In the end, it took me many many years...
...before I finally got to the Yosemite Valley which is something I am almost embarrassed about. There was always some other place to go which was closer and less intimidating. But I knew that one day, I would go.
Then, in late 2014, I met Heinz Zak, the author of the iconic book from my childhood, on a film festival in Prague, and we talked a lot about Yosemite. I told him about my plan to go there and we made a deal. We would go together, with Heinz as a photographer and videomaker. The circle was about to close. The guy whose pictures inspired me so much would be the one to document my first trip to the Yosemite Valley.
When in January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, the news spread across the globe making headlines all over the media. The hardest big wall in the world finally free climbed! No doubt about it! A massive line which they worked on for years until they finally succeeded, an amazing story of effort and hope.
Without knowing whether it was actually possible, I had a goal - I wanted to repeat their amazing feat. Despite the fact I had never climbed a big wall, despite the fact that I had never climbed in Yosemite before.
We arrived in the Valley in October 2016. Just seeing El Capitan for the first time, the highest and steepest cliff in the Valley towering there almost 1000 meters tall and almost 1500 meters wide, was an amazing experience in itself. I remember thinking about all the legendary climbs like the Nose, Salathe, the Dawn Wall... It looked so huge, so impossible, yet so tempting at the same time.
Climbing big walls involves a lot of ethics.
The discussion about what the ethics are runs all the way back to the very beginning of big wall climbing, and the history of climbing the Dawn Wall itself. Warren Harding who was the first to climb El Capitan was harshly criticized by Royal Robins for doing it in an expedition style and for the excessive use of bolts.
Obviously we wanted to avoid any criticism, so we wanted to do it the right way, in a good style. That meant that before we set the fixed ropes (1200 meters of rope), we would go ground up and reach the summit first via climbing the route, at this time using not only free climbing but aid climbing as well. That was extremely adventurous and probably the most scary part of the trip. I had very little experience with traditional big wall gear, knew nothing about aid climbing, my climbing partner Pavel didn’t have a big wall either... But I had a ton of excitement and I believed that it would work somehow. And miraculously, it did. After 4 days on the wall, we made it to the top, safe and sound.
Already at that moment, I was extremely happy because I thought I did the hardest and the scariest part. Now all was left to do was to work on the crux pitches with all the safety of fixed ropes, have them dialed and give the whole route a try. I also thought it was not going to be such a big deal. I was slowly gaining confidence in the exposure, I was getting to know the traditional gear, and Pavel proved to be an amazing partner.
But as it turned out...
...I greatly underestimated the difficulty of the climbing itself. When I looked at the grades of the individual pitches and my tick list of what I was able to make throughout the years, the Dawn Wall seemed relatively easy. But Tommy and Kevin were really tough when it came to giving the grades. Plus the climbing in Yosemite is extremely unique. Before coming to Yosemite, I thought I had already climbed all over the world and therefore would be able to climb pretty much anywhere. Any kind of rock, any kind of overhang. But the climbing in Yosemite is of a very particular style. The rock is extremely slick and requires extremely precise footwork. You have to use footholds which I would normally never consider to be footholds worth using. And it takes time to adapt in order to trust your feet on footholds like that.
The first week of trying the route after fixing the ropes, I was getting my ass kicked. I just didn’t know how to climb. I wasn’t able to find the right methods and sequences, I didn’t trust my feet, some footholds just seemed impossible. But I had one huge advantage. I knew it was possible because it had been climbed before.
And it was this knowledge that helped me to patiently search for the holds and footholds, until every single pitch, every single sequence, every single move finally felt good. That took a lot of work and effort. We would go into the wall for two days, work on the pitches till late at night, then take one rest day down in the Camp 4, and do it all over again.
Finally, after two weeks of work...
...I felt ready. I needed a few more rest days, and we were ready to go for the push. On Day 1 we set off at 3 AM because to the warm weather, and I knew I had to do the first 9 pitches till 9 AM before the scorching sun would hit the wall. I did it, and for the rest of the day we just hang in our portaledges and I let my body and painful fingertips heal. I had to wait till the afternoon of Day 2 before I could continue. I finished 4 more pitches and called it a day because ahead of me was the hardest pitch of the whole climb, pitch 14. I knew I had to wait and rest in order to tackle this pitch.
Day 3 was therefore a rest day. A rest day on a vertical wall, in the very limited space of our portaledge, was a lot about doing nothing. Reading, eating, we slept a lot... We had a solar panel to charge our phones so that we could make daily updates. To be in touch with our families was really great and encouraging, but at the same time, knowing that the whole climbing world was watching me and expecting me to climb the route was a bit unnerving, at the least. I so didn’t want to fail on Day 4, on the crux pitch 14. And the pressure was enormous.
When I set off for the pitch 14 after a good rest day, everything was supposed to be perfect. My skin was great, the temperature dropped, there was a slight breeze. But despite the good conditions, I failed. I gave it a try after try but I kept falling at the beginning of the pitch. Only on my 7th try of the day, I managed to get past the beginning of the pitch but then falling just before the very end.
I was devastated. I had tons of doubts, wondering if I could actually do this.
On Day 5, I felt slightly more tired.
My skin was more painful. It was hard to find any reason why it should work out that day when it didn’t the day before. The only hope was that I would climb perfectly, right on my first try of the day. I had to free my mind from fear, doubts and pressure. And I did it. I sent the pitch on my first go of the day. And then on the same evening, I sent the pitch 15 on my second go. At 10 PM, back on the portaledge, I was deeply satisfied. Now I knew I could do this climb.
- Day 6 – I did pitch 16 to 21. All first go.
- Day 7 – we had a forced rest day due to bad weather.
- Day 8 - I did pitch 22 to 32 and reached the summit at 3 PM.
Even as I type this, my hands are still shaking when I remember it all. Dawn Wall is a climb that forced me to go out of my comfort zone the most, so far. It was a challenge, it was a new thing. But I’m glad I took the challenge, showed at least some courage in facing the new and unknown, and succeeded. The feeling of it is still very alive and vibrant.
Thank you Pavel, Heinz and Christian for making it possible. I will never forget the moments up there on the summit.
And even a bit more satisfying was when the snow storm came few days later and left the wall all wet. Then we knew we got THE right moment of the season which was just about to end. For now. See you Yosemite.