, it was totally cathartic. If there ever is, like, a bottom of the ninth or a Super Bowl moment in climbing, it kind of felt that way.

DAVIES: In the film, when you, Kevin, complete that lateral pitch over this porcelain face, not only are you thrilled and Tommy but at this point, there's a crowd down on the ground below. This became a big media story. Did you guys want media coverage? Did you expect it?

JORGESON: Neither.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

CALDWELL: Yeah, we definitely didn't expect it. I mean, when we started up the climb at the beginning of those 19 days, it was just Kevin and myself and Brett, and nobody else was around. I mean, it was middle of winter. Yosemite's pretty deserted that time of year.

DAVIES: Brett's the cinematographer.

CALDWELL: Yeah, yeah. Brett was the filmer. Yeah. So it wasn't until Kevin started to fail that this story broke on the cover of The New York Times. A reporter named John Branch was interested in what was going on. We were posting on social media. So he kind of took our social media feed and started developing these stories, and those stories went viral. They went worldwide. And so by the time we topped out, there was, like, 15 news trucks in Yosemite Valley and several hundred people. And I think our climb was being livecast on one of the television channels. And this had never happened in climbing. It was so bizarre.

DAVIES: You know, people come from all over the country to see Yosemite. What's it like to see it from, you know, 2,500 feet up?

CALDWELL: When you're up there so much, you start to notice these incredible natural phenomenons. And one of my favorite was in the warmer months when the water would come down as water, not as ice, sometimes we'd get these big, like, gum drop-sized drops of water that would sort of float down the wall. And on a big wall, it seems like they're falling in slow motion. And when the sun is on the wall, it creates this thermal updraft. So you have this falling water and then this updraft of wind that makes these gum drop-size water droplets float in the air - sometimes almost motionless right in front of you. And the sun's shining on them, so they're sort of glimmering. And yeah, it's unbelievably beautiful.

DAVIES: Well, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell, thanks so much for speaking with us.

JORGESON: Thank you.

CALDWELL: Yeah, great, thank you so much

GROSS: Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are the subjects of the documentary "The Dawn Wall," which is on iTunes now and will be on On-Demand starting December 4. They spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After a break, John Powers will review two new TV shows based on true stories - "Escape From Dannemora" and "Dirty John." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOAM WIESENBERG'S "DAVKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.