The Dawn Wall - More than a climb.


We have conversations at home around the ‘WHY?’

Why do people do what they do? Why do Mountaineers climb the highest, most difficult and deadly peaks of the world? Why do people put themselves into situations where life is on a thread metaphorically and literally, often causing severe and extreme discomfort in the process, sometimes causing long lasting or life altering injuries and in the extreme, death? Why would anyone do that!? But I get it, Emily doesn’t and the debates roll on…

I watched Dawn Wall the other night on Netflix and I was engrossed from the first second. The documentary follows the story of Tommy Cauldwell, a young boy who didn’t particularly fit, then found climbing, which changed his life.

The film unfolds with Tommy’s background. An extraordinary experience in Kygryzstan, the aftermath of that experience on his life, mental health, relationships and then follows his obsession with the Dawn Wall, a face of El Capitan in Yosemite National park. It’s a fantastically well pieced together story building the foundations for the attempt to Free Climb* Dawn Wall.

In the light of the massively successful Free Solo film which sees superstar Alex Honnold climb a different face on El Capitan with no ropes at all, climbing has been thrust into the limelight perhaps more than ever before. Tommy was a key figure in Alex’s preparations for that mind boggling ascent, but somehow, to a non climber at least, it feels like he’s somewhat in Alex’s shadow. I certainly don’t think that’s the reality. I also think everyone should watch both films for different reasons…

Tommy Caldwell somewhere on Dawn Wall

Tommy Caldwell somewhere on Dawn Wall

Dawn Wall is a drama unfolding. A goal turned to obsession which stemmed from life circumstances. The obsession draws in another climber, Kevin Jorgeson who joins Tommy on this pursuit of an incredible world first. The two men are attempting to Free climb* a route up the Dawn Wall, something that had never been done before. The guys spend years testing out the route, trying sections, testing themselves on certain pitches, trying, failing, trying, falling! Each new season they would climb up to a point on the wall or abseil down and spend weeks living on the vertical face of granite learning the moves in intricate detail.

Finally the time comes to make the attempt. One climbs while the other belays. After a pitch (rope length) of Free Climbing the first climber will stop, secure himself and allow the other to follow. If either climber falls off at any point that climber must go back to the start of the pitch and begin again. Both climbers must cover every inch of the route themselves for it to be a successful Free Climb.

Day after day these guys move forward on the route, fingertips, toe tips searching out the tiniest glitch in the rock that allows them to hold on. Sleeping on a port-a-ledge on the wall they rest when they are done, often climbing way into the night. It’s an extraordinary feat. Watching them on the wall you can feel their fatigue, pain, frustration, joy and desperation to complete it. There’s a point, an unbelievably difficult traverse that Kevin has never managed to do ever before. After may attempts Tommy makes it across, but Kevin falls time and time again. With this sort of thing the more you fall, the tireder you get, the less skin remains on your hands and the less likely you’re physically going to be able to make it happen. Adding to this each time you fall the confidence in your ability to actually do it must be questioned. This happens for days.

Now the film gets super interesting to me, this is where the story turns a corner from entertainment to life lessons and motivation.

Tommy had done it, completed this section and started to go on ahead. After days of trying Kevin eventually gave up on his dream to complete the route, deciding he couldn’t hold Tommy up any longer who was just living on the wall waiting for Kevin to get across this seemingly impossible section of mirror like rock. He moved on by rope and decided to belay Tommy all the way to the top, supporting him in every way he could…but something changed, a decision was made…watch the film.

The great and good of humans was highlighted in this film. The selfish motivations of someone obsessed with something was put into question by that very person and true leadership came to the fore. Ego is something most of us battle with, ego is a difficult battle, but in my experiences I believe ultimately ego holds us back from succeeding and being truly happy. In all walks of life people are controlled by their ego and others are affected in their wake. Tommy and Kevin are extrodaniary humans and exceeded way beyond just the summit of El Capitan and the extraordinary world first they achieved. I’ll say it again, watch the film.

The contrasts between Dawn wall and Free Solo are huge in my mind. Both are brilliant documentaries, fascinating insights into the extraordinary individuals that push the boundaries of what humans are capable of. I’d encourage anyone to watch them both, but one is useful to me, the other is purely entertainment. I could never do what these guys do, but Tommy Caldwell and Kevin show a human side, a relatable experience, an empathy and bond that goes beyond the end result. They show me what it is to work together and achieve something together. They show how supporting another in a physical and emotional way will get results and the experience in doing so will be meaningful. We could all be like Tommy and Kevin and achieve extraordinary things.

In contrast Alex Honnold is a rare exception. An unusual character, exceptionally talented but not everyone could be like him. Alex is one of a kind, an individual relying on himself and no one else. What would he have done in Tommy Cauldwel’s situation, gone back and supported his partner? Perhaps. But he’s different. Please understand I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with different, far from it, but Alex has something that not everyone does. Whether it’s the lack of firing from his amygdala in his brain (something from the film) or a combination of things, most people aren’t going to be like him and consequently won’t be able to do what he does.

For these reasons I’m inspired by Dawn Wall to apply what those men did together and relate that to the ways we used to work in our Olympic rowing crews. The commitment Tommy Caldwell gave to something he believed in and the choice he made to support his colleague when he needed it the most at the risk of his own dreams shows true character.

I was entertained by Free Solo, my heart was in my mouth, I was willing Alex on, I wanted him to succeed, to live! But It’s so far away from anything in my world, because of who he is.

We can all ‘Dawn Wall’. Commit to something we want, work relentlessly with another to get there, fail together, struggle together, succeed together through communication, physical and mental support, honesty and trust in one another. I’m pretty sure looking back those men are so pleased they made the decisions they did and stepped out on top together.

*{Free climbing is where an individual climbs the wall, with ropes, but uses no artificial means to get any distance forward. The climber uses his or her ability to cover every inch of the harsh granite route. Free Solo is where the climber has no ropes, no back up. One slip means most probable death. In contrast Aid climbing is where a climber makes their way up the rock using any means possible, like hooking a piece of metal onto a crack and climbing up a rope or ladder attached.}

Alex GregoryComment