Professional climber Kevin Jorgeson has spent hundreds of spring and fall days on the vertical ramparts of 3,000 foot-high El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California. His goal: to free climb the Dawn Wall Project, widely considered the most continuously difficult rock climb ever attempted.
To many in the know, the free Dawn ranks alongside efforts to surf the first 100-foot high wave as adventure sports’ most closely anticipated feat. The story began a half century ago — a fitting detail considering Jorgeson is a living embodiment of the iconic and the brand new, a recurring theme in all matters of style.
“I didn’t know any of the routes, had no guidebook and started climbing things based entirely on aesthetics and the ‘line’”
When Warren Harding and partners first scaled El Cap in 1958, the “Big Stone” rapidly became the most sought after multi-day rock climb on Earth (throughout the early to mid-1900s, Ansel Adams burned the granite monolith into the world’s consciousness with his stunning plein air images). Ascents now number in the thousands; techniques have evolved from whack-and-dangle engineering to pure free climbing, with the rope and safety gear used only to arrest a fall. In the free climbing game, Jorgeson ranks amongst the best, so don’t let the GQ looks fool you.
Kevin Jorgeson grew up in a climbing gym, and became a world-class competitor. Between bouldering and mega free routes, like the Dawn Wall, stretch a spectrum of climbing styles and challenges that Jorgeson scarcely attempted. Aside from a few big “trade routes” in Yosemite he basically jumped from the boulders and small crag routes straight onto El Cap, a trajectory harking back to 2005, when he took a year off from climbing. He eventually roped back up at Joshua Tree National Monument, a popular practice area in Southern California.
“I didn’t know any of the routes, had no guidebook and started climbing things based entirely on aesthetics and the ‘line’,” Jorgeson explains, referring to the line of holds and features that make up the climbing route. With this novel approach, style trumps difficulty, and Jorgeson redefined his approach to climbing.
But while the short desert routes were magical, they were limited in scope. Where to go from here? From Jason and Odysseus and everyone since, every committed adventurer has posed versions of this very question.
Jorgeson had seen the photos and videos of Yosemite hardman, Tommy Caldwell, burning through partners while attempting his futuristic Dawn Wall Project, a direttissima, or direct line sweeping up the southeast face, known as “The Hardest Route Never Climbed.” From the wild pendulum falls half a mile off the deck, to living on “porta-ledges” lashed to the cliffside, Kevin felt that nothing in world rock climbing could equal the stunning line and aesthetics of the Dawn Wall.
“I copped Tommy’s phone number from friends,” said Jorgeson, “called him cold and said if he ever needed a partner, I was down.” Two weeks later he was up on the Dawn Wall, pulling for glory with the greatest big wall free climber of them all.
“Each new generation of outdoor athletes raise the standards and set the style for the future”
“At first, it was an opportunity to climb with a legend and a childhood hero, and the Dawn Wall was the canvas for that all to play out. Of course it didn’t take long for Tommy’s obsession to become my own.”
But for all the difficulties, style — the moves Kevin and Tommy paint on the their vertical canvass – remains the prime motivation. Consistent with this is Jorgeson’s recent association with Adidas Outdoor, with their take-no-prisoners, Day-Glo garments and tradition of working with cutting-edge athletes.
“Each new generation of outdoor athletes raise the standards and set the style for the future,” said Adidas Outdoor chief, Greg Thomsen. “And right now, Kevin Jorgeson is defining what the future will look like.”
For alpinists from Chamonix to Patagonia, whether the Dawn Wall Project will soon become “The Hardest Route Ever Climbed” remains an exciting question. “The Dawn Wall is possible,” says Kevin. “We’ve done every move. Today, more than any other day in the past five years, I can visualize it all. I can taste it. And I want it.”