Just before Adam Ondra made history with his second free ascent of the Dawn Wall last week, the Dutch climber Jorg Verhoeven made history of his own by claiming the second free ascent of Dihedral Wall, one of the hardest free routes on El Capitan. First freed by big
wall aficionado Tommy Caldwell in 2004, the line remained unclimbed for 12 years, until Verhoeven’s efforts this season. Verhoeven has journeyed to
Yosemite before and already climbed several other free routes on the Valley’s biggest wall: Freerider, El Niño and the Nose. Aside
from his big wall exploits, he is also an accomplished sport climber and boulderer, having dispatched routes graded 5.14d and boulders graded V15.
After his ascent of Dihedral Wall, Rock and Ice asked Verhoeven about the climb and what’s next for him.
Q&A with Jorg Verhoeven
How did decide on Dihedral Wall as your objective?
Going to Yosemite, I always feel like hopping right on El Cap, since a wall like that is not to be found anywhere else. After climbing El Niño, Freerider and the Nose in previous years, my motivation for El Cap free climbing had only increased so luckily there’s plenty of routes to choose from.
Original plans were Dawn Wall, but due to a finger injury that lasted from May to September I didn’t feel like they would be up for the task.
I set the sights on the two hardest routes apart from the Dawn Wall—Magic Mushroom and Dihedral—with Lurking Fear as
a backup if my fingers proved too bothersome (slab climbing is always a better option for the fingers). Since my wife Katha Saurwein would join me
this trip and we wanted to support each other’s’ projects, Dihedral, with most of the hard climbing in the bottom half, seemed to be the better
choice. On Magic Mushroom, as well as the Dawn Wall, you need a partner that wants to try it as well, or a paid team.
Did you do any specific training for the climb before coming to the Valley?
Yeah, I chilled really hard on Mallorcan beaches and did some deep water soloing! No, due to my injury I didn’t climb for nearly two months, and tried
to get back to the fitness level I had at the start of the spring comp season. It feels like Yosemite needs a general fitness (for hauling, jumaring,
gear shuttling, etc.) plus experience on its style of climbing. I had the latter from the previous years, the first I kind of lacked this time
Did you chat at all with Tommy Caldwell beforehand?
No, but his in-depth trip report online he described pretty well how he got completely wrecked climbing it. I knew what I was in for, and yes, got
completely wrecked as well.
How much work did you put into the climb in total (days, burns on crux pitches, etc.)?
I had two-and-a-half weeks for preparation, which translates to something like seven days working the shit out of as many moves and pitches as possible.
Starting the first push, I had freed only one pitch (the 5.11), and starting the second push, I hadn’t freed any of the hard ones or even seen
two of the 13c’s. During push two I basically took falls everywhere, mostly on the 13c above our camp (which took four tries), two falls on the
crux pitch (pitch 6, 5.14a) before sending, three tries on the 13d slab (a hold broke on one attempt), and many tries on the Yoyo 13c boulder pitch
above the slimy pitch. Overall I worked the most on the crux pitch, which basically took me like four days of work and tries.
So you hadn’t sent the crux pitch before your full redpoint pushes?
I was a a thousand leagues away from it…
What was the climbing on the crux pitches like?
Slippery and slabby. The 14a starts off slightly overhanging and is powerful on the arms, but the crux is on a full slab right above. In general pitches
are long (30-40m) and especially sustained. Climbing walls like this, you start loving the bouldery pitches, since they can be tried often and
don’t suck up so much energy.
A 40-meter techy dihedral like the “Black Arch” (pitch 8), with hard climbing until the end, is your typical horror scenario. This pitch is the only
one where I do not agree with Tommy’s grade (13c), since i found it harder than “The Great Roof” (13d) on the Nose, which has similar
climbing. Oh and the 13b slimy pitch is more like 12d, I thought. For the rest of the pitches the grades might have felt off or awkward to me,
but since it was just a feeling in the moment and with a particular set of conditions, and so many factors come into play, I will not change any
of these pitches’ grades.
What’s it like getting to climb major routes like this with your wife Katha Saurwein?
In a word, freaking awesome! First of all it’s always nicer (at least to me) to climb walls with company (Freerider rope-solo in 2014 just
felt super lonely), but with your loved one it gets even better. Without her support I would have whined and cried like a baby even more, and would
probably have epic-ed and gone down to the Valley for a pizza and a stiff drink.
Katha crushed her project, Final Frontier (5.13b), on Fifi Buttress. Do you know if she has any plans for bigger El Cap routes in the future? Freerider? Golden Gate? Maybe even the Nose?
Haha, she wasn’t even too keen on going to the Valley in the first place. It took a bit for her to find a route she liked climbing on, but then all
hell broke loose! She started running up these 12+ dihedrals like nothing and kind of got over her fear of heights. She even enjoyed staying on
El Cap, where at the start of the trip she felt like a 1,000 feet above the deck she was dying!
I hope she won’t read this, but honestly: Yes, I think she will go for another route on El Cap at some point. She certainly has the ability to do cool
stuff up there.
What was climbing Dihedral Wall like compared to climbing the Nose in 2014?
[Free] climbing the Nose felt like a walk in the park compared to [free] climbing Dihedral. I should have known that a 25-year-old
Tommy Caldwell working for two months on a route and then still having a tough time sending it meant that the route was going to be a real challenge.
It nearly destroyed me. Topping out I kept thinking of that Warren Harding quote about El Cap being in better state than he was. My hands and feet
were swollen for a week and it took me 10 days to start appreciating the fact that I had climbed Dihedral—before that I was more
like a grumpy old man.
Did you have doubts at any point about whether you’d actually be able to do it?
On the first push, I knew that the odds of me succeeding on the crux pitch were probably 50/50. I failed. Push two went better, but due to a time limit
(we were flying out in six days) I lost confidence at day three, when I failed doing pitches 9 and 10. After that it was a nerve-wrecking game
of time, energy, skin and water.
There’s only one route harder than Dihedral and the Nose left for you on El Cap, if I’m not mistaken. And Mr. Ondra just nabbed the second ascent. Do you think you might try the Dawn Wall sometime in the next couple years?
Yes and no.
No: Because Dihedral taught me that doing a route that destroys you that bad is not fun. There are many more “moderate” routes like El Corazon, Salathe, Lurking Fear, Muir, Zodiac, etc., that I haven’t done yet and would most likely be a much nicer experience and a less tough ordeal for my mental and physical well-being, so
Yes: Because eventually psych always overtakes reason, and it’ll drag me up there.
Do you you have any interest in linking free El Cap routes in a day like Tommy Caldwell did?
Uggh, no that just sounds horrible. I have great respect for people linking stuff, but I cannot imagine how horribly Tommy’s feet must have hurt after
doing two free routes on El Cap in a day.
What’s next for you and Katha?
Rest and time at home! We travelled so much this year that we need some time to relax. Winter is primarily our time to train for the next season, although
I’m starting to shift towards less comp action and more time for other projects.
Anything else you’d like to share about the climb, your Yosemite trip, or anything else?
It was fun to see so much free climbing action in Yosemite this year. Tommy has been saying it for a decade and I mentioned it in the film Climbing the Nose, but it seems like people are finally getting the message that free climbing El Cap is such a rewarding and rich experience. It seems like there
is a shift in this direction toward free climbing El Cap, which of course will bring problems as well (like the amount of fixed lines this year,
or the insane traffic on Freerider) but also brings a lot of joy to climbers around the world doing it.