Perfect Storm Spurs Cottage Industries: A Dawn Wall Analysis

Who’d have ever predicted that a rock climb, no matter how amazing, would capture the world’s attention? Tommy and Kevin’s tenacity, along with the nearly unimaginable continuous difficulty of the Dawn Wall, blows my mind. But the general public? Well, regarding the mainstream, I’m just glad to see public appreciation of real climbers climbing hard technical terrain for a change, rather than the mind-numbing coverage of people getting dragged up mount-fucking-everest. But how did this happen? Who really knows. I suspect a confluence of factors came together, much like a perfect storm:

Roadside bigwall, allowing people to watch from below. Roadside bigwall, allowing easy access by filmers so we can watch from above. Best cell phone reception in the Valley, allowing the climbers to keep in touch with family, friends, and the outside world. Including updates on social media. Sponsors, proud of their athletes, publicizing their efforts. Tommy’s phenomenal personal story and legendary determination, applied to the hardest bigwall free climb in history, all mixed with the above, makes for a fucking great story.

Still, tons of great stories never catch hold. Most people, including Tommy and Kevin, do the massive majority of their activities away from the public eye. (And, to be clear, most of us aren’t doing anything near as interesting, or anywhere near as hard, as to warrant outside interest in the first place.) But climbing is growing, and media outlets are forever on the lookout for new and engaging stories. El Capitan just happens to be a spectacular, plainly visible icon of our national parks. The story hadn’t been isolated to the climbing media, either. Back in 2011, Alex Lowther, a terrific rock climber and writer,  wrote an article in the New York Times about Tommy, on-route social media, and the Dawn Wall. It bears repeating that El Cap is a roadside crag. A massive, impressive one, but nonetheless a roadside cliff (or, in mainstream verbiage, a sheer vertical cliff face with tiny nubbins to clench). And then, in winter 2014–15, as success appeared possible, a couple of places took further notice and ran stories. In the media, as with much of life, nobody wants to be left out. Like that, the tinder box of mainstream-ready combustibles exploded into a media blaze probably unseen in American rock climbing since Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) topped-out the same general hunk of granite back in 1970.

Pretty wild.

Almost as impressive is the way in which the Dawn Wall spurred a micro-economy, a thriving cottage industry, unseen in American climbing since the fabled Yosemite gold rush. Er, maybe not that big. For those who don’t know, in Yosemite’s high country in 1977 an airplane carrying tons of marijuana went down, and Valley dirtbags got high as kites and rich as kings (by climber standards, anyway). Likewise though less dramatic, the Dawn Wall media frenzy fed plenty of 2014–15 Valley dirtbags with $300-a-day gigs guiding reporters up the trail to the top, even better pay rigging for camera crews, and generally lesser pay writing stories.

I got in on the action when National Geographic asked me to write a piece on influential rock climbs. Nat Geo? Uhhh, OK. But damn, the article wasn’t so easy. Readers love lists, publishers love readers, and writers — at least those trying to earn a living — need to work with their publishers. Thus, I made a list. But how do you do such a list? My mind: Well, if this, then surely we have to include that, and then… etc, etc, etc, etc. Of course everybody will gladly tell you what you left out, what you should have included, and so forth. But try to do it. Go ahead, make the perfect list. The inarguable best. You’re allowed ten. No, OK, fifteen. Or, the way I did it, eleven. Photo availability, ideally photos from the FA, is crucial (remember, they’re paying you, this is work, not big talk from your internet podium). It’s due in like three days. You want your selections spaced at reasonable time intervals, you want to include different forms of the craft, and naturally you’re limited by your own knowledge, biases, and time to research. Not to mention the time to write. Remember, for each climb you include, you have to consider how it fits with the overall list. Hubble? Of course. Wait, that was 1990, and Action Directe was 1991. Turned out to be a bit like a puzzle. Anyway, here’s the link to my Nat Geo piece (by the way, I didn’t choose the title — my positioning for the piece comes in my first sentence). 

Anyway, I’ve saved the best for last. In a level of awkwardness somehow reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s “The Chris Farley Show,” a clueless yet endearing ABC reporter interviewed Alex Honnlove. That’s right. Honnlove. Remember that game in high school where you invented your own pornstar name? Only, most of us don’t get ours broadcast on ABC. How would they even know? Imagine:

“Sir — sir, excuse me. Are you a climber? May we interview you? Great, great, thanks. OK, first, your name?”

“It’s Alex.”

“Last name?”

[slight pause as Alex realizes his opportunity for true glory]


Whether or not that’s how it happened, or if the ABC affiliate simply needs an editor, I don’t know. (NOTE: They’ve subsequently fixed the glitch, but I caught a screen shot.)


I do know, however, that if you’ve gotten this far then you’re clearly not short on time. For you, my friend, it is well worth watching the entire seven-minute interview, in all its awkward glory. Alex’s subtle grin as he’s like “Yeah, I know El Cap pretty well” reminds me of comedy skits where the actor is trying not to laugh. And from about 5:20–6:30, where Alex explains how he’d get Fitz (Tommy & Becca’s infant son) to the top of El Cap, is priceless. “The baby would be in the backpack.” “Put him in the backpack…I mean, he’s only a 25-pound baby.”

Unfortunately the video doesn’t want to embed here. I’ve tried and tried, and given up. So here’s the link to the ABC7 News San Francisco•Oakland•San Jose interview, which is well worth your time (since you’ve read this far) — if not, I owe you a marg.

Thus develops the ultimate cottage industry to emerge from the Dawn Wall: The Alex Honnlove School of Babysitting.

And as they say in the media circus: That’s a wrap.