On January 14, 2015, the world waited with bated breath as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson came over the rim of a notoriously steep section of the rock known as El Capitan, the largest single block of granite in the world. Over the course of 19 days, the pair had climbed the Dawn Wall, the most difficult part of the famous rock formation at Yosemite National Park, with just their hands and feet; rope and harnesses were used only to break deadly falls. Caldwell and Jorgeson became the first people to “free climb” the Dawn Wall, a feat many thought could never be accomplished.
The pair had trained for more than five years and encountered serious injuries on previous attempts. In recognition of their arduous and potentially fatal quest, one of them even called this climb his Moby-Dick, after that white whale that taunted—and destroyed—Captain Ahab. When Caldwell and Jorgeson made it to the top with their bloodied, bandaged, and superglued fingers, it was such a quintessential moment of American optimism that even President Obama sent his congratulations, tweeting, “You remind us that anything is possible.”
Could anyone other than Americans have scaled this incredibly difficult granite face with so scant a safety net? Of course—but it was Americans who made the seemingly impossible climb. And many of the world’s elite rock climbers—including the one considered the world’s best, Alex Honnold—are Americans. In advance of the “What It Means to Be American” event “Are Americans Risk-Takers?”, we asked scholars and people who dabble in risk for a living: What is it about American culture that encourages risk-taking?