Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s climb on El Cap produced an unprecedented amount of attention from the mainstream British media last week. Almost to the day another seminal moment was happening in climbing, although this one didn’t receive any where near as much coverage from either the climbing specific or mainstream press.
At approximately 11am on the 11th January Lonnie Dupre took out his camera and shot a few photos from the roof of North America. His beard was a matted mess of ice and snow and his eyes were a reflection of the deep cold and exhaustion he must have felt. Dupre had just become the first person to make a solo ascent of Denali – the highest mountain in North America, in the month of January.
‘What’s the big deal?’, you might say. Denali is climbed many times every spring and summer and there are numerous ways to climb the mountain; from relatively easy mountaineering routes like the North Buttress to super classic alpine climbs like the Cassin Ridge. There are also cutting edge, futuristic lines that adorn Denali’s enormous faces like the Father and Sons and Wickersham Walls.
Well, here’s why it’s a big deal; Denali is a monster of a mountain. Along with its Canadian neighbour Mt Logan, Denali is one of the biggest mountains on Earth. Perhaps the biggest. At 6194m it may not come close to Himalayan peaks in terms of height above sea level but in terms of vertical relief and sheer mass it’s way bigger than all but a handful of others. It’s an enormous mountain, arguably the biggest single natural feature on the planet.
Denali is also extremely remote, especially so in winter when very few people even approach the peak. There are no other teams to help in the event of an accident, no friends to call on in the tent next door, no base camp vibes to return to. But perhaps the most important factor is that Denali sits at a higher latitude than most of the well known high mountains on Earth which makes it bitterly cold. Even during the summer high season temperatures can drop below -20 degrees celsius. In January – the depths of winter, it’s insanely cold. Temperatures in the region of -50 degrees celsius are not uncommon. Plus although the Alaska Range doesn’t get the same enormous snowfalls as the mountains to the west, it still receives its fair share of big storms rolling in off the Pacific Ocean.
A really remarkable image shot by John Walter Whittier of Dupre descending with a headlamp. Vast, cold and empty.
The mountain has been climbed once before in January by a team of Russians but never soloed. It must have been a desperately cold and lonely experience and probably something with as much in common as walking to the South Pole as it has with regular mountaineering . In all Dupre spent about a month on Denali, hauling loads via sled, setting up camps on the mountain and eventually going for a lightweight summit push before descending back to civilisation.
By contrast it’s been almost impossible to ignore Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s exploits on El Cap. It’s clear that this particular climb has captured the imaginations of many non climbers and has made the jump into the general media in a way I haven’t seen before. The coverage has been overwhelmingly positive for climbing, although as always in this kind of situation, the finer details have on occasion been a little misunderstood or misrepresented. I guess that’s the inevitable consequence of the general media trying to get to grips with the minutiae in the details of big wall free climbing.
So why the difference in exposure between the two climbs? As is so often the case, social media played a massive role, with Caldwell and Jorgeson regularly tweeting from the climb. The hashtag #askdawnwall was trending big time towards the climb’s conclusion and absurdly even #askrealdawnwall was required to differentiate from a spoof account.
There’s also nothing like a few butt clenching shots from high on El Capitan to get the juices flowing. It’s a crazy place for a human to be and no doubt the incredible vertiginous photographs and video shots, like the clip from Big Up Productions above, also played their part in capturing the imaginations of so many people who wouldn’t usually be interested in climbing.
In many ways the two climbs had striking similarities; they both took place on lumps of iconic American rock, they are both first ascents of sorts and in each case it was the climbers’ endurance and fortitude that was tested rather than just their climbing ability alone.
Both these climbs carry weight and significance and I’m not attempting to arguing the merits of one over the other, but I do find it interesting how and why one became a worldwide news event whilst in comparison the other slipped by almost unnoticed. Even if Dupres could have communicated his experiences real time in the same way as Caldwell and Jorgeson, I suspect the media and general public may have struggled to connect with the freezing cold immenseness that was his world during that month on Denali. Dupres may or may not give a shit about recognition but I firmly believe his solo winter ascent of Denali deserves to take its place alongside the first free ascent of The Dawn Wall as a hugely significant achievement within the history of climbing.
Check out the One World Endeavors site for more info on Lonnie Dupre’s Denali climb.
There’s a ton of stuff out there on The Dawn Wall, visit Tommy and Becca Caldwell’s blog for the real deal.
Front image – Lonnie Dupre