The Dawn Wall

I have this vague memory of reading about two guys who had just free climbed the Dawn Wall in Yosemite. At the time, I was living in Chicago, more focused on advertising, triathlons, and Breaking Bad than I was about climbing. I was a city slicker, didn’t camp anymore, didn’t get out into nature. My recreation consisted of cycling and running along the lakefront path with thousands of other people which, while fun and good exercise, wasn’t much in the way of adventure.

Maybe it’s the pessimistic athlete in me, but my first reaction to most physical feats is “that’s not THAT hard…” I’ve always felt my lack of inspirational receptivity indicative of some personal defect in my character. What does it say about me that I’m not moved by new pinnacles of human achievement? There are certain things that spark those feelings in me. Miracle, about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team that won gold in Lake Placid. The men’s 4×100 freestyle relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Cubs winning the World Series.

…personal defect in my character…

In each of those moments, the context provides the drama and triumph. The Soviets were coming off four consecutive gold medals. The French sprinters were trash talking, only to end up losing by .08 seconds. The Cubs…need no explanation. With the Dawn Wall, I had no context. It is impossible to truly imagine being two thousand feet off the deck, standing on granite crystals smaller than your fingernail when your climbing experience until that point was birthday parties at the gym. I didn’t know what free climbing meant. I didn’t know about leading, placing pro, the ethics of a true send.

Nevertheless, I saw the New York Times article about Tommy and Kevin’s ascent, read about this milestone of climbing achievement, and went on with my day. I didn’t have an epiphany, didn’t re-evaluate my life and decide to become a climbing bum, but the seed was planted. Climbing was now on my radar, however faintly.

Last year, Tommy’s book, The Push, had been published in the spring and he was touring the country, speaking and signing copies. I wouldn’t receive a copy until my birthday that summer, but by this point, I knew who Tommy was and knew a little bit about his adventures. On a rainy day in May, I was sitting a few rows from the front at the Patagonia store in Denver, one among a standing-room-only crowd. Tommy is honest, self-deprecating, and charismatic, with just the right amount of snark. His talk was incredible and I left feeling inspired by his determination and sense of adventure. But I still couldn’t comprehend an undertaking like the Dawn Wall.

Dawn Wall
An early attempt at The Dawn Wall, courtesy of Tim Kemple from Camp4 Collective.
Once I got hold of a copy of The Push, I devoured it. Tommy has led an unimaginable life, and he’s yet to reach middle age. His writing is raw, emotional, and relatable. The book gives a complete account about Tommy’s history with Yosemite and the Nose in particular, in a way that isn’t possible in a film. It dives deep into his upbringing, his family, his personal life, and his own internal struggles. Apart from the climbing knowledge and inspiration, the life lessons Tommy imparts are universal. Everyone knows how it feels to lose that first love, to experience feeling adrift after you thought you had your life figured out. Tommy’s excellence doesn’t shield him from these emotions.

This fall, The Dawn Wall finally came to theaters. I’ve been waiting to see this film for a while. The saga of media around this climb has become my personal measuring stick for climbing comprehension. Can I now fully grasp the magnitude and enormity of what these men achieved? Yes, it’s starting to sink in. Having read The PushThe Dawn Wall storyline is very familiar. They are nearly parallels. But the production is done so well, it doesn’t matter. Knowing the backstory, being able to see and hear from the characters made The Dawn Wall just as intimate and compelling as its literary counterpart. Armed with the detail from the book, the visuals in the film brought everything together perfectly.

As intimate and compelling as its literary counterpart.

As a new writer, I’m slowly learning that great stories must involve some sort of conflict. How I managed to pass high school literature without picking up on this, I don’t know. But it’s never too late for learning, so go me! I’ll pause here to just say spoiler alerts ahead. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and don’t want to know anything about it’s contents, stop here and go read or watch. But then come back to finish the rest of the article. I worked hard on it.

The actual climbing of the Dawn Wall is obviously a great conflict. Year after year, Tommy and Kevin continued to get shut down. The climbing is difficult, nearly impossible. Each of them had to climb every pitch, spending weeks at a time on the wall, enduring cold, wet, and icy conditions, shredding the skin on their fingertips. It all makes for very cinematic drama.

But there’s another conflict, one that more people can relate to on a fundamental level. The Nose became Tommy’s escape. He had this picture built up of what life would look like, and when it came crumbling down, he ran to one of the places he knew best. That’s a natural, relatable reaction, and one that shows even the most talented among us can be vulnerable. He took his hurt and heartbreak and funneled it into a project that may prove to be futile. It wasn’t meant to be the most difficult big-wall climb, a pinnacle of climbing achievement. It was a grieving process, a goal so audacious that progress was measured in effort. In Tommy’s own words “beating my head against the Dawn Wall became my beacon in the night.”
Movie poster for The Dawn Wall
Movie poster for The Dawn Wall

To me, this is the context that gives so much weight to Tommy (and Kevin) topping out the Dawn Wall. Of course, the Dawn Wall is one of the hardest big wall routes in the world. That requires enormous dedication, training, planning, and talent all on its own. But understanding why Tommy found himself thrashing, fighting, wrestling with this mammoth project gives so much more depth to him as a person. It makes him human in the face of awe-inspiring accomplishment. More than anything, Tommy is an every-person’s hero; fallible, imperfect, human.

We need more heroes like this. People who have struggled, who are open with their struggles, and still triumph. Too often, accomplishments are presented in a vacuum, with no context. Having them presented alongside the effort and toil and strife provides the drama, the background that makes the achievement stand out. Tommy’s story illustrates this perfectly. While the Dawn Wall is an outstanding feat on its own, knowing his story makes the top-out that much sweeter.


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