5 Life Lessons from the World’s Hardest Rock Climb

The climbers move up the notoriously difficult Dawn Wall.
The climbers move up the notoriously difficult Dawn Wall. Flickr/Peter Stevens
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On Jan. 14 , Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell claimed one of the world’s most impressive athletic feats: summiting the Dawn Wall of Yosemite's El Capitan, known among experts as the world’s hardest rock climb, without any aid.

Lacerated fingers, cold temperatures, and brutal falls weren’t enough to stop this dynamite duo from becoming the first to ever free-climb the route, using only their hands and feet to ascend. (The ropes and bolts only caught them when they fell and weren’t used to help them scale the 3,000-foot rock.) Climbing aficionados are calling their 19-day journey “the climb of the century.”

Of course, such an incredible feat isn’t in the cards for everyone. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by it. Here, some life lessons we couldn't help but contemplate as we cheered the pair on.

El Cap is the largest monolith in the world.
El Cap is the largest monolith in the world. Flickr/Tim Lenz

With all due respect to climbing legend Alex Honnold , who achieves some of his most superhuman feats on solo climbs, sometimes you just need a buddy. In fact, early on in his dream to conquer the Dawn Wall, Caldwell realized he couldn't do it alone. " I am incredibly lucky to have found such an amazing partner in Kevin Jorgeson," he told Rock and Ice magazine in April 2014. "Sharing the experience with him has made it many times richer than it would have been without him."

And then, there are the low points when a friend's presence can mean all the difference in the world. Just ask Jorgeson: At one brutal stretch, the Santa Rosa resident failed 11 times in seven days as he tried to finish (or, in climbing speak, "send") pitch 15, a beastly traverse with razor-sharp holds the width of a credit card.

But Caldwell, a more accomplished climber who had already completed the section and moved ahead, was always within reach, offering moral support to his climbing partner in Jorgeson’s first free ascent of El Cap.

“Now I am in full support mode until @kjorgeson catches up,” Caldwell posted at one point on his Facebook page. “Today Kevin managed to climb pitch 15 in the most inspired climbing moment of his life. It was such an intense and incredible thing to witness.”

Even more impressive about Caldwell's accomplishment? The Estes Park, Colorado native did it without his left index finger, which he lost in a handsaw accident in 2001. When doctors told him reattaching it would mean he couldn't use it for climbing, he decided to have it amputated.

LESSON 3: Super Glue is always good to have on hand.

This versatile stuff can hold together a hiking boot, patch up a hole in a raft, and, in a real pinch, bind your fingers to tape well enough that you can deal with the pain of razor-sharp holds. According to one media report, Jorgeson did just that as he struggled to complete pitch 15, as his battered fingers could have meant the difference between failure and success.

The takeaway: Tuck a tube or two into your favorite backpack and glove compartment—you never know when it will come in handy.

LESSON 4: The seemingly impossible becomes doable when you take it one step (or pitch or hold) at a time.

Just looking up at El Cap from the valley floor, its sheer size and scope is mind-boggling enough; at one point, climbing the Dawn Wall unassisted had been called impossible. Yet, by breaking down the 31-pitch climb into manageable chunks and spreading it out over 19 days, Caldwell and Jorgeson did it. The bottom line: In the face of the overwhelming, just focus on moving forward inch by (chalky) inch.

LESSON 5: Never, ever, ever give up.

Perhaps the most captivating aspect of this amazing accomplishment was Caldwell and Jorgeson’s dogged determination to make it up that damn rock, no matter what. As Jorgeson wrote on his Facebook page during his struggle to conquer pitch 15: "I’m not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed.”

Yeah, it’s cliché, but it’s something that bears repeating: If you really want something, keep at it. Thanks for such an inspiring reminder, guys.

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