Yosemite free climbers complete their gripping feat

Two climbers successfully scaled the near-vertical slab of El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, using their fingers and feet without additional aids. After 19 days, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson are the first to free climb the entire granite face. Gwen Ifill talks to Chris Weidner of the Boulder Daily Camera about their pinnacle achievement.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Two rock climbers made history today in California's Yosemite National Park, completing what's being called the hardest climb in the world.

    Thirty-year-old Kevin Jorgeson and 36-year-old Tommy Caldwell became the first to free-climb a 3,000-foot sheer slab of granite to reach the summit of El Capitan. The two started their journey on December 27, and continued their half-mile trek up the Dawn Wall route to the peak. They marked their progress through different pitches or sections of the route. They used no climbing aids, other than safety ropes, to catch their falls.

    Here's Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall talking about the weather conditions they faced earlier in their trek.

  • KEVIN JORGESON, Climber:

    We looked at the forecast and saw that there's this crazy arctic wind storm happening today. It's getting pretty rowdy. The portal edge, despite being latched down, is getting tossed around like a rag doll.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For more on this journey, I spoke earlier with Chris Weidner, a freelance writer for numerous publications and a climber himself.

    Chris, I have to start by asking you this. Why are they doing this? Just because it's there?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • CHRIS WEIDNER, Boulder Daily Camera:

    Well, that's certainly a common misconception.

    It surely is there. Many people, though, many thousands of people have climbed El Cap before. They're doing this particular route in the style they're doing it, which is free-climbing, because, as you said earlier, it is the hardest big wall free-climb in the world, hands down.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, explain to us how this is different from other people. Other people have scaled this particular rock before, but why is this way different?

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    So, the key to understanding why this is different is all about the free-climbing aspect. And that is simply a chosen, self-imposed rule, basically, that makes it much more challenging, because, frankly, for climbers as good as Caldwell and Jorgeson, just starting at the bottom of the Dawn Wall and going to the top is unchallenging.

    So what they are doing is, they're climbing El Cap as you would imagine two climbers climb. They're just going up the rock. They're placing gear. They're tied into ropes. If they fall off, they are going to be just fine, they're caught.

    What people don't understand about this climb is the free aspect, which means — well, which means what I just explained, but basically not free-climbing is the hard part to understand; 99.9 percent of climbers…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, let me help you here. Let me help you.

    I have heard that they have climbed, and their fingers are bleeding, that they are literally not using any equipment to attach themselves to the rock face.

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    That's not exactly true. Yes, their fingers are bleeding.

    They are using equipment to attach themselves to the rock, for example, at the top of each pitch. However, what they're not doing is placing gear and grabbing it to make upward progress at a hard spot. They're not stepping on a bolt or a piton, for example. They're not resting on the rope.

    All of those things are considered aid climbing. So, they're not doing any of that. They're just free-climbing.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, how long have they been doing this and what kind of shape are they in at this point?

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    Gosh.

    Well, they have specifically worked on the Dawn Wall now for seven years. And I know, for Tommy, at least, it's been his main objective in those seven years. And for Kevin, it's been his objective for at least five of those years. So they're absolutely in the fittest shape of their lives for this type of climb.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    How do you prepare for something like this?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    Man, a lot of preparing for this specific climb, initially, anyway, the first couple years, was just exploring the face, exploring the Dawn Wall.

    On rappel, Tommy would swing around and try to find the path of least resistance up this pretty smooth shield of rock. So, to start, the preparation was just — was just finding the best way. And then it's just down to pure training. And I know Tommy and Kevin both have been training harder than they have ever trained before, especially this year.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Basic question, how do you sleep on a sheer rock face?

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    Well, so they have had these two portaledges set up that you have probably seen photographs of in the middle of the wall. And so that's kind of like their base camp.

    And, believe it or not, it's actually a lot more comfortable than it might look. It's nice and flat. They have hanging stoves. They have their comfy sleeping bags and pillows, you know.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    OK. That's comfortable by a climber's point of view.

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But here's a basic question too. How much is this difficult and how much of this is dangerous?

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    OK.

    That's a great question, because I think the public tends to misunderstand that. It's really not very dangerous. In fact, it's probably no more dangerous than any other climb of El Capitan, which — one way to look at that is, it's probably more dangerous just to drive to Yosemite, say, from where Tommy lives, in Colorado, than it is to climb El Cap.

    So, what they're doing is not more dangerous. It's just way, way more difficult.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Chris Weidner, thanks so much for helping us out.

  • CHRIS WEIDNER:

    Yes. Thank you very much.

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