Find Your Dawn Wall


Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell just finished “free climbing” El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, clinging much of the time to tiny, almost-invisible holds and never using mechanical advantages.  Over 19 days, bodies perpetually belayed (but never supported while actually progressing up the wall), they scaled the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall—what many expert big-wall climbers call one of the hardest ascents in the world (see some great photos here).

John Branch of the New York Times followed these two climbers through their perilous ascent over the last month. When they finally summitted, he got this great quote about their accomplishment from Jorgeson:

I hope it inspires people to find their own Dawn Wall, if you will. We’ve been working on this thing a long time, slowly and surely. I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day, and maybe they can put this project in their own context.”

The cynic in us may feel like Caldwell and Jorgeson have just put to shame any of our New Years resolutions ever, but we’re already inspired by them to examine our own dreams, our potential, and our ability to push ourselves, physically, mentally, spiritually, politically, and environmentally beyond what we once thought possible.

It all takes dedication. These climbers trained for years and attempted the feat once before, 5 years ago, but had to bag it before they got to the top. To help answer the question of how we build the exercise habits that can help us achieve our physical goals, Gretchen Reynolds of the New York Times asked a professor who studies the subject and gave the summary:  

We all desire the health outcomes from regular exercise,” Dr. Rhodes concluded, “but we also need to work on finding the most pleasant experiences to actually achieve that behavior.”

It then becomes less about pursuing the impossible and much more about pursuing the plausible. And while the benefits of accomplishing any goal can often seem intrinsic, the nice thing about exercise is that the outcomes are extremely beneficial. Consider another recent piece by Reynolds in which she explains a new study published in the Journal of Physiology on the effects exercise has on aging. The scientists took a small sample of very active men and women between the ages of 55 and 79 and measured physical and cognitive factors such as endurance, muscle mass, bone density, balance, memory function, and reflexes. When compared to traits that are typically assigned to aging, these exercisers looked much more like young adults than their theoretical age cohort.

Also, consider another recent report on weight training from the Harvard School of Public Health. The study looked at a cohort of men over the course of 12 years, binned into two categories - those who primarily exercised by weight training and those who exercised aerobically. Remarkably, those who did weight training had slimmer waistlines. Dr. Frank Hu, the lead author of the study had this to say:

This study underscores the importance of weight training in reducing abdominal obesity, especially among the elderly. To maintain a healthy weight and waistline, it is critical to incorporate weight training with aerobic exercise.”

Jorgeson and Caldwell accomplished something that had never been done before and it will most likely be a long time before anyone does it again. Fortunately for those of us with fewer calluses and less rock climbing equipment, accomplishment can look slightly different. And as the above research shows, with exercise (and all other aspects of our lives, really) our own “Dawn Walls” can be as lofty as we want, yet even if we don’t ever achieve them, the benefits of dreaming big will keep us healthier while we are trying.

PHOTO: by Chris Burkard, originally appeared on


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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