Documentary Review: The Dawn Wall

By Courtney Bolton

The Dawn Wall is a documentary made in 2018 that was recently added to Netflix. The film follows Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, American rock climbers, who are dedicated to climbing (what they pioneered and named) the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot rock face in Yosemite National Park, Cal. No one had ever free-climbed this harsh vertical wall, but the men were determined to make history. Free climbing is when a person uses their hands and feet to climb the natural features of rock, without and help from the rope. This climb is taken in pitches, with each pitch being around 150 feet or the length of the rope. If you fall you go back to the beginning of that pitch.

The documentary, however, isn’t just about this adventure. Caldwell retells his past. He grew up as a small kid, behind developmentally and with his education. His father decided the best way to help him develop was to challenge him. Caldwell says his father, “…was loving, but he definitely let me suffer.” His father thought of this as a gift of resilience and not the suffering Caldwell viewed it as. By the age of 15 and 16, Caldwell was able to climb routes even his father couldn’t. 

Official trailer for “The Dawn Wall”, now streaming on Netflix

The documentary highlights crazy aspects of Caldwell’s life, which has mostly been full of adventures. He spent time climbing in Kyrgyzstan where he was taken hostage with his small group of climbers. Luckily, he was able to outsmart his captors and escape with his group. 

Yosemite is known as “The Mecca of Rock Climbing”. The steepest and blankest form of this cliff is The Dawn Wall. It had never been climbed, and no one had even thought it was possible. It was the most dangerous and impossible rock climb imaginable. Caldwell’s partner Jorgeson said in the documentary, “We’re going for it, I’m nervous we’ve put in so much work leading up to this moment. There’s nothing left to do but take a couple of deep breaths and start climbing.” The men climb, pitch by pitch, and set up a tent hanging and suspended from the wall each night for rest. These men are climbing in extreme winter conditions, with huge wind gusts and dropping temperatures. The men continue their climb for 19 long days. The crowd cheered as the men finished the climb that many said was impossible. This moment united the rock-climbing community, and inspired millions around the world.