Free-Climbing Yosemite's El Capitan Takes A Team — And Time Two rock climbers are close to finishing a hugely ambitious project on El Capitan in the Yosemite Valley — free-climbing the Dawn Wall. They talked to NPR's Melissa Block from the rock face.
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Free-Climbing Yosemite's El Capitan Takes A Team — And Time

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Free-Climbing Yosemite's El Capitan Takes A Team — And Time

Free-Climbing Yosemite's El Capitan Takes A Team — And Time

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And picture this; our next guests talked to us as they were suspended high up in midair.

TOMMY CALDWELL: So we are about 1,200 feet up the face of El Cap which is about 3,000 feet tall.

BLOCK: And let's explain El Cap is El Capitan, the formidable granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.

CALDWELL: And we're sitting in a portaledge, which is basically a hanging cot with an aluminum frame and nylon stretched between it. And there's sort of a tent that goes around the whole thing, so we can keep out the weather.

BLOCK: That's professional climber Tommy Caldwell. He's made it almost halfway up the Dawn Wall of El Cap with his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, who told us the view is incredible.

KEVIN JORGESON: When I look down, I see El Cap meadow and a couple people that look very, very small down there, cars driving by, a lot of ice on the shores of the Merced River and just faint bits of snow on the gullies of the north side of the valley. It's been slowly melting over the past 10 days.

BLOCK: When I talked with them yesterday, Jorgeson and Caldwell were 10 days into what's considered one of the world's most daunting climbing challenges. They're attempting to free-climb the sheer vertical face of the Dawn Wall. That means they're using only their hands and feet to make the ascent, with ropes just to break their fall. And that's the key difference, Tommy explains. No one has ever free-climbed the Dawn Wall in one continuous push.

CALDWELL: There's hundreds of people that climb El Cap every year. The thing that makes our climb different is that we're just trying to free-climb an extremely difficult part of the wall. And don't get free-climbing confused with free-soloing. We do have ropes with us. We actually fall quite often. But we are climbing the rock face. We're not actually ascending the equipment.

BLOCK: And what is it about the Dawn Wall in particular that's such a challenge?

CALDWELL: It's just an extremely blank, very, very difficult part of El Cap that I took on as a project years ago. And it was - just captured our imagination and seems to be capturing the imagination of the climbing world as well.

BLOCK: And, Kevin, the two of you have been doing this for a few years now - right? - testing - doing test climbs bit by bit to get familiar with the face and to insert bolts that you're using now, right?

JORGESON: Right. I kind of equate it to riding the individual stages of the Tour de France, if you will, like practicing each stage. And some stages are harder than you can actually climb at the time. So you really have to work it out. So over the past six years together - and longer, Tommy on his own - we've been working on each of these stages and climbing - those are called pitches. And they're broken up by rope length. You know, our ropes are about 200 feet long, so the pitches are obviously 200 feet long or less.

BLOCK: Kevin, I want you to translate something you tweeted this week. You were talking about pitch number 16, which is a segment that's still ahead of, I think. Here's what you said; it's pretty insane to huck an 8-and-a-half foot sideways dyno 1,500 feet up.

JORGESON: Yes.

BLOCK: All right, what does that mean?

JORGESON: So a dyno is short for dynamic, and that's when all of your limbs, hands and feet, are off the rock. So basically there's a huge 8-and-a-half foot expanse of rock with nothing in between. It's total porcelain. And on one side, it's a little door-jam-sized edge you can hang onto, and likewise on the other. And the only way to get between the two is to jump. And they're directly horizontal from one another. So it's a pretty ballistic move to be doing, especially in this environment.

BLOCK: Tommy, how are your fingers holding up?

CALDWELL: That's one of the major struggles for us really. You know, it's one of the things that is the most likely to shut us down is just the skin on our fingers can't hold up. And it's one of the reason it takes two weeks. We're grabbing really, really sharp holds that, you know, tear our skin away.

BLOCK: Kevin, what about you?

JORGESON: I split my right index finger on day two and my right middle finger on day three. And I think because it's been so cold and dry, the healing process is taking a lot longer than normal. So I feel like the only thing keeping me from pitch 15 is fresh skin on that finger. I tried to climb that pitch with tape, and you can't feel anything really with tape.

BLOCK: So what do you do to take care of your hand when they're getting so beat up?

JORGESON: I've been taking Tommy's advice and lathering Neosporin on the cuts at night and wrapping tape loosely around those. That and just staring at them about eight hours a day.

BLOCK: (Laughter) You think that helps?

JORGESON: Yeah, well, it can't hurt.

BLOCK: Tommy, any other advice for Kevin about the fingers?

CALDWELL: (Laughter) It's pretty funny we obsess about our fingers a lot. It probably looks ridiculous to anybody outside of our world. But we really do. We really sit there staring at our fingers being like, what are we going to do about this?

BLOCK: It's an understandable question. I mean, without them...

CALDWELL: Yeah.

BLOCK: How are you getting food up there?

CALDWELL: Well, this is not just Kevin and I on the wall. We have a few friends that are making a film, and they bring up fresh batteries and they bring us stocks of food. And it's a bit like an expedition, like an expedition up Everest or something. That way we have a base camp; we have porters.

BLOCK: So you never feel like you're quite alone up there.

CALDWELL: No, this is very different than most types of climbing I do, when I go to more remote places where you really are all alone. And El Cap isn't that anymore. You get cell phone service. We're doing an interview with you from the side of the rock face, which is a very new thing in our world.

BLOCK: Tommy, I know you have talked about the Dawn Wall of El Capitan as your Moby Dick - right? - the thing of your dreams that you've been pursuing for a really long time. What does it feel like to be doing this now and thinking that maybe this time you'll actually - you'll finish it, you'll make the climb?

CALDWELL: I mean, it's something that I've pursued for so long, and I've gained so much through that pursuit. It's driven me to just try and be a more complete person in so many ways, and I'm a little worried that if I complete it, I'm going to lose that. So finishing it is obviously the goal, but it's also going to mean that I'm sort of ending a relationship that I've had for seven years.

BLOCK: You know, I've got to ask you - when I look at the pictures of you guys up there, and some of them are from above -right? - so we see you and then we see all the way down to the ground. And it is completely terrifying and completely dizzying. When you guys look down, is it not scary for you? Are you dizzy at all when you think about where you are, Tommy?

CALDWELL: I'm not dizzy at all. I mean, I've grown up in this world. I've been climbing on El Cap for a long time. I think at this point, it's just exciting. It's a very engaging environment to be in. It's kind of where I operate best, oddly.

BLOCK: And, Kevin, same for you - no fear at all?

JORGESON: Well, I have been considerably less big-wall climbing. I think a lot of people would be entertained to know that I haven't climbed El Cap prior to this, and to this day, this is still my first El Cap climbing project. So climbing this high up could take quite a few years of getting used to. But now I'm pretty comfortable with it. That, and much of our climbing is done at night, so you can only really see what your headlamp illuminates.

BLOCK: That sounds even more scary to me.

JORGESON: (Laughter).

BLOCK: That doesn't sound like it would make me feel any better.

JORGESON: No, it's great. You can imagine you're just right on the ground.

BLOCK: I'm not buying it. Well, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. And best of luck.

CALDWELL: Great. Thank you so much.

JORGESON: Thank you.

BLOCK: Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson talked with us yesterday afternoon. They were in hanging cots 1,200 feet up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. And you can see some dizzying images from their climb on npr.org. They hope to reach the top within a week, becoming the first people ever to free-climb the Dawn Wall.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

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