High four and a half, Tommy: Tommy Caldwell, who, with his recent free ascent of the Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a, 26 pitches), has freed more independent lines on El Cap than any other climber. His tick list of independent free routes includes the Salath? Wall (VI 5.13b), Muir Wall/Shaft Variation (VI 5.13c), Lurking Fear (VI 5.13c), West Buttress (VI 5.13c) and the Zodiac (VI 5.13d). [Photo] Topher Donahue
When I soloed the Dihedral Wall (VI 5.8 A3, 2,700′, Baldwin Cooper-Denny, 1962) last fall as an aid route, I thought it looked nearly impossible to free, but if for some reason it could be free climbed it would be the most beautiful, perfect line I had ever laid eyes on. The dihedrals continue for hundreds of feet without break, surrounded by vast, featureless slabs. Though the holds were often barely there, they appeared just frequently enough to tempt my curiosity.
I dove into the project headfirst in late May, climbing four or five days a week from sunrise to sunset. On my biggest days I would start from the ground at 5 a.m., climb to the end of the last hard pitch 1,800 feet up the wall, rappel back to the ground by afternoon, eat lunch and then go bouldering until dark. I climbed so much that my fingernails got worn short and my toenails fell off. My muscles were so sore so much of the time that I forgot what it was like to feel normal.
I worked on the route solo for about two weeks before being joined by my friend Adam Stack, who was fresh from a free ascent of the Salathe. His enthusiasm helped push me even harder. After about a month I felt I had a chance to try a ground-up ascent.
Accompanied by Adam, my wife, Beth Rodden, and cool temperatures, I started up at 5 a.m. on May 19. I had originally thought the route would take me several years, but after climbing the first eight pitches on the first day (including the 5.14 pitch and two 5.13+ pitches) I thought that there might be some chance of success.
My next days were long and tiring, as I tried the six remaining 5.13 pitches many times before redpointing them. At night I lay awake with cramping muscles, wracked with pain. At the end of the third day I managed to climb the last 5.13 and 5.12 pitches, leaving only eight easy, but very vegetated, pitches to the top.
Adam had to leave after the first two days. Beth and I topped out at 3 p.m. on May 22. This route stands out in my mind because it is the hardest route on El Cap–in the first fifteen pitches there was one of 5.14, one of 5.13d, three of 5.13c, three of 5.13b and four pitches of 5.12–and was a huge step above anything I had climbed in the past.
More important, it was a memorable experience with two of my best friends, on one of the most beautiful free-climbing lines in the world, that pushed me further and harder than I have ever been pushed before.
— Tommy Caldwell, Estes Park, Colorado