Why the Dawn Wall Matters

Kevin Jorgenson on the Dawn Wall

Professional climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson topped out on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall route today. For the two climbers, the summit was the immediate product of 19 days spent assaulting the legendarily difficult route up one of the world’s most recognizable big walls. The duo were the first to successfully free climb the wall— meaning that they only used ropes and gear to protect from falls, not aid in the ascent.

Many in the hardcore climbing community had thought the wall would never go free. Caldwell and Jorgeson disagreed.

Caldwell and Jorgeson spent nearly three weeks living on the wall, a story-line which attracted the notice of the mainstream media. But to say that this feat only took 19 days would be horribly disingenuous.

Jorgeson and Caldwell have been projecting this wall together since 2009, making this ascent a project which was seven years in the making. Seven years for a climb might sound ludicrous, but there is something about climbing which tends to take over a life. And by any standard, the Dawn Wall was a difficult project.

The Dawn Wall route

The EASIEST climbing on the Dawn Wall is graded at 5.12— already a grade which few climbers ever reach. The route features SEVEN pitches of 5.14 climbing with two pitches of 5.14d— polished stone and practically pure vertical. Near impossible.

But the technical aspects of the climb, although impressive, aren’t important. People don’t climb to chase numbers or to break records. Sending a 5.14d is not why people will leave their lives behind and hit the cliffs in search of Nirvana. Climbing is a physical way to come to terms with the Unbearable Lightness of Being. Something about the sport, about ascending, allows the human soul to touch the void.

Just look at one of the many updates Kevin Jorgeson wrote from the Dawn Wall:

“My battle with Pitch 15 continues. After 6 years of work, my ‪#‎DawnWall‬ quest comes down to sending this pitch. Last night, I experienced a lightness and calm like never before. Despite failing, it will always be one of my most memorable climbing experiences.”

Kevin Jorgeson on Pitch 15 of the Dawn Wall— El Capitan

THIS is why the Dawn Wall is important. THIS is why the New York Times covered the story. And THIS is why I will climb until the day I die.

It is not an explicit sentiment. I can’t put the idea into words for you; at least not more succinctly than I am doing now. That lightness is something implicitly understood; an unspoken fraternal bond between anyone who chooses to rope up again and again. Climbing is a metaphor for the human spirit.

Yes, there are ropes which can be used to ascend the Dawn Wall. Yes, it must be frustrating to project the same wall for seven years and not send. And yes, in the grand scheme of things, ascending a rock face, even an extremely slick one, won’t change the world.

None of that needs to matter.

And in a way, climbing represents a rejection of all that.

It is a zen.

Jorgeson and Caldwell summiting the Dawn Wall represents not 19 days, not seven years, not a decade of work, but a lifetime. Their quest represents the human spirit soaring to the heavens in a way which is not often seen in our everyday, grocery-store type existence. Sending the Dawn Wall, despite the media circus, represents a deeply personal moment.

The two deserve congratulations, sponsorship deals, and the film which will inevitably be coming. They of course deserve all of that. They accomplished an incredible feat— free climbing El Cap is plenty difficult without choosing the most difficult route. But nothing which we can say about these men matters much: they have freed themselves.

We would do well to take notice in our own lives.

100 Happy Days

I finished the #100HappyDays challenge last Wednesday.

Tyrolean Traverse Boulder Creek

Day 1

I have to be honest: it took me more than 100 days to complete the challenge (Reflections from Day 50 on August 31). I started the 100 Happy Days challenge on July 7, 2014, with a picture of myself using a tyrolean traverse to cross Boulder Creek. I finished with a picture taken on opening day at Beaver Creek Resort, just five minutes up the road from my home here in Vail, CO.

Anyways. I started on July 7, and I finished on November 26. There are 142 days between those dates. The goal of the 100 Happy Days challenge is to find something to be happy about for 100 consecutive days. Now, by that parameter, I failed the challenge. But I don’t feel like I did.

Sure, there were a few bad days in those three months, and more than a few boring ones. That’s fine. To be expected, really. The thing that surprised me was, even on those days when I maintained radio silence, I could often find things that made me happy.

I didn’t post them because I didn’t think people would want to see them.

This tendency, to me, tells a very interesting story about the way we mediate our own happiness through the perceptions of others.

I should have realized that audience would play a role in #100HappyDays due to the fact that the challenge took place on social media. However, I started the 100 Happy Days challenge with myself at the front of my thinking. As the challenge progressed, my thoughts evolved from “what makes me happy?” to “what should I show other people?” I began curating an image without even trying.

Image curation is one of the most annoying aspects of social media. Everyone decries Facebook as a false front; everyone continues to participate in a charade they all decry. “He’s not really happy in that picture! I know that because I posted 12 smiling selfies in the last week but I’m miserable.”

Happiness seems like the ultimate goal of all the young people I know. Not money, not love, not a career: more than anything, I hear “I just want to be happy.”

Wolcott, CO

The Pursuit of Happiness— Day 58.

Some observations about my 100 Happy Days:

  • 3 pictures depict billiards or pool tables
  • 4 happy days relate to alcohol
  • 7 percent of pictures relate to skiing
  • 9 percent of pictures relate to rock climbing or bouldering
  • 9 percent of pictures feature my family or depict family events
  • 14 percent of the 100 happy days pictures feature my girlfriend
  • 18 percent of the pictures show me (not always smiling either!)
  • 20 percent of the photos involve travel
  • 66 percent of happy days pictures were taken outside
  • Money is mentioned only once

This list is makes too much sense. It’s actually a little disappointing to me that this breakdown reveals exactly what I like. A person who knows me fairly well could ID me just from that breakdown.

It’s nice to appreciate the simple things in life, but we all appreciate our hobbies anyways. I had hoped that the #100HappyDays challenge might reveal something about me, about my everyday, that I had never realized before. This hope, really, was at the heart of my participation, I think. After all, one photo a day isn’t a big commitment to put against potential insight. But I can’t say with a straight face that I got nothing out of it.

Refocusing your attention and perspective on positivity is an exercise that will never hurt you.

It is a “lifehack” which is absolutely foolproof. It is worth being here. It is worth being ALIVE. And being reminded of that cannot be considered a bad thing.

There’s a reason this cataloging of good or happy things over a period of time is a common activity given to depression patients as part of their therapy. However, the psychiatrist asks her patient to write in a journal, a secret place– a safe place– free of judgment. Beating depression or “seizing the day” or whatever platitude you are pursing is always presented as an achievable goal because it is entirely within yourself.

When you put your inner happinesses and successes out into the court of public opinion, things are suddenly very different.

This is where the 100 Happy Days challenge becomes a much tougher subject to get a handle on. Who is the 100 Happy Days Challenge for? If it is for us, the participants, it would be more effective if performed online. And it can’t really be for the audience, can it? Not when everyone is all-too-aware that those people who appear insufferably happy on social media only incite spite.

The people who heavily use social media are not usually the people who are genuinely sympathetically enthused that things are going so well for you. The existence of #100HappyDays actually makes every day sadder for these people, in some tiny way.

I had a number of friends mention the challenge to me in person. Usually the reference was in passing, or in a slightly joking tone. None of these people engaged with my pictures often on social media, but they were all aware of them. Which brings up another contradictory facet of the challenge: not receiving likes or comments on a happy experience can actually cause the user to question or revise their own perception of the moment. Which adds complication to the experience.

100 Happy Days– a challenge advocating slowing down and enjoying the simple things in life– is actually adding several additional layers of complexity and unnecessary validation to our every day lives.

Actually, that’s not unique to #100HappyDays. That contradiction defines social media as a whole.

I’m thinking of getting off it entirely.