The Dawn Wall: Because It’s There, by Craig Schroeder
The idea of recreational climbing is as foreign to me—someone too afraid to step off a ladder to clean the rain gutters—as a desert to a fish but I’m fascinated by what compels someone to do something so transgressive. George Mallory’s famous “because it’s there” retort to those who questioned why he wanted to climb Mountain Everest is an impenetrable look into a mind propelled to do something so unnatural to humanity’s impulse to survive. The Dawn Wall—a documentary chronicling the famous 2015 ascent of El Capitan by climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen—is an intimate, reflective portrait of the very human minds behind a superhuman accomplishment.
El Capitan, the 3,000-foot-tall rock monolith in Yosemite National Park, is a destination for the world’s best mountain climbers. And its front facing Dawn Wall (so named because it is the first part of the formation to see light as the sun rises each morning) is a virtually un-climbable panel, made of smooth granite with ledges and finger holes measured in millimeters. The film’s star, Tommy Caldwell, won an international climbing competition as a sixteen-year-old amateur and thrust himself into the world of competitive climbing. But behind Caldwell’s ascent is a story that reveals a more poignant answer than Mallory’s spartan quip as to why someone may want to do something so dangerous and unnatural. After Caldwell’s rise in the climbing community, his life went sideways several times over. In 2000 he was kidnapped by extremist rebels while climbing in Kyrgyzstan (effectively retold in the film via black and white illustrations that look like primitive charcoal sketches). Several years later he lost his index finger (a debilitating injury for a climber, akin to a baseball pitcher having his arm lopped off). And most damaging, his wife—and long-time climbing partner—divorced him. In The Dawn Wall, Caldwell’s ascent of El Capitan isn’t just one climber’s goal, but one of the only constants in a life where the goalposts keep shifting and shrinking.
The Dawn Wall moves with incredible fluidity. Framing the film around Caldwell and Jorgensen’s ascent, the film floats effortlessly between past and present, slowly revealing their climb as an inevitable destination. If the film suffers, it’s because Caldwell’s story is so compelling it leaves little room for Jorgensen. Caldwell’s story is fundamental to the film and its pathos, but in its attempt to attach the same weight to Jorgensen’s backstory, it becomes a muted effort that distracts from the central arch.
That said, the scenes between the two men on the mountain are some of the film’s best sequences. With thirty-two pitches between the top and bottom of the Dawn Wall (a pitch is the space between one belay station and the next), Jorgensen finds himself stuck at pitch fifteen—a notorious section of the Dawn Wall route which requires a horizontal shuffle across a stretch of rock with razor sharp ledges, none wider than the length of your fingernail. The footage from this section of the climb—most of which was shot by Caldwell, Jorgensen, or their team and reassembled by directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer—offers an authentic, inspiring vision of fraternity and determination.
I feared The Dawn Wall would be a glib portrait of extreme athletes, replete with condescending clichés about grabbing life by the horns (a fear that wasn’t mitigated when the Red Bull Media logo appeared in the opening credits). That mentality—while I’m sure an authentic perspective for some extreme athletes—is frustrating to someone like me, whose brain will never understand George Mallory’s I’ll do it because it’s there ethos. But, thankfully The Dawn Wall isn’t that, it’s less concerned with the magnitude of the climb than with the life that leads to that first step. It’s a film about love and regret, obsession and purpose, themes integral to every living soul. And in that context, climbing El Capitan doesn’t seem like such an anomaly anymore (but I’d settle for making it up that ladder to clean the gutters).