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National

Free-Climbers Reach Summit Of Yosemite's El Capitan

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. Many people have climbed the El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It's the largest monolith of granite in the world. But not many have done it on the most challenging route known as the Dawn Wall. And until yesterday, no one had ever conquered the Dawn Wall using just their hands and feet. That's called a free climb. And after 19 days on the sheer granite face with only a safety rope in case of falls, climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit. NPR's Nathan Rott takes us to Yosemite.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Looking straight up from its boulder-strewn base, El Capitan looks like it goes up forever. As Jorgeson and Caldwell made their final ascent, rock climber Elle Zhu watched from the base, leaning back, looking up and up.

ELLE ZHU: I mean, it just keeps going up.

ROTT: Which made her think what everyone was thinking.

ZHU: I don't know. I can't even describe it. It's just, like, amazing that someone can climb all that.

ROTT: Just straight up.

ZHU: Yeah, just straight up it.

ROTT: Caldwell and Jorgeson summited at about 3:30 p.m., greeted by a few dozen family and friends at the top. For perspective of their feat, it helps to talk to people that know rock climbing - people who have done it.

MATT PIETRAS: It's insane. I don't know what else to say.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: That's Matt Pietras, a guy that's been climbing for a dozen years. He says the climbing they did compares to climbing a window pane. There are just so few grips. Then there's the time - nearly three weeks. The falls - Jorgeson fell 11 times over a seven-day stretch. And the skin...

BRIAN PUGH: After a couple days, your skin gets worn down.

ROTT: This is Brian Pugh another climber. He's camping here with Esther Kemper.

What do you think your fingers would look like after, like, three weeks of it?

PUGH: After three weeks of...

ESTHER KEMPER: Bloody stumps.

PUGH: Yeah, bloody stumps. I mean, if I were doing what - the kind of climbing they're doing, my fingers would be pretty much gone.

ROTT: Jorgeson and Caldwell had to take breaks to let their fingers heal. Caldwell even went as far as to wake himself up every four hours to put beeswax cream on his raw fingers. Watching from below, Mike Caldwell, Tommy's father, marveled at his son's achievement.

MIKE CALDWELL: He doesn't even know what he's done, (laughter) you know?

ROTT: Caldwell finished first. He waited for Jorgeson to catch up so they could summit together. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Yosemite National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 15, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
In a previous audio version of this report, we said no one had ever free-climbed El Capitan. In fact, El Capitan has been free-climbed many times. But until this week, no one had free-climbed El Capitan's Dawn Wall on the way to the summit.