Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Co-director Pete Mortimer shares behind-the-scenes stories of his documentary The Dawn Wall, which follows one of Yosemite's favorite climbers, Tommy Caldwell, up a sheer face.
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Tommy Caldwell hangs from a rope and Kevin Jorgensen relaxes in the tent while climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite

Tommy Caldwell hangs from a rope and Kevin Jorgensen relaxes in the tent while climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall in Yosemite

When climber Tommy Caldwell was 22, he and three friends were 1,000 feet up a sheer face in Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir-Alai mountain range when they were forced down by gunfire and held hostage by heavily armed rebels for six days. They escaped when Caldwell threw one of the rebels off a cliff before running four hours to a military outpost.

Amid the emotional trauma, he became more driven.

A year later, he accidentally sawed off his left index finger while renovating his house in Estes Park, Colo., nestled against Rocky Mountain National Park. Many thought the devastating accident would end his climbing career. He became stronger.

But when his wife of 10 years and world-class climbing partner Beth Rodden left him, Caldwell drove to the end of Yosemite Valley and looked up at El Capitan, a huge granite rock formation he had climbed many times. An emptiness swept through the valley.

“It felt like it was all I had,” Caldwell says.

His eyes fell on the Dawn Wall, a never-been free climbed face on El Capitan. In that moment, he decided to find a route up the 3,000-foot wall. His six-year odyssey to successfully make it to the top is captured in The Dawn Wall, a 2018 documentary with mind-blowing footage directed by Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell of Sender Films and filmed by Brett Lowell. Without taking anything away from Caldwell’s tremendous athletic feat, the filmmakers’ commitment to capture his struggle was an accomplishment in itself.

Rappelling 1,500 feet with heavy cameras and dangling from ropes to film Caldwell year after year, the filmmakers slept in tents secured by ropes suspended a thousand feet above Yosemite Valley. Their toes froze as they filmed for 6.5 hours in the dead of winter.

At The Dawn Wall movie premier, from left: Pete Mortimer, Tommy Caldwell, Brett Lowell, Kevin Jorgenson, Josh Lowell

At The Dawn Wall movie premier, from left: Pete Mortimer, Tommy Caldwell, Brett Lowell, Kevin Jorgenson, Josh Lowell

Through all of this, no one knew if Caldwell would be able to climb the whole Dawn Wall. Even Caldwell admitted early on that he was “trying to find an elusive thing that probably didn’t exist.” Years passed when Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgenson couldn’t get past certain stretches of rock. But Mortimer and Lowell's team filmed it all, knowing from the beginning that Caldwell’s quest to climb Dawn Wall was about so much more: it was about exploring that razor sharp line between dedication and obsession, love and loss and ultimately, the power of friendship over individual quests.

“When you have a broken heart, you have to do something,” Mortimer says. “Humans are unreliable. People can break your heart. A rock is immovable. He needed a relationship on his terms.”

But Caldwell couldn’t climb the Dawn Wall without a climbing partner. Kevin Jorgensn, a California native with none of the big ascent experience Caldwell had, decided he was up for the challenge. As Mortimer and his team began filming the duo, they wrestled with one question: how could they help moviegoers who had no experience with the sport understand what was unfolding as Caldwell and Jorgenson climbed?

“If you’re not a climber, it’s like someone speaking Chinese,” Mortimer recalls. “We wanted to tell the story through the climbing and that meant getting the viewers up to speed on the rules of the game. I love it in documentaries when they stop the action and fill you in on what’s going on. So we had an idea.”

They put world-renowned climber and author John Long in front of the camera. Throughout the film, Long shares the backstories, bringing everyone along on what feels like a very intimate, insider's journey.

But Long only covers the technical climbing aspect of the story. As the filmmakers were deep into the 2.5 years they spent editing their film, they realized they needed someone who could talk about Caldwell’s emotions better than he could.

“Tommy is a cowboy and cowboys don’t like to talk about their emotions,” Mortimer says.

To translate Caldwell’s emotional journey, climber and close friend Kelly Cordes speaks during the film. He plays an especially important role in one defining scene when Jorgenson gets stuck halfway up the climb. Caldwell's words are garbled. He speaks haltingly. It’s Cordes who explains Caldwell is really telling Jorgenson he is going to put his six-year dream on hold to wait until Jorgenson successfully climbs the hard section.

At this point, Jorgenson had been stymied for days on the hardest part of the climb, unable to complete it without falling. Below, throngs of national and local reporters were in Yosemite Valley, covering the duo’s quest and Jorgenson’s failed attempts.

“We completely thought 100 percent up until the minute Kevin climbed it that he would not get it,” Mortimer remembers. “We were like, ‘Should we tell Tommy to move on?’ We actually had a meeting on a rest day on whether we should try to convince Tommy to go up without Kevin.”

No one predicted what happened next. But Mortimer said it was like watching Game 1 of the 1988 World Series when Dodgers player Kirk Gibson, sitting out because of injuries, hobbled up to the plate in the bottom of the 9th inning. He hit a dramatic two-run, walk-off home run. The Dodgers beat Oakland 5-4.

What Jorgenson pulls off is arguably the climbing world’s equivalent. It’s hard to fight back tears as he reaches the end of pitch 15, a bedeviling stretch of rock he had never been able to climb without falling.

“I couldn’t believe it for days,” Mortimer says. “I was like ‘How did he do that?’”

Jorgenson’s triumph and Caldwell’s loyalty revealed the best of human nature. And it taught Mortimer a few inspiring lessons.

“I loved the inspiration, the positivity and how simple Tommy keeps things,” Mortimer says. “I realized as I got deeper into the story that it’s a great way to live: to have these things you are passionate about and to value the importance of friendships.”

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Visit DawnWallFilm.com for more info. It’s available on iTunes to purchase Nov. 20, 2018.

Tori Peglar loved hearing the behind-the scenes stories about The Dawn Wall over coffee with co-director Pete Mortimer.