The Dawn Wall: Athletic Virtuosity Humanised
Few athletic feats have the capacity to strike so much full-bodied fear into spectators as big wall climbing. As one watches the gut-wrenching progress of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell scaling the Dawn Wall route of El Capitan—called the hardest climbing route in the world—what is immediately apparent is the sheer physical virtuosity of the sport. The underwater paddling duck feet of climbing, however, are the extremities to which one’s mental strength is tested. This was the focus of much of the discussion at Tommy and Kevin Live, as the climbers discussed everything from friendship to new-found fame to fatherhood.
The afternoon began with a casual on-stage discussion between Jorgeson and Caldwell as they recounted back and forth stories of how they met, the specific challenges of the climb documented in The Dawn Wall released just last year and situations that managed to be both scary and hilarious all at once. Being climbers not entirely used to the spotlight, it was clear that the men were more in their element sending up a barely-textured surface a couple thousand feet from the ground. This was a good thing. The authenticity brought by the conversational nature of the talk really made you feel more of a part of the experience.
Interspersed between these conversational interludes came a screening of The Dawn Wall documentary itself (the film is currently also on Netflix, and I highly encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so). During the talk, it was easy to forget just how daunting a task climbing the Dawn Wall really was. The documentary, with its jaw-dropping cinematography and climbing-dense sequences at stomach churning heights had no trouble reminding you. The back-stories of Tommy and Kevin were really what made the tale what it is, however. Tommy’s capture at a young age by terrorists in Kyrgyzstan, loss of a finger some years later in a home renovation accident and marriage breakdown all propelled his desire to take on arguably the biggest climbing feat to date, side by side with eager young bouldering champion Kevin looking for a new way to experience climbing despite no previous big wall experience.
The Q and A session delved into many of these off-the-wall elements of the climbers’ lives, as they delved into topics such as how fatherhood impacted their perception of risk and injury recovery from a mental standpoint. Even if you had never touched a slab of rock or climbing hold in your life, there were lessons of resilience and perseverance belonging to the universal human spirit that anyone could appreciate scattered throughout the night.
Tommy and Kevin Live was fantastic in that it brought a strong human element to a feat outside the realms of conceivability in most ordinary people’s minds. Rarely does one get to see athletes of Jorgeson and Caldwell’s calibre in the flesh, so openly sharing the realities of being at the pinnacle of their sport. As climbing continues to grow within Perth as it has over the past several months, there is no reason why we should not one day spawn a Kevin Jorgeson or Tommy Caldwell of our own.