What is Free Climbing?
This seems to be the most contentious item in the comments. And I don't blame people because the article is very confusing. The author doesn't clarify what free climbing is and a lot of non-climbers, and even some self-proclaimed climbers, erroneously think that Caldwell/Jorgeson are free soloing this route without ropes. They are not free soloing, they are free climbing. Let's have a quick terminology lesson:
Leader / Lead Climber: The rope is attached to the lead climber, who ascends the route and brings the rope up as he or she climbs. The leader will clip the rope into points of protection, which can be either fixed or temporary, that are in the wall along the way. If the climber were to fall, the belayer would "catch" the climber with the rope.
Belayer: The rope is also attached to the belayer, who feeds slack in the rope to the leader as he or she moves up the wall. Depending on the type of route or the location on a mult-pitch, the belayer could be belaying from either below the lead climber or above the climber who is following up the route. The belayer will "catch" the climber with the rope if he or she falls.
Free Climbing: *This is the type of climbing that Caldwell and Jorgeson are engaged in while ascending Dawn Wall.* The lead climber ascends the rock wall with only the use of his or her hands and feet. The lead climber is connected to a rope and belayed by his or her climbing partner, but does not use the rope or any other forms of aid to ascend the wall. If the climber falls, the belayer catches the climber using the rope. However, the rope in no way assists the climber in moving up the wall. Again, the rope is only there to catch and protect the climber in the event of a fall. Here is a video of Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra free climbing on one of the hardest routes in the world. Note that the rope catches them when they fall, but they don't use the rope to ascend. Additionally, to confuse things even more, free climbing can be subdivided into traditional climbing and sport climbing.
Free Solo Climbing / Soloing: The climber ascends the rock wall with only the use of his or her hands and feet. The climber is not connected to a rope and therefore is not belayed by a climbing partner. There are no forms of aid or protection. If the climber falls, he or she will fall to the ground. Most people are familiar with Alex Honnold for free soloing many routes, and was featured on 60 Minutes in 2011.
Aid Climbing: The climber ascends the rock wall by moving up the rope with the direct help of aid devices, such as etriers, aiders, and ascenders. This video (skip to minute 1:00 or 1:20) shows some aspects of aid climbing, including "jugging" up the rope. The couple in the video is ascending The Nose on El Capitan. Aid climbing is typically done when the rock wall is deemed too difficult to "free climb" (refer to above). However, some multi-pitch routes use a mix of free climbing and aid climbing, depending on the difficulty in particular sections / pitches. Historically, Yosemite big wall routes were mostly climbed using aiders.
Why is this a big deal?
That leads me to the next question that I've seen pop up repeatedly: Why is The New York Times writing an article about two guys ascending a big wall in Yosemite, which has been done by so many others in the past 40 years?
Basically, people who say that are wrong. This particular route, The Dawn Wall, has never been climbed in the way that Caldwell and Jorgeson are doing it.
It boils down to a terminology misunderstanding again. Like I mentioned above, historically, Yosemite routes have been aid climbed, not free climbed or free soloed. Caldwell and Jorgeson are climbing a big wall route that has never in history been free climbed. So yes, to the commenters from the article, many people have climbed this route, but only with the use of aids.
The Dawn Wall, located on the granite monolith El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, is a 3,000 foot route that is broken down into about 30 different pitches, ranging in difficulty from 5.13 to 5.14+. Because of the sheer difficulty of the moves and the endurance required, this section of El Capitan has always been aid climbed. Here is a great breakdown of the logistics and various pitches of free climbing the Dawn Wall.
What are the legitimate risks?
All climbing is inherently dangerous. But so is driving or cycling or playing football. Rock climbing, when done safely and correctly, can be no more or less risky than other activities we engage in on a daily basis. Back in May, I wrote a post that touches on the aspects of minimizing risk while climbing.
However, let's look at what Caldwell and Jorgeson are doing specifically. The biggest misconception and concern from non-climbers is that they think if Caldwell or Jorgeson fall, then they will fall to the ground. I apologize for beating a dead horse here, but it is necessary to reiterate that if one climber falls while ascending, they will be caught by the other climber (the "belayer") with the rope. In fact, both Caldwell and Jorgeson are falling quite a lot. The routes they are free climbing are extremely difficult, so falling can be more aptly described as an inevitability. When the climber falls, then he is forced to try that section of the route all over again. As you can imagine, finishing a section of the route can take a long time if climbers are falling often. Because the wall is so flat, which is the same reason that makes the climb so difficult, most falls are probably clean and void of hazards. Also, this means that there is less risk of the rope rubbing against sharp areas of rock.
What are some other potential risks? Well, gear could pop out of the wall or ropes or harness could break. However, this is incredibly unlikely. Knowledgeable, professional climbers like Caldwell and Jorgeson are fully aware of how to maintain their equipment and when it's time to "retire" a rope, harness, etc. The vast majority of injuries or deaths from climbing are due to human error. Not always, but very often, this is due to inexperienced and untrained novices attempting to climb outside. Here is a great resource on safety while big wall climbing in Yosemite.
And for all those folks who are reprimanding Caldwell for climbing this route and taking these risks while he has a 20-month-old and a wife at home:
- One commentor said it best, "Climbing requires an intense focus on where you are and who you are with, and it teaches this focus better than anything I have done in my long life. It taught me trust, thoroughness, problem solving skills, how to read character in others and in myself, and it gave me a chance to understand how big the world is beyond my small problems... To give a child the knowledge of how to climb well, and to do it safely (yes, it is very, very safe when done right) is one of the best things a parent can do."
- His wife, Becca Caldwell, married this man knowing exactly who he is. Her Facebook page seems to indicate that she is very supportive of this endeavor.
What are the environmental and economical impacts?
Three of the most popular questions (although often these questions are listed as accusations) that I have seen over and over again are:
1. Where does the poop go? In short: a poop tube. Pretty self explanatory. Not sure you need or want more information. However, in case you do, Yosemite has very clear guidelines about what you are supposed to do with human waste and trash. My favorite line is the first one: "It is illegal to throw anything off a cliff in Yosemite." That includes, well, you know...
2. How does this negatively effect the rock / El Capitan? In short: not very much. Most of the protection that Caldwell and Jorgeson are using are temporary. However, many readers and non-climbers seem concerned that Caldwell and Jorgeson are permanently damaging the rock. My first thought when reading this is, even if they are using fixed/permanent protection such as bolts that have been drilled into the rock, no one can actually see these tiny bolts when they are standing on the ground. Maybe I could spot a bolt that is 100 feet up if the sunlight hits it just right. But 1000 feet up? No way in hell.
Caldwell and Jorgeson are likely using spring-loaded cams that are placed in cracks and can be easily removed after the climb is complete. They are also likely using permanent bolts that have been placed by previous climbers.
But this whole issue begs the question: Why do we have National Parks in the first place? What is this land here for, if not to enjoy it? One commentor expressed that people who climb El Capitan are making better use of the National Park than those who drive through it and give it a cursory glance and a snap of their camera and then move on. I agree. Climbers experience the rock and embrace the power that is El Capitan, or any rock formation in the world. They touch it with their fingers and love it with their desire to be a part of nature. In return, the rock challenges them and helps them grow as humans. The damage done to the rock itself is minimal, especially in comparison to the amount of exhaust and litter that millions of people bring into Yosemite each year.
3. Who pays for rescue operations if they get hurt? In short: Yosemite Search and Rescue. However, it's slightly more complicated than that, given that some funds come from the federal account that supports the National Parks and some funds come from a nonprofit organization called Friends of YOSAR. In fact, most rescue missions aren't due to climbers. According to Friends of YOSAR, "roughly 60% of YOSAR rescue missions have involved hikers, either one who have become lost in the wilderness or are injured on the trails."
What is the greater purpose?
Many people are asking questions such as: What's the point? Why climb this wall? Don't give me the age old response "Because it's there." That's not good enough this time. How is this endeavor more important than climbing Everest, going to the Moon, helping solve world hunger, etc? Isn't this just a publicity stunt?
Caldwell has been working on this route, attempting parts of it and working out logistics, for about 8 years. This is not a publicity stunt. Caldwell and Jorgeson are sponsored, professional climbers who have made their lives and careers about rock climbing. The cameras that are following them are not solicited by Caldwell and Jorgeson, but are following the ascent because it is newsworthy.
What's the point? Why climb this wall? Okay... Why do we do anything? As one commenter said, why paint the Mona Lisa? I don't believe that you can fully grasp the rewards of rock climbing unless you have tried it yourself. It's a challenge to your mind and body simultaneously. Every muscle is working to move up the wall, and at the same time, you are battling your fears and your doubts. Each climb is a puzzle that needs to be solved.
This puzzle, free climbing the Dawn Wall, is just the next step for climbers. Climbing Everest, landing on the moon, solving world hunger - these are all valid puzzles in themselves. Climbers ask the question: How far and how high and how hard can I go? If we don't ask these questions and attempt to overcome them, the human race will never improve.
More importantly, why do some people feel the need to put down or judge other people's dreams? We are all driven by different forces and it's unfair to say one is better than the other.
That's all I got.
Good luck Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson!