Within the climbing universe, El Capitan seems to hold a special pride of place – not merely as containing some of the most difficult climbs in the world, but as an image and symbol of the almost impossible odds that climbers set themselves up against. Like Free Solo, The Dawn Wall explores the relationship between a climber and El Capitan, but it’s a very different climb, and a very different kind of climber, in this particular story. Whereas Alex Honnold was presented as somewhat introverted, austere and sublime in his sensibility, Tommy Caldwell, the climber at the heart of The Dawn Wall, is a more comic figure, and has a more self-deprecating manner on screen. That’s quite remarkable, since Caldwell’s adversities are arguably even greater than those of Honnold, and in some cases defy belief.
The first of these adversities involves an incident that occurred when Caldwell and his girlfriend, Beth Rodden, were climbing in Kyrgyzstan in 2000. Upon being captured by Islamic militants, Caldwell, Rodden and several other climbers were escorted through the landscape for six days, always kept hidden from any possible aerial surveillance. Finally, one night, when they found themselves ascending a mountain with just one of their captors, Caldwell made a break for it and pushed him over the side of a sheer cliff. In a further twist, the terrorist survived, but for the time being Caldwell, Rodden and the other climbers were able to make it to the safety of a military base. The second adversity came a year later, when Caldwell accidentally sawed off his index finger, the pivotal point of contact for a free wall climber, leading many to speculate that his career was over. Finally, Caldwell and Rodden broke up in 2010, culminating a decade of fairly challenging experiences that Caldwell determined to purge and process by setting his sights on a new route up El Capitan.
All of those details might make The Dawn Wall sound laden with pathos. Yet while the directors never underestimate their gravity, they also offset them with a more comic, picaresque and provisional tone, drawing upon Caldwell’s family and childhood to domesticate big wall climbing, rather than abstracting it into the kind of agon between man and nature that occurs at moments in Free Solo. Since Caldwell’s climbs were often quite long, and involved him living on big walls, this domestic tone comes naturally, especially since his father, Mike Caldwell, is also a climbing, bodybuilding and extreme sports buff, grounding even the most extreme of Tommy’s activities in his memories of a cosy childhood. Whereas El Cap is a spectacle that Honnold stares off and stands down, Caldwell matter-of-factly buys a property twenty minutes from the wall, and initially plans to raise a family, in domestic proximity to the rock face. Similarly, whereas Free Solo tends to skirt over Honnold’s earlier climbs, reserving all its energy and majesty for El Cap, the directors of The Dawn Wall draw liberally upon Caldwell’s childhood photographs and videos, and the periods in his life where he was less assured on rocks and cliffs – part of a broader openness to the ungainliness of climbing, and to those moments where climbing becomes clambering.
That’s not to say, however, that Caldwell’s ambitions aren’t every bit as great as Honnold’s when it comes to conquering El Cap. During and following his divorce, Caldwell started to look for new routes between established ascents, exhaustively remapping the rock face, and creating five new routes up, each of which would apparently have been enough to guarantee his position within climbing history. Finally, Caldwell decides to tackle the Dawn Wall, which is the most mythical part of El Cap for climbers, not only because it is the first part of the rock face to receive sun in the morning, but because it is also the most difficult to climb. Containing more world-class pitches than the rest of El Cap combined, the Dawn Wall demands more than a year of mapping and practicing for Caldwell to even have a shot at tackling it and, even then, can only be managed by camping out on the wall for several weeks, at the very least, and then tackling each pitch in between sojourns at “base camp.”
As with Honnold’s climb, the biggest issue here is the smoothness of the surface, since the Dawn Wall requires Caldwell to tackle the most polished parts of the entire rock face. The lack of an index finger makes him even more acutely aware of the polish of the surface, and necessitates a greater micro-knowledge of the wall than anywhere else on El Cap, even as the wall is more looming, monolithic and singular here than anywhere else as well. As we watch him train, prepare for and then embark upon the climb, it becomes clear that the Dawn Wall splinters the two scales of climbing – expanse and microcosm – to an almost inconceivable degree. In Caldwell’s own words, “a three thousand foot wall that comes down to a few millimetres…becomes such a zoomed in world.” In fact, the process of climbing the wall seems to defy and disrupt the syntax of the film itself, since long shots never feel far enough away to capture its magnitude, while close-ups never feel close enough to register it in as minutely as Caldwell. Time and again, the directors resort to time-lapsed shots of starts rotating overhead, as if the fact of the rock face has fissured the scale of the film in ways that can only be glimpsed using cosmic vocabularies of space and time.
In that sense, the depiction of the wall here reminded me of the difficulty cartographers have with mapping the Maldives. Since the Maldives are so spread out, but also so tiny, it’s impossible to come up with a map that legibly accounts for both their position and size. Something of that conundrum occurs here as well, since the cameras continually seem to be zooming in and out in search of a middle distance, and a perceptual anchor, that doesn’t exist – or that only exists, fleetingly, in the midst of a free climb. Midway through the film, Kevin Jorgeson, Caldwell’s companion, observes that the best climbing conditions are often at night, since the coldness and dryness creates more friction between climber and wall. By extension, the best conditions for filming climbing also seem to be at night, since it’s only when the scale of the wall is removed as a point of reference that the camera really feels capable of operating within discernible categories of time and space. Not only do the directors favour mid-shots of the climbers on the wall at night – the only time mid-shots really ramify – but they also include many long shots of the climbers against the wall at night. Lone spotlights against a slab of darkness so massive that it blocks out the stars, these longs shots momentarily make the relation between microcosm and macrocosm discernible.
Throughout this whole process, Caldwell’s mantra – like that of Honnold – is that there is no genuinely smooth surface, and that even the smoothest surfaces have holds to betray if you look close enough. The closer the climbers look, however, the further they have to stand back, growing even more cosmic in their outlook with each new microscopic scrutiny of the wall. That oscillation produces some of their most original decisions, such as when Caldwell realises that the only way to cross the smoothest pitch on the mountain is to pivot down around it, adding an additional twenty or so metres in order to discover a series of footholds that radiate out from that apparent smoothness. At times, the process of working through pitches reminded me of the process of jazz improvisation – just as there are no truly smooth pitches on the rock face, so there are no truly atonal sequences in jazz, but no melodies whose tonality can’t be somewhat disrupted or dispersed either. I also realised, while watching The Dawn Wall, that the very idea of pitches – normally measured by where ropes are secured – is entirely notional to the kind of free climbing that Honnold espouses, and only ramify for him in the same way that modal structures ramify for exponents of free jazz.
For all the difficulty of the climb, however, this is also a much more domesticated process than Honnold’s achievement. In fact, domesticating the wall, and growing used to living on the wall, is part of the process for Caldwell and Jorgeson, who have to spend many days recuperating in their tents after trying to get through the most challenging pitches. As a result, The Dawn Wall dramatizes the process of filming the climbers in a very different way from Free Solo, where the directors were also mountaineers, hanging alongside Honnold and holding their breath in case he fell. This time, the footage tends to alternate between the crowd gathering on the ground, and the iPhone footage shot by Caldwell and Jorgeson themselves, eliding the middle distance and professional sheen that was such a feature of Chai and Vasarhelyi’s vision. Here, the images shift quite awkwardly between professional ground-bound footage and informal iPhone footages from the climbers themselves, domesticating the wall but at the same time suggesting that it can’t be fully represented outside of the process of climbing. In the process, climbing comes to feel as if it simply is this domestic proximity to the mountain, whether framed comically, as when Caldwell “takes a dump off the edge,” or in terms of sublimty and serendipity, as when the two climbers manage to film footage of gigantic ice shards tumbling down around their heads and tents.
These two filmic registers, and the general media fascination with the climb, converge on two key points. The first is Pitch 15, the traverse, or “blank zone” between parallel ridges, and the most difficult part of the whole mountain to climb. While Caldwell manages to make his way across the traverse, Jorgeson struggles, eventually conceding that Caldwell should go on without him, and that for him it is simply “a special moment, to witness this piece of history” in which his friend will conquer the dawn wall. The second point is the Wino Tower, which is the only ledge on the Dawn Wall, and the point where the difficult pitches cease. For much of the middle part of the climb, it seems as if Jorgeson will simply help Caldwell to reach the Wino Tower, and then make his way to the top. However, upon arriving at the Wino Tower, Caldwell is suddenly struck with a feeling of utter isolation, and realises that he will be “devastated” if he doesn’t get Kevin through the traverse, and up the mountain with him. That’s not to say that the Wino Tower isn’t sublime – it’s foggy when Caldwell arrives, leading him to describe it as being “like a moon landing” – nor that it isn’t momentous when Caldwell finally does set foot on this most mythic of ledges. It’s more that arriving at his destination displaces the destination, leading Caldwell to finally question, and then reject, the heroic individualism that led him to try out the Dawn Wall in the first place.
Of course, this individualistic outlook was always less a part of Caldwell’s sensibility than it was a part of Honnold’s sensibility. But just as the cumulative effects of Kyrgyzstan, losing an index finger, and going through a divorce, saw Caldwell draw on the most residual strains of climber individualism, so this sequence sees him divesting himself of the most residual strains of climber individualism, and rediscovering the romance, family and community through which climbing was always mediated for him. The media frenzy peaked with this decision, and with his determination to go back down the mountain and help Jorgeson finally cross the traverse – the real achievement of the climb, for both Jorgeson and Caldwell. The final stage in this process is the “space of contentment’ he enters upon dropping his iPhone off the rock face and then arriving at the Wino Tower with Jorgeson – the two feel like part of the same event – before meeting up with his girlfriend at the peak.
Whereas Honnold was invested in “warrior culture,” then, The Dawn Wall feels more like a buddy film, culminating with Caldwell and Jorgeson watching the first beams come up on the Wino Tower, the “only thing in Yosemite in the sun.” What starts of as a defiant gesture of individualism and indestructability instead becomes an affirmation of fraternity and solidarity, all shot through with a quasi-comic, self-deprecating register that prevents the climb ever becoming too self-important or self-serious: “I fell in love with a piece of rock.” The result is a film that is every bit as sublime as Free Solo, in its own way, but which perhaps suggests a more reparative possibility for the community of climbers as a whole. Even Beth Rodden, Caldwell’s ex-wife, is included in the documentary, and has nothing but affection for him – the final note to a film that affirms that climbing is about community above all else, but that sometimes climbers have to indulge in individualism to recognise it.