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Beyond the wall: A talk with Kevin Jorgeson at Outdoor Retailer

Still sporting horribly cracked fingers from his epic climb with Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson talked to O.R.D. about fame, fear and getting kids out

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 20 – 24. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.


On the morningof Jan. 14, Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell sat on a small ledge known as the Ship’s Bow. They turned up the Pandora, sipped some coffee and watched the pink light of dawn stretch over Yosemite National Park and spread out all around them. They were just 300 feet of relatively easy climbing away from completing El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, the hardest free climb ever attempted. They were also about to step into a new frontier. The two climbers had become celebrities during the 18-day project.

In the midst of the Charlie Hebdo and Boko Haram killings, and a grim news cycle of discordant politics and police brutality, the Dawn Wall — a project the pair had spent close to seven years planning, training for and attempting — became an inspiration to non-climbers. Millions of people tuned in via social media and network nightly news. A gaggle of mainstream media greeted the climbers at the top, along with 40 friends and family members.

“It was like being underwater and not knowing you’re underwater and then popping up and being in a different reality,” said Jorgeson, 30, who came by the O.R. Daily office during Winter Market to talk about the climb and the way it has changed him. “It was the most bizarre experience.”

The Dawn Wall had become Caldwell’s white whale. Long one of the planet’s most talented climbers, he began the project in 2007 after a tough divorce. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation) first aid-climbed the 32-pitch face in 1970 — using gear and ropes to assist in climbing difficult rock sections, as opposed to free climbing, or only using one’s hands and feet while roped in as a protective measure. They made a mainstream stir when they stayed on the rock during a vicious storm. The climb includes some of the most challenging, athletic pitches in Yosemite — smooth granite faces that were considered impossible to climb without aid. But Tommy believed.

“Tommy refers to this project as a paradigm shift of what you think is possible when you look at a big wall,” Jorgeson said. “He was the one that looked at that section of wall and said maybe we can free climb it. We can change the perception of what a big wall climb looks like.”

Jorgeson also believed. The affable, intense bouldering phenom from Santa Rosa learned about Caldwell’s quest in 2008 and asked if he could join in, even though he had never free climbed a Yosemite big wall before. He began climbing at Vertex Gym with mentors Andrew and Dave Wallach, whom he said he envies for their pure talent (“They can show up after not climbing for weeks and climb V7 in Birkenstocks”). The Wallachs taught him a laid-back approach to training on the rock, more based on reacting to the moment rather than spreadsheets and exact workouts. That mindset would serve him well as he took on the Dawn Wall.

The influence of this perspective shone when he and Caldwell were taking calls in a Yosemite lodge after the climb. A woman in a walker came up to them, saying her doctor had just told her that she would most likely be headed to a wheelchair. “I’m determined to not let that happen,” she said. “That’s my Dawn Wall.” The climbers teared up.

For Jorgeson, the crux of the Dawn Wall was the intimidating pitch 15, a 5.14c challenge that took 11 attempts in a week to finally climb, a determined effort that convinced the climbers they could pull the whole thing off before bad weather pushed them off as it did on a 2010 attempt. But he was not alone. He had the support of Caldwell, family and friends, millions of wired-in onlookers, and a dear friend, Brad Parker, who died in a fall last August on Yosemite’s Matthes Crest Traverse. Jorgeson wore a t-shirt for the foundation that honors Parker during the whole climb and said he found inspiration in the way Parker lived. “I’m not super cosmic, but I really believe Brad was with me on that wall. I would think about the way he lived — being brave, being bold, not being afraid to love, just going for it. He used to say ‘breathe deep and move slow.’ I would tell myself that during the climb.”

Jorgeson, who appreciates that all of the mainstream media exposure means that people may now realize the sport is something more than just free soloing or attempting Everest, admits that the celebrity requires careful navigation. He hopes that his experience at Outdoor Retailer will remain the same as it always has — at its core, a chance to connect with friends and sponsors, whom he envisions more as partners with important human relationships behind them. “This is my home, my community, my people.”

That said, he does realize that his voice is now more likely to be heard.

“Our values are never going to change regardless of how many people care about the climb,” he said, his eyes soft, moving purposefully through his words the same way he might think through difficult moves on the rock, “but we have given a unique gift to have more influence. It’s a little scary, but I’m also very fortunate.”

One big place where he is going to focus his attention is Pro Climbers International (PCI), an agency and advocacy group he co-founded in 2009, which helps gyms and universities develop their climbing programs and to bring more people into the sport. “It helps athletes who want to become climbers pursue their dreams. It’s a way to pay it forward,” he said. He points out that the goal of PCI won’t change, that he wants to “tie the loop” by helping younger climbers, but he may be able to find new ways to achieve that goal thanks to the Dawn Wall.

He also hopes to help new climbers develop respect for the natural world where climbing takes place, that sea of granite that he sees so intimately. “It’s vital when you have so many new climbers flooding into the sport. It has to be more than education, you have to make it part of climbing culture. That’s a really hard thing to do.”

But Kevin Jorgeson has already pulled off something seemingly impossible in his life — why not add another?

–Doug Schnitzpahn