I didn’t intend to spend a lot of the afternoon watching the live stream of the last few pitches of the Dawn Wall climb. But I heard, this morning, that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were going to be finishing the world’s hardest big wall free climb today. And as I was checking for updates online, I stumbled across the stream, and since what I was doing at work was something I could do with an extra window open on my monitor . . .
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the last stretch of the Dawn Wall. Credit: Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Well, I wound up watching most of the last three pitches. A few hours’ worth. I had to leave work just as Caldwell reached the last ledge, raised his fists in the air, leaned against the rock for an emotional moment, and then started building the anchor to bring up Jorgeson.
I was suprisingly excited, sitting in my office chair, watching him race through the last pitch. Surprisingly moved to be able to watch a piece of climbing history happen.
But there was another reason I compulsively watched it. When I tuned in, the two were at the start of the third-last pitch, standing together on a ledge. And I knew what they were doing. Not in the particulars or anything, and I wouldn’t presume to say I have a clue what big wall climbing is like, but I have at least done long days of multi-pitch climbing, so I had enough of an idea of what’s involved that I could picture it. The second, getting to the anchor. The fist-bump (which made me grin). Then stopping for a moment, shaking hands out, setting gear back up. Rope and carabiners and knots and slipknots and friction devices, and (at one point) pulling out a longer-sleeved shirt and putting it on.
While they were at the anchor, the camera zoomed out to show more of the wall, because there wasn’t anything big happening on the ledge. Although I wished it would zoom in. How were they going through the process of switching leads? How were they coiling and stacking rope? I couldn’t hear anything, of course, but I could imagine the talk. Did the second hand gear over to be re-racked? Maybe. Both of them looked to be carrying minimal gear: traveling light. I assumed they must have worked out the minimum gear they’d need for each pitch.
I looked at the rope setup – how long the ropes were, where they were stacked, how they were kept clear of each other, the extra line each of them was trailing as they led. I imagined how much extra weight that extra line represented. And then I watched while Caldwell put his shoes on (put his shoes on!) and set off – downward, first, from the anchor, on an overlap, and then traversing rightward.
He paused for a long time, on a tricky section. It was while I was watching him test out the moves, back down, adjust, try the move again, back down, adjust, try it again, then edge downward to start from a new angle, that I really got hooked. Because I knew what that felt like. I was watching something very familiar happen, albeit on a much, much higher level. I was watching a climber work. Not just a climber: one of the best. This live stream – unedited, unpackaged, unproduced, with no soundtrack – was quite possibly my only chance to really watch someone like Tommy Caldwell climb.
They weren’t the hardest pitches of the route. Caldwell and Jorgeson were both tired from 16 straight days of this. They weren’t on showpieces; the hardest and craziest pitches of the route were below them. It wasn’t the most spectacular climbing. But through the quiet, straightforward gaze of that telephoto camera trained on them from across the valley, I got to watch a couple of the world’s most elite climbers work, in that unique environment, all alone on the rock. Regardless of how many cameramen were rigged up on the wall or how many people were watching online like me, I was watching these guys climb the hardest big wall in the world, each of them all on his own as he led a pitch. Thinking about each foot placement, each handhold, each chalk bag dip, each clip and gear placement, each one-hand rest. I got to watch them make decisions about wayfinding and protection, when to go for it and when to stop and think, and when to back up, and try from another direction. I got to watch each leader get to the top of the pitch and build an anchor, and pull up rope, and signal to the second, who would pull on his shoes and get moving. And when they met up on the ledge, they’d go through the routines of securing, rope handling, gear switching, and then one would set off again on lead.
It was slow and methodical and sometimes one of them would stall out for long stretches of time, and because it was live, there was no quick, cute editing to speed it up or cut to the next cool move. I watched at the speed of reality as they made their way slowly up the wall. This is how it really is, I thought. This is amazing, and slow, and fitful, and bundled into it there is so much skill and experience and knowledge. The live stream was the opposite of most climbing videos, and the opposite of that adrenaline-fueled stereotype that some people have about climbing.
I watched through to the end of Caldwell’s lead of the last pitch because I wanted to see them get to the top – but I watched everything before that because . . . when else will I have a chance to watch someone on that level, on the climb of their career to date, in the fine, basic, essential detail in which they pull on shoes, haul out rope, look up and decide whether to lunge, or to think again? When else will the livestreams of the world be watching while the world’s greatest climbers do what they do every day? This was a unique privilege for me. I’m glad I stumbled into it.