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.