el capitan dawn wall
El Capitan, Yosemite National Park. "The Dawn Wall" takes a line to the right of the center shadow line; (photo/Daniel Gorosieta)

Belgian Duo Seeks ‘The Dawn Wall’ Third Ascent

Siebe Vanhee and Sébastien Berthe arrived in Yosemite this winter with a singular goal: climb the world’s most challenging big wall-free route.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s “The Dawn Wall” is a massive undertaking for a climber. Whenever the conversation about the world’s hardest route occurs, the 32-pitch, 5.14d monster surfaces.

The 2015 first ascent took Caldwell the better part of a decade. In the 6 years since, only Adam Ondra has repeated it.

This winter, Vanhee and Berthe plunged themselves into the challenge. The Belgian climbers are now a little over a week into their attempt. How’s it going so far? Vanhee addressed their progress in plain language via Instagram.

“We got to say how it is; we got our asses kicked!” He added, “But nonetheless, we believe in the power of time, stubbornness and practice.”

‘The Dawn Wall’ Difficulty: Footholds Require ‘Belief’

Except for Ondra, who might be from another planet, “The Dawn Wall” demands those three things from every climber. A staggering 27 of the route’s 32 pitches go at 5.12 or harder. Seven are 5.14, including the three crux 5.14d pitches and the famous 8-foot sideways dyno.

The climbing style is, if anything, even more prohibitive than the grades suggest. Now having spent over a decade at or around the top of Yosemite climbing, Caldwell might have the best footwork of any male climber on earth. Still, the ridiculous footholds (or lack thereof) on “The Dawn Wall” pushed him to — and beyond — the limit.

“The style of climbing on the Dawn Wall is so much about belief — belief that your feet are going to stick to the wall,” he said in an article for National Geographic. “When you lose that, everything unravels.”

Vanhee and Berthe’s Progress

Whether or not the two Belgians believe in their footwork, they’re making consistent if gradual progress up the wall. As of their last report, they were consolidating beta for the hard climbing below the crux at pitches 14-16.

It’s hard to pinpoint the specific pitches they talked about, though; nothing between pitches 6 and 13 is easier than 5.13b.

However, once they crack open everything leading up to the crux, the going might start to get easier. In an encouraging moment, Vanhee said, “[t]he traverse of pitch 15 goes well.” But “[p]itch 14 is still a puzzle,” and the dyno was the move that “kicked their asses.”

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the route’s challenges. Vast blank sections present not only obvious free climbing difficulties but also logistical obstacles. Despite their considerable experience, Berthe and Vanhee initially struggled for any progress at all — even on aid.

“We were puzzled about the difficulty of getting our ropes up!” Vanhee wrote, noting that they spent 3 days climbing to pitch 10.

But the plucky Belgians do appear to have virtually unlimited time and resources to carry out their siege. Apart from simply making the moves on the route, Vanhee cited conservation of skin and energy as the team’s biggest challenges.

Time does not appear to factor in, except as dictated by the sun. The team currently climbs during the first few hours of the morning before the sharp Yosemite sunlight cooks them off El Cap.

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How to Keep Track of ‘The Dawn Wall’ Third Ascent Bid

For now, the easiest way to follow Vanhee and Berthe — who sailed to the U.S. from Europe over 25 days to climb “The Dawn Wall” — is on Instagram. So far, Vanhee has posted consistent progress reports. Filmmaker Alex Eggermont and photographer Julia Cassou also accompany the Belgians and post occasional updates.

“Talking for myself, this is the biggest project I’ve ever tried,” the accomplished 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
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Sam has roamed the American continent to follow adventures, explore natural wonders, and find good stories. After going to college to be a writer, he got distracted (or saved) by rock climbing and spent most of the next decade on the road, supporting himself with trade work. He's had addresses in the Adirondack Mountains, Las Vegas, and somehow Kansas, but his heart belongs in the Texas hill country.