Off the Wall: Tommy Caldwell

A year after he broke records and boggled minds with the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year checks in about life and climbing
February 29, 2016Words by Liv Combe

[Ed. note: a film about Caldwell, The Dawn Wall, premiered at SXSW 2018]

It’s a rare thing these days, talking to a man who’s done something that no one has ever done before. Rare, and bordering on surreal. But when I spoke with Tommy Caldwell earlier this year while he was at home in Estes Park, Colorado, what struck me most about him was his modesty. National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Patagonia Ambassador, the first man to free ascend the Dawn Wall – all those (pretty damn incredible) titles aside, he’s also a really nice guy who’s waiting with his wife for their second child to arrive. [Congrats on your new baby girl, Tommy and Becca!]

If you don’t know what Dawn Wall I’m talking about here, then you’re a bit behind. The climbing community has known for decades just how exceptionally talented Caldwell, 37, is when you give him a chalk bag and an especially advanced route, but last January it was brought to the attention of the rest of the world. As millions of people watched livestreams across the country, Caldwell and his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson completed the first free ascent (that is, using ropes only to catch falls) of the Dawn Wall, the 3,000-foot, sunrise-facing side of El Capitan, a granite beast looming over the valley of California’s Yosemite National Park.

When Caldwell and Jorgeson got off the wall, where they’d lived for the 19-day duration of their climb, Caldwell described it as a kind of culture shock. From going without a phone to appearing on the Ellen Degeneres Show and being lauded by President Obama is certainly a rapid switch, one in which it was difficult for Caldwell to reflect too much on what he’d accomplished by climbing the Dawn Wall, a dream that had been seven years in the making. Now that more than a year has passed, it seemed high time to check in and talk to Caldwell about his climbing essentials, the cell service on the face of El Cap, and life after the Dawn Wall. 

What’s a day in the life of Tommy Caldwell, the dad, versus a day in the life of Tommy Caldwell, the world-renowned climber?

You know, my life is so varied it’s hard to put a particular label on it. Sometimes we’re going on trips – little Finn, our youngest child, spent about 10 months a year for the first two years of his life traveling, either living in the van, or on international trips to places like Europe or Argentina. Now I’ll figure out ways to make those a combo climbing and family trip, so we do a bit of stuff that’ll be fun for the kid, and then there are periods of time to just go out and send the gnar and go climbing and hook up with other friends along the way.

When we’re home, life is a bit more standard. I’ve been dedicated to writing a book this year, so I get up early every day and write. I spend a little bit of time in the middle of every day training for climbing, and then family time every day from 3 o’clock on. 

The Dawn Wall took the combination of all the skills and the experiences I’ve acquired over these years.

You’ve done so many amazing climbs over the course of your career. What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

In a lot of ways, the Dawn Wall was a culmination of all of these years of climbing. There were so many stepping stones along the way, but that was the pinnacle — it took the combination of all the skills and all the experiences I’ve acquired over all these years. The pursuit of that — the training, the figuring out how to get better — was a definite highlight. 

In terms of the actual climb itself, it was a really amazing experience, like everyone was saying on the news. But honestly, the fact that it was so public was kind of distracting. It didn’t feel as pure, in a way, because of that. 

How much did the media attention affect you while you were up on the wall?

I think in the moment, we did a pretty good job of ignoring it. But it was totally unexpected. Our climbing community kind of had an eye on that route, but that felt pretty small scale, and then suddenly it blew up. And I was like, man, we gotta send this thing! We can’t really pay attention to all this news stuff and all these calls we’re getting and all that. We did a pretty good job of ignoring it for those 19 days. 

When the insanity went down, I just dropped my phone off the wall. But you get great cell phone service up there.

I imagine living on the wall helped you stay disconnected from the insanity.

When the insanity went down, I just dropped my phone off the wall. But you get great cell phone service up there — it’s the best cell phone service in Yosemite, for sure, up on the side of El Cap. I think it must point directly at a cell phone tower.

But anyway, Kevin was on his phone, following all the news stuff. He was having a hard time getting through this one section and the whole world was watching him, and he’s just, like, nervously chewing on his fingernails. And I’m just a little more oblivious to the whole thing because I didn’t have my phone. 

So I’m just like, “Oh, we just gotta be in the moment and not worry about that for now!” But the fact was that once we topped out, all of a sudden we couldn’t avoid it anymore. It was a bit of culture shock. Generally, after you do a big climb you get time to reflect and absorb the experience, and we really didn’t get that after the Dawn Wall. We were going on Ellen and flying all over the place. It was hectic. 

The fact that Caldwell is missing half his left index finger makes it all the more impressive

So would you say that the Dawn Wall was or wasn’t your favorite route? Or could you even call any specific route your favorite?

It’s a little bit hard to say, just because every climb was really cool for different reasons. I mean, the 2015 year was pretty amazing, because right at the beginning of it I did the Fitz Traverse, a big traverse in Patagonia. In terms of pure adventure and being out with a great partner and it feeling like a super pure experience, just for the love of it all, that was probably a highlight. 

But I’ve had so many! I’ve lived a whole life of climbs, and they’re all different, they’re all good for different reasons. Or... sometimes bad. 

The Kyrgyzstan climb didn’t sound too fun.

Yeah, they’re not all good. 

You climbed with Kevin on the Dawn Wall, with Alex Honnold in Patagonia. What’s the importance of having a climbing partner during these kinds of trials?

With a good partner, you tend to become a combination of the best of both of you.

I’ve only realized this maybe in the last five years, but I have a really collaborative personality. Having a partner during these experiences, being fully in it together, makes it so much better in so many ways – you have that collaborative energy, you just have a lot of fun together, you can kind of fill in the places where the other person is lacking. With a good partner, you tend to become a combination of the best of both of you. Definitely with Kevin and with Alex on those climbs, I don’t think I could have done them without both those specific partners. 

The mountains just have an amazing way of creating these lifelong friendships that I haven’t figured out how to do outside of climbing.

The mountains just have an amazing way of creating these lifelong friendships that I haven’t figured out how to do outside of climbing, really. Sometimes I look at other people and I think, “How do people become friends? How do you become close without going on these adventures together?” I don’t even really understand that because [in the climbing world] it happens in this so much more intense way.

What was your process for accomplishing the Dawn Wall? 

I love being up on that wall and I love being in Yosemite, so if nothing else, it was worth it for that, in a lot of ways.

For the first couple years of that seven-year process, it was just trying to figure out if it was something that was at all reasonable. And then at some point we were like, yeah, this is probably reasonable, but I don’t know if we’re ever really going to be able to do it. 

For most of my climbing life, I’d picked objectives, and been like, "Alright, this seems like a good objective that I might be able to do." With the Dawn Wall, it more like, "Alright, I have no idea if I’ll ever be able to do this." But I’m addicted to that life, I’m addicted to the pursuit. I love being up on that wall and I love being in Yosemite, so if nothing else, it was worth it for that, in a lot of ways. And if I end up doing it, it’s just the icing on the cake. That’s kind of how I had to feel, because if I had let the weight of success bear down on me for seven years, it probably would have been a bit too much.

What was it like bringing people up onto the Dawn Wall with you?

It was crazy. Once we had the portaledges rigged with ropes, there was a section of El Cap that was suddenly accessible. It used to be kind of like Alcatraz – you could look up there and see it, but it was really, really hard to get to. And all of a sudden it wasn't. 

We’d bring friends up there and throw little parties. I’d invite friends up. My wife came up there a bunch with me, my dad came up, my best friend Kelly. I’m writing a book about the Dawn Wall, and a big part of it is stories of these experiences I had with my friends up there. It was just super fun – anybody I wanted to bring up there, I could. It was amazing. 

And then there was a documentary film project happening while we climbed, so when we did that 19-day push, there were three other people up there with us the whole time. And those three other people are my best friends, so it felt like a dudes' camping trip sometimes.

If you could have brought up any historical figure or inspiration to you, who would that have been?

Nobody’s ever asked me that. That would have been a trip! It would have been cool to have somebody like Tom Frost up there – he’s always been a big Yosemite legend and it would have been cool to experience El Cap through his eyes a little bit, because he was there when the wall was first being climbed in those very first years. Warren Harding would have been amazing, because he was just so good at partying up there and he loved the environment. For whatever reason, my mind goes toward the people who know Yosemite really well. I would want to learn more about El Cap from their vision. 

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, and the appreciation for the experience has grown in my mind.

Have you had any new realizations or thoughts on the experience with the Dawn Wall come with time?

I think part of me wanting to write a book was my way to process it all. This book is about my whole life. I don’t know whether to call it an autobiography or whether to call it a memoir, but I’ve heard people say that you can’t write an autobiography until you’re an old man. I was at a point, even before the Dawn Wall, where I knew that someday I wanted to write a book. It was just on the life list. I’m a fan of books. And after the Dawn Wall, I was like, alright, this is the time, I can probably sell it now and I have a lot of stuff I want to meditate on. 

I’m actually just starting to write the specific Dawn Wall section. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it, and the appreciation for the experience has grown in my mind. I understand more and more all the time how unique and special that was. I feel really lucky to have happened upon it, I guess. 

I was wondering – with El Niño happening this year, and the drought happening last year, would you have been able to make the Dawn Wall climb this winter? 

No, we completely lucked out last year. In the beginning, we didn’t think we’d end up doing it in the middle of winter. But we realized that the colder it was, the better we climbed. That winter last year, all of a sudden it was January and the forecast was still perfect. This year, there would have been no chance. When there's a snowpack on top it would make things too wet. It also creates dangerous ice fall, since the water trickling down freezes at night, and falls off when the sun hits it.

I draw inspiration from people I interact with.

Who are your heroes and inspirations?

I draw inspiration from people I interact with. Even when I was a little kid, my inspiration was the mountain guys around me that my dad hung out with. I’ve been so lucky to grow up in a super engaging community, and it’s easy to be inspired when that happens. 

My dad was a huge inspiration. From the time I was born, he was the inspiration behind most things. Chris Sharma was huge mentor of mine in my teen years, and he was such a personality in climbing. Alex Honnold is a huge inspiration to me for sure. He’s so dedicated and so strong and has this seemingly elevated way of viewing the world. And it’s a contagious feeling when you’re around him.

Do you have any rituals before you climb? A pair of lucky socks?

No. I do have an OCD tick, which is that I incessantly blow on my fingers and put on chalk before I climb. I  can’t stop myself from doing it. It drives me nuts, and it drives my climbing partners nuts. 

What are some personal essentials that you include in your gear rack?

The kit that we use is pretty standard. Maybe the closest thing I have to a personal essential is that I always bring a half-liter baby Nalgene with me. Everyone thinks it’s so cute because they all use full-size Nalgenes and I look like I’m drinking out of a teacup when I use it, but it’s a good size for being up on the wall and you can fill it up really easily to carry water. My best friend Kelly and I had one that, whenever we’d go on a big expedition, one of us would give to the other. But he dropped it into a crevasse a few years ago. That’s the thing about being up on a wall — when you drop something, it’s just gone. [H]

If there's one person who's proved that putting your mind, body, and soul into a project is the path to success, it's Tommy Caldwell. Inspired by his ascent of the Dawn Wall, we reached out to a few of our friends to find out what their lofty goals and dreams are over the next years

Director, Speaker, Cold Water Surfer

My Dawn Wall is to shoot surfing under the northern lights in Olasfjordur, Iceland. It's been one of the most challenging projects I have ever worked on."

Ecologist, Storyteller, Naturalist

My Dawn Wall has evolved and grown with time, but the common thread has remained the same – to protect our planet's wildlife and wild corners through storytelling and exposure. How can I inspire others to care about and actively protect our planet's natural environment? Steve Irwin, Aldo Leopold, Sir David Frederick Attenborough, and E.O. Wilson are among my heroes who have done just this, inspiring change and reverence for each cog and wheel in nature. To follow in their footsteps is my Dawn Wall."

Canadian, Comedian, Helicopter Co-Pilot

I'm working on purchasing a property, and my Dawn Wall is building my own cabin from the ground up. I want to create a place that I can escape to whenever I want."

Humanitarian, Climber, Spearfisherman

My Dawn Wall is more metaphorical. Three years into my career as an art director, I was not content with the parameters society had set out for me – go to college, get in debt, get a job, work to pay off your debt, maybe see the world when you retire. So I quit my job and set out to define a new life for myself, one that may be cash poor, but experience rich. A year and a half into it, I'm starting to feel a balance, all while having the opportunity to experience things I never could have dreamt up. Continuing that journey is my Dawn Wall."


Images ©: 1, 3-7, 11-14; Corey Rich. 2; Ian Allen. 8, 9; Bryson Malone. 10; Brett Lowell. 15; Bligh Gillies

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