It's hardly surprising therefore that the goings on of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on El Capitan have garnered so much attention in the climbing press. Besides Ashima doing the Swarm (the most famously slash-graded problem in the country) literally nothing is going on (except sends of Lethal Design, photos of which are now banned on Instagram, along with those of Scare Tactics). Basically if you are not on a huge overhanging south-facing granite wall, you aren't rock climbing in North America.
But it's not only breathless up-to-the-minute updates from Andrew Bisharat at Evening Sends on Facebook. In the past two weeks (and we are at something like day 14--I've lost track) virtually every major major news outlet has weighed in on this climb. Naturally the lack of familiarity with the practices of big-wall free climbing has led to some amusing (to climbers anyway) journalistic faux pas, the choicest of which have been compiled by the good folks over at DPM. And then then there are the comments from the readers of the New York Times, who are by far the most polite of the major news outlets. A surprising number of these readers find the Dawn Wall attempt ludicrous, incomprehensible or contemptible, reactions which should give pause to those dedicated to expanding the sport. Brendan Leonard over at Adventure Journal has collected some of these to save time for any of you who want to understand how the American public looks at cutting edge (literally--the climb depends on sawtoothed granite edges for its existence) free climbing. For proof of the problem with skin, one need only consult Tommy's Instagram page where we learn, "I have resorted to setting my alarm to wake myself up every four hours to reapply @climbonproducts." This is what we call media saturation, I believe.
Besides the numerous chronicles of the duo's progress including Tom Evans's awesome El Cap Report, there have been the "what does it all mean" pieces, including this one, perhaps most prominently a piece over at a blog called Fringe's Folly written by Chris Kalman. This essay diplomatically brings up the possibility that somewhere, somehow, that perennially cited and honored (mostly in the breach) quality known as "adventure" may have gone missing. For daring to mention this, Kalman was savaged in various online fora including mountain project. I thought Kalman was being too polite in his arguments and told him so but lo and behold, Freddie Wilkinson referenced his post in the New York Times op-ed section. Why the Gray Lady opts to probe the world of climbing so frequently is a mystery that someone must tackle at some point but I digress...
Anyway the most popular response was framed in roughly this fashion, "It's really hard and what do you know anyway. And Tommy and Kevin are really cool." Which is true. But that's not really an answer and it's especially not an answer because the Dawn Wall has long been the locus of discussion, brutal at times, as to what the point of climbing is. It's really interesting to see how the history behind this climb has melted away because in 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell's 27-day epic first ascent gripped both the general public and the climbing world alike. The aftermath of the ascent and the afterlife of the route forms one of the most interesting chapters in the overall story of climbing in Yosemite and indeed world climbing.
Climbers today are unused to the idea that someone would be watching over your shoulder to make sure you climbed something correctly, that in essence you had to "deserve" to get the first ascent of a route. Climbing was seen in very moral terms in the Yosemite of the 1960s, an ethic that ultimately borrowed much of its ideas from British practices, summarized by the statement, "The sort of man who would drive a piton into English rock would shoot a fox." The object of scorn and derision was not the piton, which was pretty much essential to protect the Valley's many cracks, but the bolt. Ironically the insistence on removing pitons left countless scars in the rock, most famously on Serenity Crack's first pitch. Bolts were a symbol of weakness, of not having "the right stuff" and the high point of this attitude was the Salathe Wall, a circuitous route left of Harding's sieged 100+ bolt masterpiece, The Nose. The Salathe was climbed with only 13 bolts and had a number of serious free climbing sections, making it emblematic of the approach favored by Royal Robbins, the leader of the first ascent team.
Over the course of the 60s, there was a rivalry of sorts between Robbins and Harding. Robbins' advocacy of so-called "purist" methods caused Harding to call him and his followers the "Valley Christians." This difference of opinion reached its climax when Robbins decided that Harding's route to the right of the Nose, now called the Dawn Wall, had too many bolts and needed to be erased. As it turned out Robbins found himself acknowledging the difficulty and quality of the line and stopped chopping bolts very early in the route. The initial action however was enough to raise a firestorm of controversy, a controversy that saw its final gasp of breath in the rappel-bolting wars of the 1980s. Incidentally both Robbins and Harding no longer climbed seriously in the Valley after that. For many, the Dawn Wall episode was the closing of the so-called Golden Age of Yosemite climbing.
Now we are in a very different place, style-wise, where aid climbing is seen as no longer cutting-edge, indeed not even as actual climbing by many climbers. The flanks of El Cap are criss-crossed by multiple lines, some free, many still requiring aid. The blank on the map no longer exists as far as El Cap is concerned and if the blank on the map is gone for El Cap then basically it's over for climbing in North America. And this, in my view, is the reason for the media frenzy, that we are watching the extinction of an old frontier in climbing in real time. This is the first thing nobody is really saying about the Dawn Wall free ascent. People said this about the first Dawn Wall ascent and they were right.
There will be other free climbs on El Cap, especially once the obsolete insistence on not adding bolts to old aid routes passes away, as it will. Perhaps there will be harder free climbs on El Cap, especially on the right side where the steepest and most featured rock exists. But there will never be another blank canvas like the Dawn Wall, nor another meeting of climber and climb quite like this matchup. So our celebration of this extraordinary achievement is tempered by the knowledge that for better or worse it's the end of an era of exploration that began in earnest with the post-war achievements of climbs such as the Lost Arrow Chimney.
That is the important adventure in the end, not knowing what is next in the bigger picture. What happens when we are done scouring cliffs for difficulty? It will take some serious thought to get past the current mindset that climbers are athletes, that difficulty is an objective reality that can be measured and compared and that exploration and first ascents and the heroic mode of climbing achievement actually matter, as all these ideas are becoming obsolete and washing away beneath our feet like sand on the edge of the shoreline.
The confusion of the average American news reader is forgivable because honestly, and this is the other thing nobody is really saying, climbers don't really know what they are doing right now or why. As climbers we are pushing ourselves into an unknown future where the complexities and uncertainties faced by Tommy Caldwell in 2015 will seem as quaint and out of touch as using actual stove legs for pitons on the Nose or the idea of chopping a bolt ladder because there were "too many" bolts. Ashima's effortless dispatching of a reachy and powerful V13 (or V14, depends on who you ask!) points to the dubious validity of what a really hard climb actually consists of these days. Adam Ondra's 100+ 9a or harder ascents, most done in a matter of tries, undermines any notion that we really understand what hard free climbing consists of.
On the Dawn Wall, as on most of El Cap, we are climbing over ghosts and relics of a bygone age, tiptoeing past the presence of those who came before, a striking number of whom are dead or no longer climbing at all. We share the rock with this past but it's time we also recognize that the present has a claim on this place. The old definitions of adventure may yet apply but in ways that we have yet to recognize. As I have written elsewhere, the temptation to mythologize and idolize the past is especially strong in climbing. The Dawn Wall reminds us that a new era is always just around the corner.