72° Good Evening
72° Good Evening
OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Yosemite climbers push the boundaries of possibility

Tommy Caldwell, top, raises his arms after reaching

Tommy Caldwell, top, raises his arms after reaching the summit of El Capitan, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, as seen from the valley floor in Yosemite National Park, Calif. Credit: AP / Ben Margot

I've done a lot of hiking in my time, from day trips to 10,000-foot mountains.

I've backpacked in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, across the slopes of Mount Ranier in Washington, and out of Tuolumne Meadows in the High Country of Yosemite National Park. I've scrambled up and around my share of boulders and rock ledges.

And I can't begin to conceive what two climbers named Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson just accomplished on El Capitan, the grand granite monolith of Yosemite.

The two were the first to free climb the renowned Dawn Wall, so notoriously tricky it's considered by some the most difficult rock climb in the world. It's 3,000 feet of sheer verticality, with handholds measured in fractions of an inch. And to free climb means you use your hands and feet. Period. Ropes are used only to stop a fall, and there will be many on a route like the Dawn Wall.

The pair took 19 days to make it to the top -- with the climbing world and, increasingly as the days went by, the global world raptly watching. By now, you've probably seen photos. Two specks of humanity thousands of feet up, dwarfed by the immensity of the rock, working their way ever higher.

It was exhilarating.

It also was escapist in its purity -- no politics, no racial divide, no weighty social issues. It was as elemental as it gets. Two men, their fingers and toes, and a monstrous slab of granite.

There was some high-tech gear, from the equipment that allowed them to sleep and eat and go to the bathroom while dangling from the rock face, to the solar panel that recharged their iPhones so they could provide updates via Instagram.

But the core of the climb was a determination and resiliency that should inspire all of us. Caldwell -- who lost his left index finger in a table saw accident in 2001 -- first envisioned the climb seven years ago. He and Jorgeson had made five attempts in five years and never got past the 12th of 32 pitches, or sections, that comprise the route. This time, it took Jorgeson seven days to clear pitch 15 alone. They sanded down rough spots on their fingertips, used moisturizers on blisters and cuts, super-glued tape over those injuries to keep the tape from ripping, and wolfed down ibuprofen.

And when they made it to the top, they were very clear to say they had not conquered El Capitan. The climb never was about that, they said. It was simply about realizing a long-held dream.

Think about that. It's a vision of success that prizes fulfillment over domination. It says you don't have to "win" to validate yourself, or to find satisfaction. The internal bar over which you jump is more important than anything else.

That's powerful stuff.

And it's fitting that its backdrop was Yosemite. The famed naturalist John Muir once described those rock walls as an immense temple -- a place, in other words, for meditation and contemplation.

I hope the climb of the aptly named Dawn Wall continues to reverberate. A burst of interest in climbing is inevitable. But more profoundly, I hope Caldwell and Jorgeson usher in a better understanding of the power of self-belief and the rewards of self-reliance.

Anytime we move the boundaries of what's thought to be possible, that's good, too.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.