SAN FRANCISCO >> Two men are attempting what has been called the hardest rock climb in the world: a free climb of a half-mile section of exposed granite in California’s Yosemite National Park.
Kevin Jorgeson, 30, of Santa Rosa, California, and Tommy Caldwell, 36, of Estes Park, Colorado, are using only their hands and feet as they make their way up the steep and difficult exposed granite on one side of El Capitan. The attempt — their third since 2010 — has caught the world’s attention.
They have been climbing to the towering summit for two weeks and could finish this weekend or next week. If they do, they will be the first people in the world to complete the free climb.
Here’s a look at the latest:
Q: WHY IS THIS FREE CLIMB ON EL CAPITAN’S DAWN WALL SO DIFFICULT?
A: No one has ever free climbed the Dawn Wall on El Capitan, the largest monolith of granite in the world, which rises more than 3,000 feet above the Yosemite Valley floor. For more than 27 days in 1970, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell — no relation to Tommy — climbed the Dawn Wall using harnesses and ropes, but they didn’t make it to the top. There are about 100 routes to the top of El Capitan. Of those routes, the hardest and steepest is the Dawn Wall, which faces east toward the rising sun. The climbers are using only harnesses and ropes that catch them if they slip from the wall during a pitch from one area to the next.
Q: WHAT IS FREE CLIMBING AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM OTHER TYPES OF CLIMBING?
A: In free climbing, athletes use only their physical strength and their hands and feet to scale the glacier-polished granite. The cracks that they grip are as thin as razor blades, some the size of a dime, and the footholds are nothing more than an indentation on the wall. They are harnessed to ropes, which are there to catch them if they fall.
Free climbing should not be confused with solo climbing, where a person goes alone and does not use ropes, harnesses or any other protective gear. A fall can mean serious injury or death.
Q: WHO ARE THE CLIMBERS?
A: Caldwell is a professional climber who has free climbed 11 routes on El Capitan. He’s been climbing since he was 17.
His life has been peppered with some peril. In August 2000, Caldwell and three other climbers went to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan to scale the towering rock walls of its southern mountains. Seventeen days in, they were captured by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Caldwell shoved a guard over a cliff (he survived), and the climbers bolted and eventually got to a Kyrgyz army outpost.
In 2001, Caldwell cut off his left index finger with a table saw. Six months later, he scaled El Capitan in 19 1/2 hours with only protective hardware to stop any falls. Only once before had anyone managed such a climb in less than 24 hours.
Jorgeson is also a professional climber, speaker and instructor. On his personal website he says he’s been climbing since he was born.
"At first, it was fences, cupboards, ladders and trees." ”Climbing was always a very natural thing for me to do, so when I found rock climbing, it felt perfect. I can’t imagine a sport that fits my personality any better," he writes on his website.
Q: WHAT ARE THE HAZARDS OF THE CLIMB?
A: Climbers’ fingers take a beating. Jorgeson battled with one section so many times that the razor sharp holds ripped both the tape and the skin off his fingers. Caldwell’s fingers are so beat up that he sets his alarm to reapply a special product to his skin.
The two must grip cracks as thin as razor blades and maintain footholds on mere indentations on glacier-polished granite. Caldwell said on Facebook the crux holds in the middle section of the climb are "some of the smallest and sharpest holds" he has ever attempted.
There is one stretch where climbers have to jump completely off the wall to catch a grip the size of a matchstick. What’s more, the warm weather has them climbing only at night so the rock is cold enough for maximum traction.
Q: HOW LONG HAVE THEY BEEN TRAINING?
A: Jorgeson has been training for five years and Caldwell put in about seven years of training. They tried the climb in 2010 but only made it a third of the way because of storms. A year later, Jorgeson broke an ankle after a fall during an attempt.
John Long, the first person to climb up El Capitan in one day in 1975, said earlier this week that it’s almost "inconceivable that anyone could do something that continuously difficult." He said he believes the duo spent the equivalent of a year’s time on the wall in preparation for the climb.
Q: HOW ARE THEY MAINTAINING CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE WORLD?
A: The men eat, drink coffee, stretch and sleep in hanging tents suspended from the wall. They have supporters helping them, bringing food and coffee and restocking things they run out of, like Advil, batteries and superglue for their fingers.
They keep in touch by regularly Tweeting, posting on Facebook, feeding information for blogs and talking with supporters on the ground.
Q: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
A: They started together on Dec. 27 and were expected to finish Friday or Saturday. It appears it will take longer. Caldwell’s wife’s blog says is ahead of Jorgeson. Once Caldwell hits a rare ledge, called Wino Tower, he’ll wait for Jorgeson.