The Dawn Wall

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Dawn Wall
"It's the detail that really makes the film fascinating."

It was a feat once considered impossible. The Dawn Wall is the steepest, sheerest surface of Yosemite National Park's famous granite monolith, El Capitan. Around 900m in height, it was thought of as unclimbable, and certainly not something that could be free climbed - but on the 14th of January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson got to the top having done just that. Their victory attracted international media attention, but the picture created was of a single bold deed accomplished over the course of four days. In fact, it took years, and this documentary tells that story.

It begins before El Capitan is even in the picture. Tommy and his then partner, Beth Rodden, had been climbing for years, seeking out exciting places to test their skills, and one such journey took them to Kyrgyzstan where they were captured by rebel soldiers. The experience of surviving this, and what he had to do to make that possible, are presented as having fundamentally changed Tommy and changed his ideas about what he was capable of. When he found himself in Yosemite, he recognised that it would be a mammoth task to get the measure of the Dawn Wall. Again and again, he and his friends would return, climbing up from the bottom, descending from the top, gradually mapping it out, identifying tiny handholds that might make it assailable. In the meantime, Tommy suffered an injury that saw him told he would never climb again, but that only made him more determined.

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From this context, you might expect a film about grizzled macho men full of the need to prove themselves. I fact, Tommy and his friends are quite the opposite: lighthearted, easy going, open about their emotions. This makes them engaging documentary subjects and helps viewers to connect with their passion for climbing whether they have any personal experience of it or not.

This isn't a how-to guide. Some viewers may be frustrated by the lack of explanatory information about climbing technique, rope use and so forth, but it's never actually difficult to follow. Some details make a bigger impression because they're introduced abruptly: sleeping in suspended tents is one thing, but it's another to see people sleeping on an exposed platform hundreds of feet off the ground, and then to hear about romance developing in that precarious situation.

It's the detail that really makes the film fascinating, with directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer showing their skill by making sure it never becomes boring. It's balanced by the alternately bubbly and dramatic anecdotes of the various interviewees and by the drama inherent in the situation itself. Though ropes are present, falls are still dangerous, and we see the climbers tumble and smash off the rock face numerous times. We are also invited to engage with the frustration this creates, as every fall means another attempt has to be made, the same challenges worked through again in a bid to reach the one that meant defeat.

In the End, watching The Dawn Wall becomes compulsive like a certain sort of computer game, the viewer effectively drawn into the climber's obsession. Lowell and Mortimer also capture the beauty of the area, the trees and water and the way the light shines off the rock face, adding to the sense of awe that this natural wonder instills. The story behind the headlines is intriguing in a way the sensationalism of the time barely hinted at. This is one of the strongest documentaries of the past year.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2018
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A documentary about the ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Director: Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer

Starring: Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson

Year: 2017

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Austria

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