Ascension Day

On Sunday I binge-watched two documentaries about “big wall” climbing in the Yosemite Valley. One appeared on my Netflix feed and I wondered if it was the one discussed on a recent Joe Rogan podcast; when I looked and it wasn’t, I decided I’d just watch them both.

The first was The Dawn Wall, which concerns the first free-climbing ascent of the so-named face of El Capitan which is basically 3,000 feet of smooth granite with almost nothing to hold on to. The reason nobody had done this before is because many thought it impossible, but a phenomenally gifted climber by the name of Tommy Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgeson attempted it in 2015, inadvertently becoming a media sensation in the process. There are certain elements which make the story great. One section of the ascent involves a lateral climb over a stretch of rock which is particularly barren in terms of places to stand and things to hold on to. At first glance it just looks like a smooth slab of rock the size of a city block but on closer inspection there are tiny protrusions about half a centimetre in size, which Caldwell shows is quite enough to hang off in a pinch. When he completes the section, veteran climbers can scarcely believe it. What makes it even more amazing is Caldwell is missing the index finger on his left hand thanks to a circular saw accident, something everyone thought would end his career as a professional climber. The trouble is, Jorgeson needs to complete the section as well and try as he might, he can’t. Caldwell waits but after several days – the two lived on the cliff for 19 days  – he decides his own quest is in jeopardy and so continues alone. He makes considerable progress and is only a few days from the top when he decides he doesn’t want to leave his partner, so goes back down and tells Jorgeson he’ll wait as long as he has to. I’ve got to say, when Jorgeson finally completes the section I was punching the air and yelling. Happily, the two reach the top and enter climbing folklore.

A fascinating episode of Caldwell’s life occurred in August 2000 when he was just 16. He was climbing in Kyrgyzstan with some other American youngsters (one of whom he would later marry) when they got kidnapped by Islamic militants at war with the government. They were marched aimlessly through the mountains for 6 days until their captors either dropped out or were killed in skirmishes by government troops, leaving just one left. They hatched a plan and when a chance came up, Caldwell crept up behind him and sent him headlong over a cliff. They then found their way to an army base and were rescued. This had a profound effect on Caldwell (as you’d expect) and his personality changed, driving him even harder towards climbing. Surprisingly, the bloke he shoved off the cliff survived. I’d never heard this story before, being wholly uninterested in Central Asia when it occurred, so found it intriguing.

The second documentary was called Free Solo, about the ascent of El Capitan by an astonishing young climber called Alex Honnold. Free solo climbing is when you climb with no ropes for protection, just you, a pair of shoes, and a chalk bag. Nobody had ever solo climbed El Capitan before because most people thought any attempt suicidal, but Honnold mans up and does it accompanied by an exceptionally talented film crew led by one Jimmy Chin. There are moments in the film which had me covering my eyes with my forearm and shouting “Get down off there man, get down!” I guarantee you’ll have sweaty palms right up until Honnold pops over the final ledge and walks up to the crowd waiting on top. The storyline of Free Solo isn’t as good as The Dawn Wall, but it’s probably a better spectacle.

If you’re into climbing, or like me you just like watching people doing extreme stuff in mountains, you should watch them both. I’ll never be a rock climber or a mountaineer but I do like hiking, and when I finally hauled myself off the sofa I looked out my window at La Tournette and thought it was high time I trudged up it. So that’s the plan once the snow melts. I doubt they’ll make a documentary about it, though.

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24 thoughts on “Ascension Day

  1. These people – especially Honnold – are amazing but quite insane. I climbed Spiral Staircase in North Wales as a teenager (fully belayed and safe). It’s like climbing diagonally around a giant rock breast. Just about where the nipple should be you’re a few hundred feet off the ground and with nothing below you, not even a rockface. Although a low difficulty climb it’s very exposed and I was shit scared despite all the ropes and harnesses. To free solo El Capitan tells me that Honnold is an effing psycho. The chances of not losing grip even for the tiniest moment in 3,000 feet of nothing to hold on to is really not high. These people have mental issues. And nads like space hoppers.

  2. These people – especially Honnold – are amazing but quite insane.

    Yup, utterly bonkers.

  3. I’m not sure I could even watch them.

    I get a funny feeling in a certain area of my body when high risk stuff at high altitude is seen, whether real (me on the edge of the Grand Canyon) or stuff like this.

  4. Oddly, I got more nervous watching Honnold when he was wandering around near a ledge than actually hanging off a cliff by is fingertips. My biggest fear of ledges is someone might come and shove me off (lord knows, there are enough who’d want to). Hanging from stuff by ropes doesn’t really bother me, nor does hanging by my arms really. But unsecured ledges….brrrrrrr.

  5. You make this sound very much worth watching, but I don’t think I could. I get dizzy changing a light bulb.

  6. I think I only have an average aversion to heights, but just visualising the free solo climb makes me feel sick.

    I am amazed by it, but I’m not really sure I admire it, despite recognising the achievement. Your own life is itself a miracle, arguably greater than such a climb, and I feel that it should be shown more respect than that. I also think of the impact on friends and relatives should anything have gone wrong.

  7. Free Solo is an absolute must. It’s a superb film.

    As regards Alex Honnold being a bit mental, they cover that in the film. It turns out he is genuinely lacking something in his brain that processes fear.

    More generally, it is a salutory lesson to all comers that truly great achievements require astonishing dedication, effort, planning, fortitude and a bunch of other qualities that fly in the face of the “all shall have prizes” mentality.

    And his girlfriend is hot.

  8. And his girlfriend is hot.

    But so damned annoying. And somewhat of a liability.

  9. Oh sure, celebrate a non-inclusive sport. Why aren’t there women climbers who do this? Must be some discrimination going on.

  10. . . . when I finally hauled myself off the sofa I looked out my window at La Tournette and thought it was high time I trudged up it. So that’s the plan once the snow melts.

    No need to wait for that. Just bash up Mont Veyrier or Mont Vuache. No mountaineering, just some good solid walks. Nice views, too.

  11. Why aren’t there women climbers who do this?

    Funnily enough, one of the pioneering climbers on El Capitan – the first to free climb it, in fact – was a woman named Lynn Hill.

  12. Funnily enough, one of the pioneering climbers on El Capitan – the first to free climb it, in fact – was a woman named Lynn Hill.

    Okay, so ruin my joke. 🙂

  13. Tim Newman on April 3, 2019 at 2:28 pm said:
    . . . I’ve walked up Le Parmelan twice, which was great.

    That’s a serious jaunt.
    If you haven’t gone up the top near the Col de la Forclaz, that’s another one that’s reasonably demanding but not technical. A good morning trip.

    Sadly I no longer have family in the area, or I’d shout you a few pints at the Captain Pub.

  14. “I doubt they’ll make a documentary about it, though.”

    That’s merely a matter of how spectacularly wrong the day goes.

  15. There is a French woman free climber – totally hot too. Quick Google: Catherine Destivelle. I saw some amazing footage of her some years ago.

    I walked to the base of El Capitan a couple of years ago. Looking up, it is almost as vertigo-inducing as looking down. The base is interesting – lots of granite boulders everywhere, so it sheds regularly, as one unfortunate person was killed about a month after we were there. Having flown light aircraft, and been on the top of tall buildings including the WTC, I don’t have a fear of heights, but you would never get me climbing a rock face.

  16. Sadly I no longer have family in the area, or I’d shout you a few pints at the Captain Pub.

    That’s my local! Shame indeed!

  17. That’s merely a matter of how spectacularly wrong the day goes.

    Heh, like this guy? I was good mates with him at the time, and visited him in hospital afterwards. His book is surprisingly well written.

  18. There is a French woman free climber – totally hot too. Quick Google: Catherine Destivelle. I saw some amazing footage of her some years ago.

    Yeah I remember her, but for some reason thought she’d died. Maybe it was another one, the French seem to produce some decent female climbers.

  19. Tim Newman on April 3, 2019 at 6:32 pm said:
    Sadly I no longer have family in the area, or I’d shout you a few pints at the Captain Pub.

    That’s my local! Shame indeed!

    I was guessing so. During the years I was able to visit regularly, The Captain was the only old town pub worthy of the name. Café des Arts pretty OK for a quiet drink, too.

    Am hoping to pick up parasailing in the next 18 months. Would be good to go back and see it all from that angle.

  20. The Captain was the only old town pub worthy of the name. Café des Arts pretty OK for a quiet drink, too.

    The Captain’s Pub has a great atmosphere, but it’s pricey. Now I’m not working I can’t go there too often. There’s an Irish pub opened up on the same street a little closer to the lake, but it’s pretty average and not much like an Irish pub at all. I was in the Cafe de Arts on Saturday, or rather sat outside it in the sun. But if I’m down there at night I tend to go to a bar owned by a Chinese guy who I’ve got chatting to a few times. Otherwise, I have a phenomenally well-stocked bar at home. 🙂

    Am hoping to pick up parasailing in the next 18 months. Would be good to go back and see it all from that angle.

    I’ll probably still be here. Gimme a shout.

  21. Not into parasailing, but the view off the Salève is spectacular. It’s a nice walk from Veyrier-Douane to the Téléphérique.

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