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.

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Arapahoe Basin vs Vail: On the Character of a Place

A-basin ski area whiteout

Spent the morning at Arapahoe Basin today.

(Feeling about 70 percent back from that concussion. It was a conservative day.)

A-basin is a small ski area tucked away on the backside of Loveland Pass. It’s well-known here in Colorado for its unusually long ski season— A-basin is often the first ski area in Colorado to open for the season and the last to close. “The snow sucks but the people watching’s great,” is usually the way locals will choose to describe late-season skiing to you as you make small talk on a chairlift. It’s not unusual to see people grilling and skiing in t-shirts at the A-basin base as summer slowly melts away the previous year’s ski season.

Arapahoe Basin is more of a local’s place

You don’t see much international tourism to A-basin; really, they don’t even want it. There’s no lodging at the base, and parking is free. There are only a few chairlifts. They don’t have the fancy RFID scanners that Vail does— here, a man in a parka needs to scan the barcode on your season pass. A day-pass lift ticket costs $60, not $160 like it does at Vail. It’s archaic.

There’s something purer about A-Basin

Vail Resorts (MTN) understands how to run a business— just look at their stock curve:

10 year MTN stock quote

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz has been described to me as “Kind of a dick.” Not surprising his company’s doing so well then. I just bought some stock.

With that said, there’s a reason Vail Resorts let go of Arapahoe Basin in 1997, after previously owning the ski area. A-Basin is out of character for the Vail experience.

The people who ski Arapahoe Basin are relaxed in a different way than you find in a resort town. The people you find at A-basin are everyday folks who enjoy skiing and the outdoor lifestyle on their days off, not the forced veneer of cheer and polished service that you find in a resort town like Vail.

Although A-basin has a reputation as a difficult mountain which actively discourages beginners, I spent the day snowboarding with an old friend who had only been twice prior, and he looked like he was having the time of his life. No long lift lines, no expensive restaurants; nothing fancy. We had a great time.

A-basin base area black mountain express

A low-key guy who doesn’t use social media much, he asked me to take a picture of him at the base.

It was a purer day than any I’ve had at Vail.