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Lessons From ‘The Dawn Wall’ | Why Everyone Should Watch The Dawn Wall

In a few days time I will begin my attempt on Mt Aconcagua, a near 7000m tall mountain in Argentina and the second highest of the 7 Summits after Mt Everest. It will be my first big expedition and the highest altitude I’ve ever experienced. With all this going on, I’ve taken a moment to reflect once more on my sources of inspiration; the people whose approach to life has shaped how I approach my own. 

Of these sources of inspiration, the greatest is Tommy Caldwell’s accomplishment in climbing El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley and the documentary produced about it. The Dawn Wall is perhaps my favourite film in the world, its poster the only one to grace my bedroom wall; the now-iconic photo of Caldwell hanging outside a portaledge housing teammate Kevin Jorgeson, shafts of gold light falling over mountains in the background, shot by the film’s co-director Jimmy Chin. 

In 2015, Caldwell and Jorgeson completed what is widely considered the hardest rock climb in history, making their way up over 3000 feet of sheer granite by connecting a pattern of cracks and crimps to form a continuous free route to the summit. But the real climb began long before that winter, or even the 7 years that Caldwell, later joined by Jorgeson, had even begun to attempt it. 

The Dawn Wall isn’t really a climbing story, and you don’t have to be an athlete for it to make sense. It’s a human story. The film starts by introducing us to Caldwell’s quirky childhood, then follows the adversities he faced later as an adult – and it seems like there’s something in it for everybody. The pain and isolation following a failed marriage; struggles with self esteem; physical disability; and – perhaps the most extraordinary of them all – having been held hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan as a young climber. This last marks an exquisite trauma that clung to Caldwell for years, a shadowy background figure that arguably played the greatest role in shaping his fortitude. And so, The Dawn Wall quickly becomes the tale of a man on the edge, faced with a simple choice: to give up on life, or brave it. 

Not only did Caldwell choose the latter, but he raised the bar. 

The Power of Perseverance

Having been through the worst of what life throws at any of us, Caldwell’s response was to throw himself at “a magnificent challenge”. That response in itself is admirable. Faced with incredible adversity, he decided against throwing in the towel and instead mustered the courage to push even harder. The Dawn Wall was always a pipe dream, and one that no one expected was possible. He had to fling himself at it year after year for 6 whole years. The road to success is paved with failure; no where is this more true than for Caldwell’s experience. Through sheer willpower, dedication and consistency, he overcame. 

It’s an unbelievable journey of perseverance against the odds.  Beyond following an incredible athletic feat through to fruition, the film is a powerful reminder that every single day, an ‘ordinary’ somebody proves that anybody is capable of extraordinary feats, and that sometimes you just need to slow down in order to get the focus right. The Dawn Wall ended up not being about THE Dawn Wall, but about the wall that exists for anyone: that thing you want to overcome, that thing you want to accomplish more than anything. 

Before anything else, you must at least try in the first place. You are incredibly strong, but you will never know just how strong unless you push yourself – and then keep doing it. After all, you can win a lot in life simply by being the last man to give up. 

The Power of Perspective 

Sometimes you need to slow down to get the focus right. To Caldwell, this meant remaining consistent over the years, pacing himself and remaining singularly focussed.  

For us, this is a reminder to adopt a streamlined approach and take even the most menial of tasks one step at a time. Cutting out the background noise (ahem – Caldwell chucking his phone off the wall!) helps – sometimes you just need to get away. 

I can accomplish much more when I strip away the background noise. For example, the more I put my phone on airplane mode – halting notification streams before they can even begin; weaning myself off the chemical compulsion to remain in endless browsing mode – the happier and more focussed I feel. There is some analogy to make here; a parallel to draw between the singular focus of climbing a wall and the focus we apply to our tasks daily. Getting things done really is as simple as putting the task in front of you, along with the only things you absolutely need to accomplish it and nothing else.

Camaraderie – The Power of People  

The relationship between Caldwell and Jorgeson takes centre stage in the second half of the film. When Jorgeson enters the film as Caldwell’s climbing partner, so ends Caldwell’s reign of isolation. What ensues thereafter is a camaraderie that moved me more than I have the right language for. When Jorgeson was stuck at dreaded pitch 15 – with Caldwell powering on ahead in an already shortening timeframe within which to achieve his dream – there came a critical point where Caldwell had to decide whether or not to go it alone. He could’ve left Jorgeson behind. To everyone else, it seemed clear that he should. But he didn’t. Hanging back to encourage his partner, who eventually overcame pitch 15, they both summited. There’s a powerful message in there about how to move society ahead as a whole. 

We need to stop excluding one another. To start including one another in our wins, honouring each other’s dreams and accomplishments as much as possible, and (trying to) leave no man behind. Caldwell briefly flirted with the idea of going it alone, but admitted he just wouldn’t have been happy. As is mentioned by a friend in the documentary, a man perhaps more callous than him would have kept going – but for Caldwell the achievement wasn’t in doing it alone, it was in doing it together. There is something beautiful about that. When we commit to uplifting one another, everyone benefits. “If I am great it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. 

The Dawn Wall is many things. It is the tale of two guys doing something brutally hard and failing at it over, and over, and over again. It is born from perseverance and camaraderie. 

Whenever I’m feeling down, or in need of inspiration, I curl up in bed and watch it all over again. 

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