Ben Margot/AP(2)
January 15, 2015 09:25 AM

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson woke up Thursday without the peculiar feeling of being in tents perilously fastened to sheer rock thousands of feet above the ground.

After 19 nerve-wracking days inching their way up the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, the Americans – with their calloused hands cracked and bleeding – became the first men to “free climb” what’s been billed as the world’s toughest rock face.

Using only ropes to catch them whenever they tumbled from the smooth slab, Caldwell, 36, and Jorgeson, 30, reached the summit Wednesday afternoon at around 3:30 p.m. PST. The two men spent the past seven years painstakingly planning their route up the world’s largest granite monolith, divided into 31 sections, known as “pitches.”

“This is an amazing, outstanding day,” Caldwell’s sister, Sandy Van Nieuwenhuyzen, told PEOPLE from the Yosemite Valley floor as the two climbers began their long trek down from the summit. “I’m a proud big sister, on top of the world just like Tommy is. This is a fantastic day for our family.”

When they first started on Dec. 27, the two men thought their grueling odyssey, sponsored by the clothing and gear maker Patagonia, would take two weeks to complete.

Because of the painful toll the sharp rock took on their hands, they used tape and superglue to help their beat-up skin heal. Caldwell even resorted to using an alarm clock to wake him up every four hours so he could smear lotion on his battered skin.

“Some of the smallest and sharpest holds I have ever attempted to hold onto,” he posted on Facebook after one particularly brutal stretch on the rock. “Is crazy to think that the skin on our fingertips could be the limiting fact towards success or failure.”

Because direct sunlight can literally bake the rock during the day, causing the climbers’ hands to sweat and making it more difficult to grip the rock, the two men would often climb at night using headlamps.

On one of the most difficult sections of the route, Jorgeson fell 11 times, sending him bouncing off the rock face until his safety ropes caught him. It took him seven days to make it past Pitch 15.

“Momentum is a powerful force,” he later wrote on Facebook. “When it’s on your side, everything feels a bit easier. When it’s not on your side, it feels like wading through mud.”

What’s next for the duo? Caldwell’s sister Sandy can’t say for certain, but she has a hunch this is just the beginning for her brother.

“This is the end of a seven-year dream for Tommy,” she says. “Now he’s going to have come up with a new dream, because he’s that kind of guy.”

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