Duo first to free-climb Yosemite 'Wall'

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. -- It was a magical moment years in the making: American rock climber Tommy Caldwell pulled himself atop the 3,000-foot wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, joined minutes later on a narrow ledge by his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson.

Knowing they had free-climbed the world's biggest granite monolith, the two longtime friends embraced, and then Jorgeson pumped his arm in the air and clapped his hands above his head.

Year after year of practice, failed attempts and the past 19 grueling days scaling by their fingertips and feet rewarded them at last with success.

"That's a deep, abiding, lifelong friendship, built over suffering on the wall together over six years," said Caldwell's mother, Terry, among some 200 people who broke into cheers from the Yosemite Valley floor thousands of feet below.

The mother said her son could have reached the top several days ago, but he waited for his friend to ensure they made it together.

The pair on Wednesday completed what had long been considered the world's most difficult rock climb, captivating the nation and world through social media and livestreamed video coverage while documentary filmmakers dangled from ropes capturing each move.

Caldwell, 36, and Jorgeson, 30, became the first to free-climb the rock formation's Dawn Wall, a feat that many had considered impossible.

They used ropes and safety harnesses to catch themselves in case of a fall but relied entirely on their own strength and dexterity to ascend by grasping cracks as thin as razor blades and as small as dimes.

The two dealt with constant falls and injuries. But their success completes a yearslong dream that bordered on obsession for the men.

At the top, another crowd was waiting for them, including Caldwell's wife and Jorgeson's girlfriend, who welcomed them with hugs and kisses. The pair then were to hike two to three hours down the mountain to hold a news conference Thursday near where their climb had started.

President Barack Obama sent his congratulations from the White House Twitter account.

Since the trek began Dec. 27, Caldwell and Jorgeson lived on the wall, eating and sleeping in tents fastened to the rock thousands of feet above the ground and battling painful cuts to their fingertips much of the way.

Free climbers do not pull themselves up with cables or use chisels to carve out handholds. Instead, they climb inch by inch, wedging their fingers and feet into tiny crevices or gripping sharp, thin projections of rock. In photographs, the two appeared at times like Spider-Man, with arms and legs splayed across the pale stone that has been described as smooth as a bedroom wall.

Both men needed to take rest days to heal. They used tape and even superglue to help protect their raw skin. At one point, Caldwell set an alarm to wake him every few hours to apply a special lotion to his throbbing hands.

They also endured physical punishment whenever their grip slipped, pitching them into long, swinging falls that left them bouncing off the rock face. The tumbles, which they called "taking a whipper," ended with startling jolts from their safety ropes.

Caldwell and Jorgeson had help from a team of supporters who brought food and supplies and shot video of the adventure.

The pair ate canned peaches and occasionally sipped whiskey. They watched their urine evaporate into the thin, dry air and handed toilet sacks, called "wag bags," to helpers who disposed of them.

There are about 100 routes up the rock known among climbers as "El Cap," and many have made it to the top, the first in 1958. Even the Dawn Wall had been scaled. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) made it up in 1970, using climbing ropes and countless rivets over 27 days.

No one, however, had ever made it to the summit in one continuous free-climb -- until now.

"He doesn't understand the magnitude of the accomplishment and the excitement generated," said Caldwell's father, Mike Caldwell.

The pioneering ascent comes after five years of training and failed attempts for both men. They got only about one-third of the way up in 2010 when they were turned back by storms. A year later, Jorgeson fell and broke an ankle in another attempt. Since then, each has spent time on the rock practicing and mapping out strategy.

On this try, as the world watched and followed on Facebook and Twitter, Jorgeson was stalled in a lower section that took a week to conquer.

"As disappointing as this is, I'm learning new levels of patience, perseverance and desire," Jorgeson posted online. "I'm not giving up. I will rest. I will try again. I will succeed."

Caldwell, of Estes Park, Colorado, is no stranger to El Cap. He has free-climbed 11 different routes and was the first to make such ascents of the Dihedral Wall and West Buttress. He was the third to free-climb the Nose on El Cap.

He also made his way up a challenging El Capitan route in fewer than 24 hours -- becoming only the second person to do so -- only months after accidentally severing his left index finger with a table saw in 2001.

Jorgeson, of Santa Rosa, California, has an impressive list of climbs in the U.S., Europe and South Africa. He works as a climbing instructor and co-founded an advocacy group for climbers.

John Long, the first person to climb up El Capitan in one day in 1975, said it was almost inconceivable that anyone could do something as "continuously difficult" as Caldwell and Jorgeson's free climb.