At 4:05 Mountain Time on Wednesday, rock climber and Estes Park native Tommy Caldwell pulled himself up onto the top of Yosemite's El Capitan, turned towards the cameras filming him from below, and raised his arms in victory. And like that, his seven-year-long quest to climb the Dawn Wall was complete.
Caldwell, 36, and partner Kevin Jorgeson spent nineteen straight days living on the side of a 3,000-foot cliff in an attempt to become the first people ever to free climb the Dawn Wall, widely considered to be the toughest overall rock climb in the world. Their ascent was the most extensively reported in the history of the sport, with hundreds of thousands of people following their progress in the New York Times and on a live stream from NBC.
For Caldwell, who started climbing when he was three years old, Wednesday's summit was the culmination of a dream that consumed him for the better part of a decade.
"This just lights a fire under me, and that's a really exciting way to live," Caldwell told New York Times reporter John Branch in an interview after topping out. "And this has driven me for a really long time."
When Caldwell first started exploring the Dawn Wall in 2007, he had already established himself as one of climbing's strongest all-around athletes, with free ascents of hard, long routes on El Capitan, Long's Peak and other soaring walls around the world. (In free climbing, rock climbers use only their hands and feet to ascend, relying on their ropes only to catch them in case of a fall.) Then 28, he had just gone through a difficult divorce and was looking for a project to occupy his attention.
The Dawn Wall was a perfect distraction. While it wasn't the first free-climbing route up El Capitan, it was certainly the hardest: A climber who wanted to make it it to the top would have to pull himself up on holds that at times shrink to the thickness of quarters; on one eight-and-a-half-foot stretch, they disappeared completely, forcing would-be ascensionists to either jump for the next hold or puzzle out a detour. Caldwell spent the next year searching for the best way to the top, making multiple trips up the face to scout holds and install the occasional bolt for protection.
Some of the biggest names in climbing would join him on the project over the next seven years, including sport climbing legend Chris Sharma and Alex Honnold, the climber whose ropeless ascents were the subject of a 60 Minutes episode. It was in Jorgeson, a boulderer who had never climbed El Capitan before, that Caldwell found the partner who would eventually make it to the top with him.
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In the six years that they worked on the line together, Caldwell and Jorgeson faced setbacks both mundane and frightening. In 2011, Jorgeson had to pack it in for the season after he injured his ankle in a fall; in 2013, Caldwell had to come down from the wall when a bag of provisions and gear that was tied to his harness became unhooked from its anchor and fell 200 feet, separating one of his ribs. That same year, the government shutdown forced Yosemite to temporarily shutter, further delaying the partners' attempt.
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Caldwell and Jorgeson started their final push on December 27. For two and a half weeks, they didn't stand on solid ground; when they weren't climbing, they ate and slept on portaledges, hanging shelters made of fabric stretched over metal frames. And for the first time, the non-climbing world seemed to be paying attention: From the wall, the climbers did phone interviews with outlets from NPR to National Geographic, as the New York Times covered their ascent blow-by-blow on Twitter.
As Caldwell celebrated with friends and family on top of El Capitan on Wednesday, he got word that someone special wanted to congratulate the climbers: The President of the United States.
"So proud of [Tommy Caldwell] and [Kevin Jorgeson] for conquering El Capitan," Obama wrote on the White House's Twitter account. "You remind us that anything is possible."