'The Dawn Wall' Will Make Your Palms Sweat and Your Stomach Flip - OZY | A Modern Media Company

'The Dawn Wall' Will Make Your Palms Sweat and Your Stomach Flip

Kevin Jorgeson climbs pitch 15 on the Dawn Wall in January 2015.
SourceCorey Rich/Red Bull Content Pool

'The Dawn Wall' Will Make Your Palms Sweat and Your Stomach Flip

By Michelle Bruton


Because these guys are the closest thing to real-life Spider-Men you’ll ever see.

By Michelle Bruton

Tommy Caldwell hangs by nine fingertips from the sheer vertical rock that comprises the Dawn Wall, the southeast face of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park. He’s missing his 10th digit — the index finger of his left hand — which makes what he’s doing all the more astounding. With 1,300 feet of exposure below him, Caldwell must maneuver his way horizontally across pitch 15, one of the climb’s most difficult stretches. Caldwell deliberately and carefully maneuvers his feet to precarious placements marked in chalk. He is covered in sweat. Watching him, you will be too.

The Dawn Wall is an upcoming documentary from Red Bull Media House in association with Sender Films that follows Caldwell and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, as they successfully complete the first-ever free-climb of the Dawn Wall. Spoiler alert not necessary: The pair completed the feat in January 2015, but the film has taken years to edit. 

Tommy 1

Tommy Caldwell climbs on the Dawn Wall during the filming of the documentary in January 2015.

Source Brett Lowell / Red Bull Content Pool

The wait was worth it — the film is an injection of adrenaline straight to the heart. That we know the two survived this crazy endeavor makes it no less incredible when the camera pans out to show just how horrifyingly high they are — and just how far a fall would be. (Warning: There is no shortage of moments that will cause anyone with vertigo to excuse themselves.) For the uninitiated, free-climbing means scaling a rock using only the natural features present. Unsurprising, then, that the pair took six years to map their route up the Dawn Wall.

It changed my idea of what we are physically capable of.

Tommy Caldwell

Editing the film was also no easy feat, partly because of how comprehensively it delves into what would compel a person to do this. There’s plenty about Caldwell’s Oscar-worthy backstory — from being taken hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan at age 22 to pushing one of his captors off a cliff to escape, and from the accident that claimed his index finger to his devastating divorce. “It changed my idea of what we are physically capable of,” Caldwell says about his experience in Kyrgyzstan. “Crazy life experiences tend to fuel you quite well.”


In the film, Caldwell gives off a quiet intensity. But those who know him paint a picture of a humble individual who seems almost unaware of his extraordinary talent. “He’s a really nice guy who happens to climb like a beast,” says Will Chen, a physician and amateur climber from the Sacramento area who’s known Caldwell for 15 years. “The way he treats me or relates to me would be like LeBron James treating me like a peer.” 

One of the film’s most incredible scenes comes after Caldwell sent (a climbing term for successfully climbing a route with no falls) pitch 15. Jorgeson, meanwhile, struggles for eight days to do the same — a battle with the wall and with himself that is difficult to watch: He falls no fewer than 11 times. This section is rated a 5.14c in the Yosemite Decimal System of grading. The world’s hardest-known route is rated 5.15d.

Dawn wall spectators

Spectators watch during the filming.

Source Bligh Gillies / Red Bull Content Pool

The Dawn Wall is likely to have broad appeal: Experienced climbers will get a thrill from studying Caldwell’s and Jorgeson’s techniques and their route, and those who simply love a story of triumph — and have never set foot on a mountain — will find their palms sweating as they watch. 

“People look at the climb and think, ‘What do I have in my life that means that much to me?’” Caldwell says when asked what he hopes viewers will take away from the experience. “It makes them believe they can go after that.” 

The Dawn Wall won the Audience Award in the Documentary Spotlight category at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. It will premiere in a limited theatrical release across the United States on Sept. 19. Runtime: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

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