Belgian Pair Attempting the Third Ascent of the Dawn Wall

This winter, Siebe Vanhee and Sebastien Berthe traveled to Yosemite National Park with one plan: to climb the world’s hardest big-wall free route, the Dawn Wall.

When Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson topped out on The Dawn Wall in 2015, the rock climbing world went wild. Caldwell was not only one of the best climbers in the world but had also had an unrivaled Yosemite free-climbing resumé. Still, the 32-pitch, 5.14d monster that was The Dawn Wall took him the better part of a decade to unlock.

The route’s name crackled through the air anytime the subject of the “world’s hardest rock climb” surfaced. Only Adam Ondra (who might or might not be an alien) has repeated it in the six years since.

Working it out, pitch by pitch

Now, in the California winter, Belgian climbers Siebe Vanhee and Sebastien Berthe have thrown themselves into the mix. January 21 was the pair’s 12th day on the route.

Vanhee has dutifully documented progress so far via Instagram. It has been, in a word, grueling.

“We got our asses kicked!” said Vanhee. “But nonetheless, we believe in the power of time, stubbornness, and practice.”

 

To finish The Dawn Wall, the two climbers will need deep reserves of all three resources. Of the route’s 32 pitches, a staggering 27 clock in at 5.12 or harder. Seven are 5.14, including the three pitch-long 5.14d crux and the infamous stopper move: a wild eight-foot sideways dyno.

Climbing Teflon

However, numbers can only do so much to describe how hard this climb actually is. It often demands ridiculously exacting movement on edges that are barely there. Sometimes, footholds aren’t there at all — sections of the climb might as well be Teflon sheets.

 

“The style of climbing on The Dawn Wall is so much about belief — belief that your feet are going to stick to the wall,” said Caldwell, who may have the best footwork of any male climber on the planet.

For their part, the highly capable Vanhee and Berthe appear to be making steady, if slow, progress up the wall. They last reported working on the challenging pitches leading up to the crux, which takes place on pitches 14 through 16.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact location that they were talking about; pitches 6-13 are all 5.13b or harder.

Still a long way to go

There is an inkling of hope once they do work out the climbing leading up to the crux. “The traverse of pitch 15 goes well,” Vanhee reported. Unfortunately, “pitch 14 is still a puzzle,” and the dyno remains unresolvable.

Understanding the scope of the Belgians’ challenge is critical to accurately evaluating their progress. Though their successes may seem minimal, the sheer difficulty of getting up The Dawn Wall — by any means — must be factored in.

Massive blank sections make it hard to free climb and can even make aid climbing problematic.

“We were puzzled about the difficulty of getting our ropes up!” Vanhee remarked. Working out the logistical details made early progress excruciating. The team spent the first three days on the wall climbing to pitch 10.

However, Vanhee and Berthe appear to have plenty of fuel in their various tanks. The demeanor of their reports is strident. They remain focused on the task at hand and, maybe most importantly, they seem unencumbered by time limits.

This might be especially true of Berthe, who spent one leg of his trip to Yosemite on the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat over 25 days.

Vanhee said that the team’s most significant challenges are managing their overall energy level and maintaining enough skin on their fingertips to keep climbing.

Time appears to only become a factor on the wall itself. They currently climb first thing in the morning, before the rising sun cooks them off El Capitan.

You can follow Vanhee and Berthe’s third ascent bid on The Dawn Wall via Instagram. Vanhee has posted the team’s most consistent updates. Filmmaker Alex Eggermont and photographer Julia Cassou are on the wall and post occasional updates.

“Talking for myself, this is the biggest project I’ve ever tried,” Vanhee said. “I’m getting out of my comfort zone like never before. But I’m incredibly thankful to be able to try this line.”

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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