The Dawn Wall, a documentary about rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's one-try ascent of Yosemite Valley's hardest climb, is an underrated gem. There's almost nothing on film today that matches its premise. The events that led to this achievement — Caldwell being abducted in Kyrgystan and making the ultimate decision to live, heartbreak as the fuel for his adrenaline, Jorgeson, an excellent wall climber in his own right, agreeing to be Caldwell's climb partner — all served to highlight why this is extraordinary.
However different their paths had been, Jorgeson and Caldwell's ascent of El Capitan's almost-smooth Dawn Wall is one-in-a-million. Thousands of climbers have tried it but this is the first time someone was determined to finish the climb. It's not because no one was as crazy as these two climbers; it's just that it has always seemed impossible to finish.
If a lot of people find it scary to climb up a set of suspended stairs with no handles on both sides, ascending a nearly level vertical terrain with notches for steps is insanity in the flesh. This part of Yosemite National Park in California doesn't even have a Wikipedia page because no climber can ever say anything about it. This was an unclaimed territory.
All these things constituted a good story on paper, but remained a story — until a group of people decided to make a film of it. No one knew that years before the documentary aired, two people were on the edge enough to try this incredible feat. Finishing the climb was a singular triumph, but the documentary was also a testament to human and material endurance.
The Human Part
Tommy was the star of this film. His journey to being the best rock climber has been nothing but remarkable. For him to do it all with his left hand an index finger short, which is probably the most critical finger in competitive climbing, puts the exclamation mark on his life. With years of planning and exhaustive sessions with Kevin to perfect the route, the crown was there for Tommy to claim.
Kevin, despite being the secondary guy in the film, deserves applause as well. He's not the climber Tommy is, but he's the only other guy to scale the Dawn Wall. He made the same pitches he did, save for one, and went the same hellish route. In one try, he became a household name in climbing as much as Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, and Lynn Hill.
The Material Part
The unsung heroes of The Dawn Wall will never sing their own praises, for the very simple reason that these are the tents, ropes, and carabiners. In 19 days, the durable equipment shown on the film carried two people through hundreds of falls and hours of resting periods hanging in the air. Buying wholesale paracords, harnesses, and descenders for such a project wouldn't have been overkill if it meant saving themselves and living to tell the tale of triumph.
Many climbing fans and mountaineers have watched The Dawn Wall more than once. The film inspires them to go out on an adventure, even if it poses a little risk. Maybe you won't scale something as grand as El Capitan, but it's important that you trust yourself and the stuff you bring to carry you far, the way they did for Tommy and Kevin.