It was a bold goal, even for the world's strongest climber. Despite having never set foot on a big wall or done much trad, Adam just became the first person to lead every pitch of the world's hardest big wall free-climb: the Dawn Wall. We got Sarah Stirling to delve into his diary and dig out all his secrets.
1. Pick a goal
It was while re-watching a Big Up film, Progression, that Adam first became absorbed by the Dawn Wall. Back in 2009, when the film was made, Tommy Caldwell was two years into his attempt to free the line – i.e. be the first to climb it using trad rather than aid techniques.
When Tommy finally ticked the Dawn Wall last year, it was the culmination of six years hard work, finding and piecing together barely-perceptible holds, like tiny razor-edges and dimples in a golf ball. It was the hardest big wall route in the world to date. Having dedicated 20 years of his life to pioneering free climbs in Yosemite, the American was well-qualified to tick it.
The route didn't look like typical Yosemite climbing, thought 23-year-old Ondra, who had never been to Yosemite, done any big-walling, or much trad climbing, probably pressing his face closer to the screen, and munching popcorn. It It looked like predominantly face climbing, balanced and delicate, with sustained difficulty. This was it! Adam was ‘on fire’ for the climbing style, and keen to fill the gaps in his climbing CV.
Do it yourself: Inspiration for a climbing goal could come from many sources, like reading climbers’ blogs, guidebook-gazing in bookshops, watching climbing films, the shape of a mountain or the line of a route on Instagram, or watching someone's post-trip slideshow. Yes – this is not wasting time at work it is Expedition Planning. Eureka – something will eventually click and really pique your interest. (Or you'll get side-tracked into amusing cat videos).
Working towards a goal can be quite exciting. Photo: Pavel Blazek
2. Aim big
Tommy Caldwell worked together with Kevin Jorgeson as a team, leading and seconding different pitches, when they freed the Dawn Wall. Adam spotted a nifty niche: imagine being the first to lead every pitch of the world's hardest big wall route! He had the climbing skills, how hard could trad and big-wall techniques be?
Adam's climbing partner, Pavel Blazek, commented: “We both find it quite funny – Adam never really trad climbs, I’ve never been on multi-pitch climbs, neither of us ever had to jug up or set the fix ropes on big wall ... the learning curve was steep!”
Meanwhile Adam describes his first go at trying big wall techniques for real: “The fact that we are very inexperienced was obvious right from the beginning – I’ve done a lot of jugging up in my life, but only sport climbing and always using one GriGri and one ascender. Bad technique resulted in being super slow and tired."
Do it yourself:
Picking a goal that seems big but potentially achievable is hugely exciting and inspiring. Doing the right groundwork – training, practicing techniques, perhaps seeking beta, planning – will help you decide if you're ready. If everything is in place then commit fully to just doing it.
3. Make a good plan
Ondra had a solid plan in place for his Dawn Wall attempt. To begin with, he'd spend “a few days going ground up, using free and aid climbing techniques to fix the lines, work on the pitches and get up and down”. After working “the crux pitches to see if they are possible” he'd take a couple of days off. At this point he worked in some family time: attempting to free-climb the Nose, El Cap's most famous route, on a day-out with his dad. After that, he'd return to the Dawn Wall revinvigorated, to “fix the ropes even higher and take a look at the whole route”.
Sleeping arrangements: Adam and climbing partner Pavel Blazek would “go down to the valley in the evening after one day of climbing, or stay on the wall for two days and sleep on the portaledge”. Once he’d “seen the whole route” and had “every pitch super wired”, which he estimated would take at least two weeks, Adam planned to “decide whether to give it a try to climb the whole route in one single push”. He worked in “little intermediate goals”, too, such as “redpointing the individual pitches" and rest days.
Do it yourself: Working backwards from what you want to achieve on your trip – be it a certain route, certain grade or whatever – then making detailed plans will make a huge difference to achieving goals when you get there. For example, figure out who would make the best climbing partner for the goal and persuade them to join you, work out how many rest or bad weather days you should factor in, plan intermediate goals, consider at what point in the trip you should go for the main goal, throw in a fun day-off and so on.
4. Don’t let the weather phase you
Ondra describes working pitch 16 of the 32-pitch route:
“We jugged up the ropes in the evening right when the rain stopped, hoping that we would get in a good session of night climbing, but instead we just got soaking wet. Even though we could see the stars, it was still raining on the wall and the water turned into a waterfall. We spent a very cold and wet night in the portaledge, and waited 'til the sun came out and dried our clothes and the wall. As the sun came, it got really hot too. I still worked the traverse pitches, which only just destroyed my skin.”
Do it yourself: Ondra encountered some of the worst possible conditions for the style of climbing. Waterfalls of rain pouring down the wall to soak the holds, alternated with sticky heat. The resulting damp finger-skin was more likely to tear on the tiny, razor-like holds. However, Adam didn't get where he is today by complaining or giving up. He worked around the problem by resting when it was wet, and climbing at night when necessary to avoid the heat. Positive thinking outside the box can make a big difference to what you achieve on a climbing trip. That, and a lot of patience and tenacity!
Adam working at night to avoid the humidity. Photo: Pavel Blazek
5. Try hard
Adam describes the difficulty of the route:
“The complexity and difficulty of the whole climb is just shocking to me. I might have been too optimistic, but I definitely expected it to be easier. Every single pitch is so tricky and hard and yesterday on pitch 16 was the most frustrating day so far on the wall.
"Hats off to Tommy and Kevin, who believed that the whole climb was possible before they free climbed. Without having the beta, some of the sections look just impossible. I have the advantage that I know that the climb is possible and that helps me to keep the faith that I might be able to do it as well. I am humbled and impressed by what Tommy and Kevin did!”
Do it yourself: Don't necessarily give up if the goal doesn't go as easily as you'd hoped. Dedication can pay dividends, and you'll be even more pleased with your achievement if you manage to tick something that at first seemed too difficult. The mental aspect is at least as important as the physical. If you really want it you'll pull out all the stops: Adam rested when necessary, but equally pushed on through bad weather, tiredness, repeated falls and invisible holds when he sensibly could, to make it happen.
6. Fail hard
Adam describes attempting to onsight the Nose with his dad, on a rest day from the Dawn Wall:
“We started at first light and up to the Great Roof it was going well, onsighting all of the pitches in a few hours. But the Great Roof shut me down. I had a pretty good flash go, got the beta, lowered and gave it a second shot thinking I would fire it off easily, but I had not realized how important the feet are on this climb. After climbing so many pitches and taking no rest after my flash, they went super shaky and weak. I fell, gave it even a third go and fell in the end of the traverse.
"Time to switch to night climbing and onsighting all of the pitches except for Changing Corner, topping out at midnight in the starting rain. Full alpine experience, as we did not find the descent route in the pissing rain, and had a wet and cold bivy in the little cave, before we finally got to the car at 9am. The Nose is one of the most famous climbs in the world and I am super glad to have climbed it with my dad, even though not free. A big day out.”
Do it yourself: Adam wasn't afraid to get out there in front of the whole world, give it a go, fall off, and potentially fail. When problems like tiredness, weather, and route-finding issues came up, he problem-solved them sensibly. Fear of failure can really hold you back, and keep you in your comfort zone: the zone of no-progression.
7. Take rest days
Adam describes a rest day:
“Life on the portaledge is just great. We’ve just had oatmeal for breakfast, and it is a pleasant temperature to hang around in the sun and we even have solar panels to charge our phones. Life is pretty sweet up here. Even using Wag bags when necessary is not as bad as I thought.”
Do it yourself: Ondra took several complete days off during his trip, during which he rested and slept as much as possible, to let his body and the skin on his fingers recover. Factoring in plenty of time off the rock allows you to get the best out of yourself when you're on it.
Just hanging out. Ondra on the Dawn Wall. Photo: Pavel Blazek
8. Pick the right partner
Ondra's climbing partner, Pavel Blazek, a fellow Czech climber and friend, joined Adam to belay him; jumarring up the fixed lines when Adam had climbed them.
Do it yourself: Choose someone who you think you would work well with, someone who would have complementary goals to you, and someone you are happy to spend a lot of time with, potentially in a very small space. Picking someone to go on a trip like this with is a bit like choosing someone to get married to for a very short time, during which you go on a mad and potentially scary holiday, and hopefully achieve great things together.
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