Worlds hardest Rock Climb
Climber Adam Ondra on pitch 14 of the Dawn Wall on Yosemite's El Capitan, prior to his successful second free ascent this week.Photograph by Pavel Blažek
On the afternoon of November 21, Adam Ondra, a 23-year-old world champion sport climber from Brno, Czech Republic, arrived on the summit of the 3, 000-foot monolith in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan. In doing so, he achieved an audacious goal of completing the second free ascent of the Dawn Wall, called the hardest, longest free climb in the world.
“It feels amazing right now, ” said Ondra, minutes after arriving on the summit. “This is one of the best feelings I've ever had in climbing. Wow, so good. I think it'll be a long-lasting happiness and joy due to the length and effort of the route.”
Ondra’s success is noteworthy for many reasons, but perhaps most impressive is the speed with which he dispatched the Dawn Wall’s 32 incredibly difficult pitches. (A pitch is a rope-length of climbing, usually around 100 feet long. The goal of a free ascent is to climb each pitch without falling or resorting to hanging on gear; ropes and gear are used in free climbing, however, as a safety net in case of a fall. Free climbing is different than free soloing, which is climbing without any ropes at all.)
Ondra began his ground-up push last Monday, November 14, at 1:30 a.m. Pacific time. Just under eight days later, he reached the top, victorious.
“In the end it was just as hard as I expected, but it took more time than I expected, because I was a total beginner to this style of climbing in Yosemite, ” says Ondra. “There’s no doubt this is the hardest big-wall rock climb in the world.”
The first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, meanwhile, took American climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson 19 days. Their historic ascent, which they completed in January 2015, became a media spectacle that was covered by virtually every major newspaper and cable television news station in the world. Even President Obama reached out to the two instant celebrities with a note of congratulations.
For Caldwell and Jorgeson, free climbing the Dawn Wall was a grueling, multi-season process that took them at least seven years. Much of this time was spent swinging around on ropes on the flanks of El Capitan, trying to find a continuous 3, 200-foot path upward. Located just to the east of the Nose, the Dawn Wall is the tallest, steepest, and perhaps “blankest” (i.e., most devoid of handholds and footholds) section of the entire mile-wide granite monolith.
Caldwell spearheaded this multi-year process with the heedful decision-making demanded by any first-ascent process, including how to best break up the route into pitches and the prudent placement of mechanical expansion bolts. According to National Park Service rules, those bolts must be drilled into the dense stone by hand, rather than by a cordless hammer drill.
Caldwell and Jorgeson also invested a lot of time working on the actual climbing maneuvers demanded by each of the 32 pitches. This process involved discovering the precise sequence of hand and foot movements, as well as the precise body positions and balance, that ultimately resulted in their ability to climb an entire pitch without falling. This also meant memorizing the exact locations of every handhold, some of which are the size of a credit-card edge, and every foothold, most of which are less perceptible than a dimple of a well-worn golf ball.
For Ondra, this process of rehearsal was greatly accelerated when compared to Caldwell and Jorgeson’s experience. Whereas Jorgeson and Caldwell spent seven years working on the Dawn Wall, Ondra needed less than a month.
“It’s hugely impressive, ” says Caldwell, who is widely considered to be the most prolific free climber of El Capitan of all time. “It was pretty surprising to see how quickly he adapted to El Cap. It just goes to show that if you have that Central European grit, and you try hard, you can make anything happen.”
Another way in which Ondra’s ascent stands out is that he is now the first person to “lead” each and every one of the Dawn Wall’s 32 pitches, meaning that he climbed each pitch trailing the rope beneath him as he climbed, risking potentially large and scary falls. Pavel Blazek, also Czech, accompanied Ondra as his belayer; he was not there to free climb, only to belay.
Since Caldwell and Jorgeson were free climbing together as a team, they used a common style in which only one of the two ever needed to “lead” a pitch; once a pitch was led, the other climber could enjoy the benefit of scaling the rock with the rope overhead, which is safer and easier than lead climbing.
Ondra’s speed, in some ways, is to be expected. Second ascents are almost achieved quicker than first ascents in part due to the advantage of knowing a pitch is possible as a free climb. First ascensionists don’t have that mental crutch, and must instead rely on their own self-belief that they can do something that’s never before been done by anyone.
In addition, first ascensionists often share with ensuing suitors what’s known in climbing jargon as “beta, ” which is information about the climbing movement, from which handholds and footholds are used, to how they used, and so on. All of that knowledge speeds up the process.
Before arriving in Yosemite, Ondra spoke to Caldwell over Skype. Once in Yosemite, the two climbers met in person, in Yosemite Valley, and Caldwell shared helpful information with Ondra.
“What Tommy and Kevin did was even much more impressive than what I did, ” says Ondra. “I arrived with all the information, they told me the beta, and all I had to do was climb.”
“It's been fun to live vicariously through Adam’s adventure, ” says Caldwell. “As far as I can tell, I think it's been a pretty real-deal experience for him. It's been neat to remember our experience up there. Watching him up there makes me want to go back and climb on El Cap.”
Still, despite those significant advantages, Ondra’s rapid free ascent is easily one of the most impressive accomplishments in climbing ever. And it almost certainly earns him the title of being the best all-around rock climber in the world.