El Capitan: How did the climbers do it? | Mountaineering

Yosemite duo near end of world’s toughest climb Guardian

What’s different about big wall climbing?

The term “big wall” is commonly used by climbers to describe some of the longest climbs in the world – usually mostly over rocks involving up to 30 lengths of rope, and over which most climbers expect to spend days to climb. Developed in Yosemite in the late 1950s, the special techniques adopted for this style of climbing have been used on open big wall climbs around the world, from Patagonia and elsewhere in South America, to the island of Baffin and the Himalayas.

Why is it significant that this is a “free ascent”?

The big walls were originally climbed largely with artificial assistance – or assisted climbing – a technique still used by many parties to navigate the most difficult sections of Yosemite climbs. To climb in this way, a climber will drive a stake (or “piton”) into a crack, wedge wedges – pieces of metal of various sizes and shapes – or place a skyhook (a very small grappling hook) on flakes of rock. and the edges. A lightweight set of nylon rungs are then clipped together with a carabiner and the climber will move high enough on the rungs to place another piece. Free climbing eliminates this form of artificial assistance. The climber uses only his hands and feet to progress upwards. The rope is attached to stakes or wedges in the rock solely for the purpose of arresting a fall.

It seems difficult…

It was. Six of the sections – or locations as they are called – on Dawn Wall are rated 5.14 in the US Yosemite Decimal system, which rates a section’s difficulty, with two at the high end of 5.14. The toughest climb only recently weighed in at the new 5.15 rating, then generally for one-rope-length sport climbs, which even then climbers can spend weeks or months trying to overcome. What’s striking about Dawn Wall – and why it’s hailed as possibly the toughest climb in the world – is that it’s packed so many very difficult climbs into one route. The toughest – or crucial – sections of Dawn Wall also involve very poor slippery toeholds where the climber has to rely on rubber-soled shoes rubbing against the wall and tiny razor-sharp flakes for the toe. two fingers.

The view from below of El Capitan as climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson became the first to free climb Dawn Wall. Photography: Ben Margot/AP

I still don’t understand how they cling?

Top climbers train their finger contact strength in a variety of ways, including on short, difficult problems just above the ground. Called bouldering – from the name of the blocks on which it is practiced – it has become a sport in its own right and in which one of Dawn Wall’s two climbers, Kevin Jorgeson, excels. Climbers also train on artificial holds and fingerboards to mimic stress and build strength. When Tommy Caldwell hurt a rib in a previous Dawn Wall attempt, he kept his fingers strong on a plywood wall at home. Maximizing finger strength is a science. A common climbing injury is a toe tendon rupture. Climbers also speak of “good skin”. The roughness of the rock – granite in this case – can quickly wear down the fingertip leaving painful holes, a problem that slowed Jorgeson on the hardest section, forcing him to rest his fingers and wait for the skin heals.

Kevin Jorgeson grips the surface of the Razor Edge during the free ascent of El Capitan.
Kevin Jorgeson grips the surface of the Razor Edge during the free ascent of El Capitan. Photograph: Tom Evans/AP

Why did Caldwell and Jorgeson sometimes climb at night?

When positive feet wear out, Yosemite granite can feel slippery all the way to the toes. For this type of movement, climbers speak of friction, describing the resistance between the rock and the rubber in their shoes, which is soft and similar to racing car tires. Friction improves in cooler ambient temperatures, which is why they chose to climb Dawn Wall in the winter. But because Dawn Wall faces south, the rock heats up quickly and the best conditions were often late in the day for the tougher sections.

But how did they live up there?

The biggest problem on California’s tall walls is water. There are not any. Climbers – and in this case friends supporting the attempt – must carry copious amounts of water and food for the 19-day climb in huge vinyl “carry bags”. Each climber needs at least two liters per day and ideally three. This is 2 to 3 kg per person per day. Food and water, sleeping bags, spare gear and portals – sleeping platforms – must be hoisted up against the wall. Weight is made manageable by using a Z-pulley system which gives the person carrying a mechanical advantage. Early climbers used uncomfortable hammocks but portaledges – collapsible alloy frames with nylon floorboards that clip to the wall – provide a rainfly against the weather and a comfortable platform for sleeping and relaxing.

How dangerous is it?

One section of Dawn Wall was fully protected by the hooks mentioned above, which are really only designed for body weight aid climbing – not for long drops. Yosemite’s El Capitan – despite appearances as a sold chunk of rock – is actually growing at an infinitesimal rate, meaning everything from small holds to whole rock elements can eventually fall. Pacific storm fronts can make the wall an uncomfortable and dangerous place, blanketing it with snow in winter.

Tommy Caldwell, center, with a photographer at a base camp while climbing the Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell, center, with a photographer at a base camp while climbing the Dawn Wall. Photograph: Tom Evans/AP

Finally, how do you go to the bathroom?

Park rules and common decency simply forbid pooping over the edge. Rangers will get a ticket and a fine for shitting in space. Climbers are required by law to carry a “poop tube”, a section of plastic drainpipe with a removable end. The recommended technique is to poop in a grocery bag, seal it in a Ziploc bag, and stuff it into the tube, which is then resealed. The contents of the tube can be discharged onto land.

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