Adam Ondra, a 23-year-old from the Czech Republic who is considered by some to be the world’s best climber, thought he might cruise up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
Following the free-climbing route that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson blazed over 19 days nearly two years ago, having received advice and support from both men, Ondra hoped to complete the nearly 3,000-foot ascent in five or six days.
In the end, he managed to do it in eight.
Gripping tiny slices of sheer rock and hoisting himself up with only his strength, Ondra inched his way into the record books with the climb completed last week, a spokesman for the climber said.
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He completed the second-ever free ascent of the Dawn Wall on Monday, Nov. 21, said John Dicuollo, a spokesman for Black Diamond Equipment, which sponsors Ondra.
U.S. climbers Caldwell and Jorgeson were the first to chart and conquer the route.
“It’s like being a proud parent, in a way,” Jorgeson told The Associated Press last week, honored that Ondra was drawn to the challenge. “That’s the point: To raise the bar so someone else can do the same thing and stand on our shoulders.”
Unlike climbers who need more elaborate equipment, free climbers use their strength and ability to grasp tiny cracks and lips on the granite rock with their fingertips and toes. They use ropes and harnesses only for safety to catch a fall.
Throughout the climb, Ondra took to social media to post about the cold, soaking rain and the pain from the granite wearing down the skin on his fingers. He also celebrated victories.
“Hard to find the words to describe how I feel,” he wrote on Instagram as he neared the top. “We made it up to the Wino Tower and no more hard pitches guard my way to the top. I could not have asked for a better day.”
Ondra, pictured in jeans and a T-shirt pumping his arms after one difficult stretch, completed the climb in his first visit to Yosemite Valley. He arrived in mid-October, spending several days practicing some of the wall’s most harrowing sections, before launching the formal climb on Nov. 14.
To rest, Ondra and his team pitched tents suspended on the wall’s sheer face towering hundreds of feet above Yosemite Valley.
Ondra had already distinguished himself as the first to hold two world championships in climbing, his sponsors said. Earlier this year, he also completed his university degree in business management.
He closely monitored Caldwell and Jorgeson’s accomplishment in early 2015, drawing on inspiration from their climb to attempt his own, his sponsor said.
Yosemite climber and historian Ken Yager said there is no doubt that Ondra is the strongest climber alive today. Yager, however, credits Caldwell for taking years to chart the path up the Dawn Wall, the most difficult of several routes that climbers can take up El Capitan.
“Hopefully, Adam, with his skills, will come back and pioneer his own route,” Yager said. “He can push it to his own level. He’s got the skills to. It’s whether he has the desire, too.”
The Dawn Wall is considered one of the hardest big-wall climbs in the world, daunting for its size, its vertical face and its lack of holds. Three days into his ascent, it stymied Ondra, at least temporarily.
“Yesterday, I was to climb some of the crux pitches, starting with Pitch 14, which is the hardest,” Ondra told The New York Times by telephone on the morning of Nov. 18, from his portaledge hanging on the wall of El Capitan. “But I failed to climb it, which was really devastating and really heartbreaking.”
Ondra is a renowned speed climber who won the climbing world championship in Paris in September. Earlier this year, Climbing magazine called him “the future of climbing.”
He planned to attempt the section, with a rating of 5.14d, at the highest end of rock climbing’s difficulty scale, again that night. Ondra said he found the Dawn Wall more difficult than he imagined.
“The faster you do it, the more valuable it is,” Ondra said. “But as I found major difficulties yesterday, I will be happy to do it in any time.”
Hours later, as evening enveloped the Dawn Wall, Ondra successfully navigated Pitch 14. He was on his way up.
In climbing, as with so many pursuits, doing something first – the first ascent – is the major prize. Dean Caldwell and Warren Harding were the first to climb the Dawn Wall, in 1970, but they did it by pulling themselves up with an extensive set of ropes.
What Tommy Caldwell (no relation to Dean) and Jorgeson did two winters ago was free climb the Dawn Wall, meaning they used only their hands and feet to pull themselves up. Ropes were used only to catch their falls, move between the pitches they needed to conquer, and collect supplies from the ground.
“We were on the shoulders of Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell’s effort on the Wall of Early Morning Light,” Jorgeson told the Times, referring to what later became known as the Dawn Wall. “And Adam is standing on the shoulders of Tommy and me. I’m stoked that the world’s best climber is taking on the Dawn Wall.”
Ondra talked extensively with Caldwell and Jorgeson and made forays to various sections of the climb to practice.
He followed their 2015 pursuit from afar, along with countless others around the world. As he conquered other climbs and contests, he put the Dawn Wall on the list.
“It was so attractive to me because it was a super-hard route on a beautiful wall, El Capitan in Yosemite, where I had never been before,” Ondra told the Times. “It is a place I always dreamed of going to. The Dawn Wall is so obviously the hardest big-wall climb in the world, so that was the challenge. I was inspired by what Tommy and Kevin did, and I wanted to check it out myself. I must say that it’s definitely more difficult than I expected.”
Ondra’s burgeoning reputation as a climber stems from his expertise across disciplines, from sport climbing to big walls to bouldering, on all surfaces. But the Dawn Wall presented a new, unexpected challenge.
“Here you have to climb much slower, much more precise, because all you have on this vertical wall is tiny razor blades for your hands and your feet,” Ondra said. “If I’m climbing really slow, I kind of feel like, ‘Hmm, this is weird.’ Like a fish without water. The more I climb here, the more I realize that this is the way to go.”
Scott Smith of The Associated Press and John Branch of The New York Times contributed to this report.