Over the past month, a dream team assembled in Yosemite National Park. Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, and Kevin Jorgeson teamed up to see if they could put a new free route on El Capitan, a place where each has a place in history. While Caldwell and Jorgeson were toiling around on El Cap for years as they worked on the Dawn Wall, considered the hardest free climb in history, they got to know the wall’s features really well—so well that they thought they might be able to finish a route Leo Houlding started 20 years ago. Honnold joined the effort, and a new free route was made. (Jorgeson ended up having to leave before they finished the route.)
Despite some philosophical differences surrounding risk tolerance, Caldwell and Honnold are best buds who love to climb together. In June 2018, they teamed up to break the speed record on the Nose, then broke their own record with a mind-blowing sub-two-hour ascent.
Last week, they put a new free climb, which they will probably call Passage to Freedom up on El Cap, rated 5.13+. This latest route was not the most dangerous nor the hardest in the world, but it was the type of climbing the world’s best clear their schedules to do.
Here, Caldwell tells us what went down on the climb and gives us an update on what’s happening in Yosemite.
You just put a new free climbing route on El Cap with Alex Honnold. Why is it significant?
Nearly 20 years ago, Leo Houlding put up a route that only went halfway up the wall, and then he couldn’t figure out how to climb off of El Cap Tower, and he stopped it there. He called it Passage to Freedom.
Since Kevin and I spent so much time up there when we were working on the Dawn Wall [which they completed in January 2015], we got really familiar with the features of the wall. We figured out how to link that route to those cracks that we were looking at to make it to the top. Essentially, we were following an aid route called New Dawn. I think we’re actually going to call the complete route Passage to Freedom, though. We’re going to keep Leo’s name.
You and Alex did it, but Kevin Jorgeson was there, too. How did that all work?
The original plan was all three of us to team up. We’re all pretty busy these days, so it felt like we needed to be really efficient. Alex and I successfully blocked out our schedules completely for basically a month. Kevin was slightly less successful. He has a new baby at home and lives in an area near some of the wildfires.
It seems kind of like you guys were having a really good time on this climb.
There was like no threat of death. It was super safe. It was Type 1 fun, for sure. We were just basically feeding our climbing addiction. Even though the route goes up an amazing part of the wall, it wasn’t, by Dawn Wall standards, cutting-edge. It was quite a bit easier. It was fun, really.
In terms of free climbing on El Cap, is there much left that’s still undone?
Yeah, there’s plenty left. I think the Hubers [brothers Alex and Thomas] thought years ago that it was all tapped out. But routes are going up with more frequency now than ever.
Really? Because it seems like there are so many already.
There’s more than 100 aid routes, but there’s only like 13 to 15 free routes. The more obvious lines get done first, and then variations get done. Free climbing is following what the aid climbing did 30 years ago.
From watching your Instagram Stories, you and Alex were talking about public lands and being responsible climbers a lot. Why?
It’s what we’re into these days. Alex has got the Honnold Foundation, so we love to debate the future of energy. We’re always trying to be responsible climbers, and I think we all understand that there are quite a few eyes on us, and that comes with a bit of responsibility.
It’s very uplifting to talk about ways to try to be better humans, and be better for the planet, with somebody like Alex. It feels purposeful. We talk about that like 20 percent of the time, and the rest of the time, it’s just our regular climbing banter.
Did you guys come up with any solutions for how to be better humans?
We’re always debating the broader solutions of the world. Like I’m doing a lot of policy work. Alex thinks that policy work is important, but he thinks that quantifiable, actionable things are more important, like putting solar panels on peoples’ houses where that helps them. So we debate what’s the better place to put our energy these days. It’s fun to talk about that stuff.
You were just out on the Hill with Protect Our Winters to talk about protecting public lands. How did it go?
It’s seeming more and more to me like those trips are successful in moving the needle. The first time I went, I was like “This seems like a weird idea. Are we just here to try and pat ourselves on the back, and make ourselves feel better about what we’re doing?” I didn’t really know.
But as I begin to understand the inner workings of D.C., and how politics work, I realize that this kind of stuff is really important. It’s kind of how the cake is made. You have to have people there advocating, representing large groups of people.
For instance, I did a trip for the Land and Water Conservation Fund a couple of years ago. Then on this recent trip, Senator Maria Cantwell said that because of that lobbying trip, she thinks that really was a huge reason that the fund got permanently reauthorized.
A massive success, in what has felt like tons of setbacks, like Bears Ears.
There is that, but public lands, in general, are a bipartisan thing. It’s just like the politics right now are so messy that the Republicans and the Democrats will never vote on the same things together, but they tend to vote above party lines. I also realized that a few years ago, when I went to D.C., when we talk about environmental issues, the Republicans Senators and lawmakers we talked to basically were like, “We hear you, but we disagree with you.” And now, the tone is more like they’re getting enough pressure from all sides to care for the environment. It seems more like, “Okay, we’ve got to figure out a way to work together.” So even though the voting isn’t necessarily going that way, I do have a lot of hope that they will start to agree soon.
In one of your recent Instagram posts, you said that climbers are the de facto caretakers of the park. That’s a cool idea. How do you see that?
When Ken Yager [president of the Yosemite Climbing Association] started Yosemite Facelift years ago, suddenly the park was pristine, very pristine. The climbers came in and they picked up everything. At first, the clean-up was led by the climbers, but now a lot of other people come, too.
The park and the backcountry have drastically changed. And that was a climber-led thing. It’s been so successful. Climbers are just a big force in Yosemite now, in general.
When the government shutdown happened last year, and all of a sudden the bathrooms were closed and all of the facilities were closed, the Yosemite Climbers Association came in and started, once again, picking up all the trash and stocking the bathrooms with toilet paper, and telling the tourists where to go. They organized and set up this whole thing, and the climbers were the ones doing it.
So when I say they’re the de facto caretakers, it’s very obvious that that’s the case to basically everybody in Yosemite. It’s given the climbers a lot of respect. It used to be that the climbers were kind of a drain on the park. And that’s totally flopped now.
What’s the fire situation with Yosemite right now?
There’re no fires going on currently, but every fall there is fire. In the past years, they’ve been massive, devastating fires. Like the Ferguson Fire last year was huge. Then, there was another one. The lower elevations of Yosemite National Park have already turned into a more desert-y terrain.
The valley itself has been ravaged by beetles. Thirty percent or so of the pine trees are now gone. There are major issues happening now. It’s debatable about whether that’s fully climate change or whether it’s poor forest management for eons. It’s probably a combination of all of those things.
But it is changing shockingly fast right now. And the fires are a huge symptom of that, because these are massive, devastating fires that knock out huge areas. Being there, most of the people leave, because they can’t handle the smoke. But from El Cap, you can see it so well.
Visually, from El Capitan, you see the beetle kill. You see all the dead trees. You see the smoke, with these crazy sunsets. It’s just so in your face.
Living in Colorado, a lot of people are still like, “Oh, the climate might not be changing that much,” because the impacts just aren’t quite as in your face. But in California, everyone is like, “Whoa! This is real, and we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it.” Because it’s directly and drastically affecting everybody’s lives.
Yeah, it’s survival. It’s not just inconvenient.
For instance, probably the main reason Kevin wasn’t with us on this climb was that he had to go home, because his house was on the edge of the evacuation zone in Santa Rosa. And then, power was cut out for a million people. Yosemite National Park’s power was cut, because of the worry of fire. So it’s just really affecting everybody right now.
Do you think you and Alex would ever go try to break your record, and set a new one on the Nose?
I hesitate to say never, but that climb was certainly kind of heavy for my family, in terms of just pushing the safety standards. So I don’t know. I’m not really, at the moment, looking forward to that or planning on it.
Do you see any uptick in people free-soloing at all since Free Solo came out?
I haven’t really, but I’m not sure I’d be so aware of it. If I were out climbing on the easier routes that people have historically free-soloed, maybe I would know. But I go to Yosemite, and I go straight on to Passage of Freedom or something, and I see just a few people. Nobody else is free-soloing on El Cap right now, that’s for sure. I think in general, free-soloing is pretty self-regulating. It is freaking scary.
Do you think that there is more free climbing going on since The Dawn Wall came out?
There is more free climbing, for sure. People realized how cool it is. I may be biased in thinking this, but the rock is so good, the setting is so fun, and the experience is just always so dramatic. I think, now, people are willing to put in the work, so they’re getting to experience that. It’s becoming pretty popular. I’ll bet there’s 20 or 30 different teams of people trying to free climb El Cap this fall, whereas for like 15 or more years, there were like one or two each fall.