But while living for more than two weeks on a sheer granite wall, they still enjoyed a few comforts sent up from the Yosemite Valley below: coffee, Indian food, chocolate and an occasional nip of whisky.
Now they hope their feat inspires others to follow their own passions.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson became the first to free-climb the Dawn Wall on the famous El Capitan rock formation in Yosemite National Park. Unlike climbers who need more elaborate equipment, the pair relied entirely on their hands and feet and physical strength, using ropes and harnesses only for safety in case of a fall.
Speaking Thursday to reporters, both men said they had been touched by the number of people who drew inspiration from their journey up a half-mile of pale stone.
Jorgeson said the climb should illustrate the virtues of teamwork and teach people not to give up on their dreams.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he said the experience "recalibrates your perception of what you can do and what's possible. Now that we've done this, who knows what comes. I have a whole new bar for what's possible and what I'm capable of personally."
The trek began Dec. 27. In the 19 days that followed, the two lived on the wall itself, eating and sleeping in tents fastened to the rock thousands of feet above the ground and battling painful cuts to their fingers.
They also took punishment whenever their grip slipped, pitching them into swinging falls that left them bouncing off the rock face. The tumbles, which they called "taking a whipper," ended with startling jolts from their safety ropes.
Caldwell described how support climbers provided them with fresh fruit and vegetables every five days. They also had Indian food, burritos and other "pretty normal stuff," including coffee. For treats, the two enjoyed chocolate and Woodford Reserve whisky.
"We like to say you can't put a price on morale," Caldwell told the AP, speaking in a whisper because he had lost his voice from shouting so much during the climb.
There wasn't much downtime, Caldwell said, but in spare moments he read from the autobiography of legendary climber Barry Blanchard.
Asked why the achievement resonated with so many people, Jorgeson said the Dawn Wall "personifies dreaming big and making it happen. It's just a super-concrete example and an iconic, beautiful place with amazing images and a great story of perseverance and teamwork and making it."
Caldwell, 36, of Estes Park, Colorado, and Jorgeson, 30, of Santa Rosa, California, trained for years to get ready.
Ken Yager, president of the Yosemite Climbing Association, noted past milestones on El Capitan, starting with the first people to make the climb in 1958, followed decades later by the first one-day ascent and the duo who set a speed record in 2012 at 2 hours, 23 minutes. The latest accomplishment adds to that history, Yager said.
Caldwell and Jorgeson "proved that there's still a golden age in Yosemite's climbing," Yager said.
Jorgeson said Caldwell first envisioned the climb in 2007. After seeing a short film about his ambition to free climb the Dawn Wall, Jorgeson called to ask Caldwell if he needed a partner.
They started their plans in 2009.
"I never thought rock climbing could garner so much attention from the world," Jorgeson told reporters. "It's kind of crazy and a little uncomfortable."
Mike Gauthier, chief of staff for Yosemite National Park, said the climb celebrated human achievement.
"Adventure can still be found on public lands and in the national parks today in 2015," he said. "Tommy and Kevin, thank you for showing us that."
There are about 100 routes up the rock known among climbers as "El Cap." Even the Dawn Wall had been scaled. Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation to Tommy) made it up in 1970, using climbing ropes and countless rivets over 27 days.
No one, however, had ever made it to the summit in one continuous free-climb — until now.
The pioneering ascent comes after failed attempts by both men. They only got about a third of the way up in 2010 when a storm turned them back. A year later, Jorgeson fell and broke an ankle in another attempt.
This time, as the world watched and followed on Facebook and Twitter, Jorgeson got stalled in a lower section that took 11 attempts over seven days.
"I didn't want to accept any other outcome but getting up that route," Jorgeson said on Good Morning America. "I tried to push all the negative thoughts of not being able to do it out and picture getting across that traverse, and that's eventually what happened."Suggest a correction