Before outlining the merits of The Dawn Wall, of which there are many, I urge you to pursue seeing this on the big screen. Yosemite is of in itself an experience more real and immersive than most. Viewing two men attempt to climb its 3,000 foot granite precipices with nothing more than their bare hands and grit uncommon to most deserves a towering silver screen to bring it to life in kind. Do you expect a documentary about mountain climbing to be an emotional experience? Probably not, likely you’re anticipating more extreme sports highlights. Hardly. The Dawn Wall plays like a human triumph. At its heart, it’s man versus the struggle. It’s seeking purpose through ponderance, route through impossibility. Driven by two men, and one man’s story, this tale of climbing the unclimbed is a microcosm of existence known to few, but relatable to all.
The Dawn Wall
Directors: Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer
Release Date: March 11, 2018
You may have heard the story in 2015 when elite rock climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were attempting to free climb a face of El Capitan, the 3,000 foot tall granite monolith in Yosemite National Park. Of course, free climbing entails climbing the entirety of the formation without pre-achnored ropes or assistance. Their only ropes were those there for safety. During their nearly three-week ascent, the two men lived on the mountain side, eating and sleeping in portaledges (essentially hanging tents). It was national news.
What you’ve probably not heard, is the story of how they reached that point, clinging to the side of the largest granite monolith in the world, attempting history. The film is told through Tommy’s story, which, in rock climbing years, begins at something like age 4.
We follow Tommy as he follow’s in his father’s footsteps (also a mountain climber), doing things that these days, to quote the film, would inspire a visit from child protective services. Tommy goes from unknown amateur to sudden world class phenom. He finds love, pursues passion, and faces adversity that most will never know--all through rock climbing, but not solely because of rock climbing. Climbing is just the impetus. The mountain’s face is the the thing that Caldwell literally anchors his life to, one pitch at a time.
The film takes you on the exposed face of El Capitan and leaves you hanging there for the journey, a one point, coming over the edge of the top to give you a gravity-defying experience of stepping off the top. It’s terrifying. When you see the non-existent grips that these men depend on to pursue their goals, I challenge you to keep your hands free to eat popcorn or glance at your phone to see who’s texted you.
Why no mention of Jorgeson? Well, he’s only there for the last few years, learning the side of a mountain like the back of his hand. Prior to that, Caldwell had a different climbing partner, his ex-wife, and they’d already had their share of story to tell. Don’t worry, Jorgeson is there for the most important part, too.
If you’re looking for inspiration, look no further. If you’re looking for grade-A storytelling, The Dawn Wall has more than its share--and it’s all true, too. If you’re looking for filmmaking, you’ve come to the right place. Know that these filmmakers were there on the side of this precipice with the climbers, and astound at the dedication to the craft. It’s incredible in every sense.