Adventures / Climbing / From the World’s Hardest Free Climb to Helping 100,000 Kids Climb

Kevin Jorgeson rests up before attempting to climb the hardest pitches of his life as soon as the sun goes down. After spending 19 days on the wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park for their historic first free ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) on January 14, 2015.

Three years ago, on January 14, 2015, two guys completed the hardest free climb in history on the Dawn Wall in Yosemite’s El Capitan. The seven-year quest attracted attention from international media—would Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson pull off this incredible feat of athleticism and creativity to raise the bar in climbing? Maybe, maybe not. But it didn’t hurt that Yosemite was just outside L.A. and San Francisco, making it possible for tourists, news trucks, and the average joe to check in with the dudes as they lived for days in portaledges on the side of 3,000-foot El Cap. One of these average joes was John Branch from the New York Times, whose ongoing coverage of the climb was said to have attracted more audience than the Super Bowl for the newspaper.

A new film, The Dawn Wall, screening in theaters across the country on September 19 (see details), chronicles their efforts and gives context to the next-level achievement. For Kevin, an underdog for the challenge who answered Tommy’s call for a partner, the worldwide attention gave him the chance to move on his core passion—bringing climbing to more kids. In fact, he wants to bring climbing to 100,000 kids. His non-profit 1Climb is currently raising funds, in partnership with Toms (read our interview with Toms founder Blake Mycoskie) and So iLL, in the form of some pretty awesome climbing shoes, chalk bag, and classic Alpargata lifestyle shoe does, to build climbing walls at the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. So far they raised 270 percent of their crowd-funding goal with eight days left.

Here Kevin answers some of our questions.

ROAM: From the World’s Hardest Free Climb to Helping 100,000 Kids Climb
Coach Kevin Jorgeson cheers on a talented crew of young climbers; Photograph courtesy of 1Climb
What better opportunity to amplify this dream of bringing climbing to the next generation than focusing on this?
— Kevin Jorgeson

Why did you want to focus on bringing climbing to kids? Why not scholarships or something more traditionally viewed as a benefit to kids?

Climbing has the power to change lives. It certainly changed mine. It just felt like this idea was most authentic to me. Sure, I could have picked any topic, you know? Whether it’s clean energy or nutrition or whatever. But the thing that really resonated with me was climbing and the power it has to change lives, both from a healthy lifestyles perspective, just getting kids moving, period.

Did completing the Dawn Wall in January 2015 accelerate this need for you?

After the Dawn Wall, I wanted to pick something in the non-profit world to focus on. I thought, “What better opportunity to amplify this dream of bringing climbing to the next generation than focusing on this?”

1Climb was born out of an earlier non-profit I started called Pro Climbers International, PCI. PCI taught pro clinics around the country. After the Dawn Wall, I decided to take the thing I was most passionate about from my first non-profit, re-name it, and focus exclusively on kids.

At the time, Michelle Obama was running her Let’s Move campaign. Front and center in that were all of these childhood obesity statistics—they were really eye-opening. So, there’s a health element to climbing, just getting kids moving.

What unique benefits does climbing bring to a kid’s life?

Kids climbing together fosters these really cool collaborative problem-solving opportunities. But it also connects kids to a whole climbing community that they’re probably unaware of. The global climbing community is so cool! You can go anywhere in the world—you don’t even have to speak the same language—and you feel like you’re at home. In a lot of ways, it’s about expanding that community.

Why did you partner with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America?

The reasoning behind the Boys and Girls Club is that the infrastructure is already there. If you really think about it, there are narrow opportunities for becoming a climber. If you’re a kid, do you get invited to the birthday party at the climbing gym, or not? Does a friend turn you on to it, or not? So, instead of trying to help gyms promote the fact that they exist to kids who are unaware of it, I thought why not just put climbing walls where the kids already are?

Boys and Girls Clubs serve 4.5 million kids across the country in over 4,500 individual clubs. Their reach is massive. They serve such a diverse population—every stripe of the socio-economic spectrum, and I love that inclusion. If as a by-product of 1Climb, the rock climbing becomes even slightly more diverse and inclusive, that would be amazing.

You sound like you have an MBA.
No. I’m self-taught. A life experience MBA.

When you’re with the kids, do they know anything about how you’re this total bad-ass elite climber? Or are they just like, “Who is that guy?”

They have no idea, which is great! Because it’s not about me. It’s about them and their relationship with the wall and the sport. If there’s one thing I can help get across when I go to the clubs, it’s just to show them visually where climbing can take them.

When I show them a picture of El Cap, it blows their minds. If I show them a picture of sleeping on a portaledge, and they ask, “This can lead to that?” And you see these dots get connected. You see these lightbulbs turn on.

Then it’s not just a 25-foot top rope wall. It’s a pathway to getting outside. It’s a pathway to dreaming big, and all of these other things. That’s my role in this. It’s not a construction project job. It’s to show them and ignite their imagination about what climbing can bring them, really.

Is there an example of a kid’s first reaction that you really like?

Oh, man. I’ll give you a broad example, and I’ll give you a specific example. The broad example is that kids are just so damn naturally talented at climbing. It’s so impressive! You put these walls in front of them, you take down the red tape, and you clip them in. They’ve never done it before, yet they know exactly what to do. They’re amazing, amazing natural athletes, across the board. It’s such an intuitive thing for a kid to do.

That was another part of the strategy of Boys and Girls Clubs, is it captures an audience of kids when climbing is still a natural thing to do. I feel like when you get into middle school and high school, you stop doing some of those more playful childlike things, like climbing trees and fences, and get into more traditional sports.

So, if you can put these walls in front of them, when it’s still a natural child-like thing to do, it’s like a natural continuation of what’s already familiar, as opposed to discovering climbing as a 25-year-old.

How did it work for you? You started out bouldering, right?

Yes. I started out in the gym. I went to a gym, when I was 10 or 11. It was still a natural thing to do, at that age, for me. Then, I got into comps. I did competition climbing until I was 18. Then, at 18, I started bouldering outdoors, pretty exclusively, for like six or seven years, before I got into big walls.

Where are the walls that 1Climb has built so far? Where do you think they’re next needed?

Right now, we are in Sonoma, California; St. Louis, Missouri; and we opened our Los Angeles wall August 30.

What are the markets that you think are really possible for you guys to move into next?

Honestly, the net is so wide. What’s beautiful about this concept is that you only a Boys and Girls Clubhouse, an actual building, that is within ten minutes of a climbing gym.

After that, it’s just a matter of getting the buy-in from the climbing gym and the Boys and Girls Club, and building that relationship. I’m getting emails every day from climbing gyms across the country, saying “Hey! I’m seeing this campaign. I want to do this! How do we do it?”

How do you feel about having the Dawn Wall story hit the big screen for the world to see?

It feels like Sender is now like sending their Dawn Wall. More than anything, I am just so proud of that team, for making such an awesome movie. I just want people to have the opportunity to enjoy it, because they put so much effort into it, and they did such a great job.

Does expecting your own son kind of bring a different emotional attachment to the 1Climb project, in a different, new way?

I don’t think it changes it so much as it just reaffirms my conviction that it’s something worth pouring a lot of time and effort into.

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