Words by Madeline Cronin
In January 2015, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson set off to climb the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite, CA. The ascent of the Dawn Wall would end up taking them 19 days to complete and captivate audiences across the world. On Sept. 19th, 2018, the movie The Dawn Wall which captured the epic climb, was released to movie theaters. It was directed by Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, the same pair who created Valley Uprising. The movie goes very in depth into Tommy Caldwell’s life story and the experiences that led him to El Cap in the first place.
As with any movie there is a build up to the climax of the story and this movie has a lot of much needed buildup that expresses how much of a challenge, and how much of a victorious moment the completion of this climb was. The path to climbing the Dawn Wall was full of trials for Tommy Caldwell. At the age of 22 years old, Caldwell was taken hostage for six days while on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan with his girlfriend, Beth Rodden, and two other friends, Jason Singer, and John Dickey. Shortly after that event, Tommy cut off part of his index finger and was told he wouldn’t be able to climb anymore. However, he decided not to listen to the doctor that said that and with perseverance and determination, Caldwell became an even better climber than before the accident. Unfortunately, later on life threw Tommy another curve ball when he and his wife, Rodden, got divorced. Instead of wallowing in sorrow, he took the pain and decided to focus on climbing the Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell climbing a pitch on El Cap. (Image by Corey Rich)
Kevin Jorgeson checks to see how much skin has grown back after a night of rest in his portaledge, 1,200 feet (366 meters) up the side of El Capitan. (Image by Corey Rich)
Tommy had a new climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, and together they worked for six years hammering out the kinks and finding a climbable route up the giant wall. The Dawn Wall had essentially been deemed unclimbable by even the greatest Yosemite climbing legends, such as John Long, who narrates a portion of the film. Defining a route up such a wall can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, however the film does an excellent job of portraying this process by painting the rock with scattered lines along cracks and features that Caldwell investigated. These lines begin to eventually connect into a continuous route from the base of El Capitan, 2,500 feet up to the top. Once the route was established, Caldwell and Jorgeson began their historic ascent up 32 pitches, some with grades of 5.14a and higher. What happened on the wall tested their limits as climbers as well as their friendship.
Kevin rests in a portaledge on the side of El Capitan. (Image by Corey Rich)
Pitch 15 is a horizontal pitch, where Tommy and Kevin liken the holds to small, delicate razor blades. This is a pitch that both climbers struggle with, but the crux of the film comes when Tommy finally sends it, and Kevin becomes stuck for several days. Tommy continues climbing and extending his high point on the wall, assuming Kevin will soon send pitch 15. Tommy reaches a point where he could finish the climb within the a day, however it would mean leaving Kevin behind. Caldwell opts to support Kevin through pitch 15, so they can finish out the climb together. Once Kevin starts on what will become his successful attempt of the pitch, you can hear a pin drop in the theater. Jorgeson’s continued successes up the wall after that are all met with applause and cheers from the audience in what becomes a joyous moment not just for Tommy and Kevin, but for all of the viewers who have become entranced with this story in the last 90 minutes.
Tommy climbing El Capitan. (Image by Brett Lowell)
Kevin and Tommy spend the night in a portaledge on the side of El Cap. (Image by Corey Rich)
Besides the film itself being amazing, everything about the way it was filmed was also incredibly well done. Camera crews hoisted themselves and their equipment up the wall and anchored in alongside Tommy and Kevin, sometimes for 8 hours a day to film. It is especially impressive when you consider that drones are not permitted in National Parks, therefore in order to get panning shots and different perspectives of the climb, the crew relied on elaborate rigging and pulling of ropes to simulate the capabilities of drone equipment. They weathered the elements so that they didn’t miss a moment of the climb. The film crew made it feel like you were there with Tommy and Kevin, because as a viewer you were able to see everything they did while up there.
Overall, the film was amazing both in story and image and personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to see it again. If you have a chance to see The Dawn Wall, don’t miss it. The film is getting an encore release on October 8, check this website for more information on screening locations! The movie is also available for pre-order for digital download here.