Q&A: Big Wall Climber Tommy Caldwell

Q&A: Big Wall Climber Tommy Caldwell

On escaping capture in Kyrgyzstan, making the first free ascent of El Cap's Dawn Wall, and his new memoir "The Push"

From the first pitch of celebrated big wall climber Tommy Caldwell’s new memoir, trauma looms on the rock. It’s December 30, 2014, day seven, year four of his attempt at free-climbing the featureless, 3,000-foot Dawn Wall of El Capitain, an ascent considered by many the most difficult in the history of rock climbing—until Alex Honnold’s free-solo feat this past weekend, that is. High above the Yosemite Valley floor, a cold wind slaps his portaledge tent against the granite, recalling the sound of an AK-burst. Soon, memories of captivity in Kyrgyzstan flood in: “the smell of exploding rock and visions of blood pooling onto the alpine tundra.”

Caldwell’s hell in Central Asia is 21st-century lore in climbing—for six days in August of 2000, Caldwell, then-girlfriend Beth Rodden, and two other climbers were held captive by rebels in the Kyrgyz highlands, escaping only when Caldwell pushed their captor off a cliff, then trekking 18 miles to a military outpost. In its own right, that violent week would be the juice of any marketable bio, but for the 38-year-old big wall guru, it’s only a few dozen pages at the frontend of an impossible career.

In gripping prose, The Push, lays out what Caldwell calls “the absurd optimism” of climbing, the kind of drive that leads him from losing half-a-finger in a DIY garage mishap to catching eight-foot dynos with 9.5 digits, a thousand feet off the ground. As with any good adventure reading, it’s in the clash of stunning feats and emotional lows that Caldwell finds his most poignant moments. “I started to know El Capitan much the way most people know the inside of their homes,” he writes, during his four years of Dawn Wall monomania. “All the dusty corners and places where things were tucked away in tiny drawers.” Meanwhile, at home, a marriage falls apart.

For even the most couch-bound climbing fan or gym rat, The Push is a phone book of the sport’s great names: Hill, Jorgeson, Honnold, Sharma. Hell, even the party-monster-turned-conquistador Warren Harding makes a celebrity appearance, even if only to give a boozy slideshow to a living room of Caldwell’s father’s friends. Over the phone, we caught up with Caldwell to discuss his life among greats, climbing as a father, and missed connections with Barack Obama.

Throughout the book, it’s really interesting to observe your dynamic with Kevin Jorgeson, with whom you climbed the Dawn Wall. It’s like your all-out focus and his here-and-there commitment balanced each other out.

The dynamic is very complicated. That opposites attract thing was crucial because he brought elements of the climb that I just didn't have. I had this super focused approach, this maniacal work ethic, which I realized after a while was maybe a bit much. I needed to dial it back to actually get it done in the end. In those ways it worked really well. I'd say the parts that made it a bit harder—we never really bonded, like I do with most of my climbing partners. 

I heard Obama called you after you sent the Dawn Wall. What did you talk about?

It was this funny thing, I topped out on the route and there was all this media there. And I was told to expect a call from the White House. So I waited, then there was some confusion with the phone number, and he tried to call again later, and the line somehow blocked that number. We never actually connected, which was a bummer. I can't believe I missed his call.

"Climbers have this internal fire that often times burns hotter than a lot of people in this world..."

In writing a book like this, you have to come face-to-face with the dark moments in your life. I was wondering if the act of writing helped to put to bed your feelings toward Kyrgyzstan.

I think that what I'd done, I'd basically ignored it for a lot of years. Which is a way to deal with it, right? Writing brought it back up, which was very unsettling at times. I went back to that place and felt the emotions again and it was really powerful. I found it cathartic, I started to think how it affected the rest of my life. That Kyrgyzstan chapter was the first thing I wrote, even though I just finished the Dawn Wall. I felt like that was somehow related, and I started to figure out how that moment totally changed me. I got to this place where I was really thankful for it, because it really turned me into the person who I am today.

Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, John Dickey, and Jason “Singer” Smith after being held hostage in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 // courtesy The Associated Press

Being a top-tier, big wall climber seems like a weird rhythm of sending these unimaginable routes, then having your own record shattered a year later. What’s it like to be on both ends of that dynamic?

Climbing is this incredibly creative endeavor, people find ways to explore new elements. Not only doing harder things or bigger things, but reimagining the style and approach—free-climbing, speed, sport, you name it. There's certain climbers out there, like Chris Sharma, who understand what is going to be the most exciting new thing. I feel like I really lucked into that with the Dawn Wall in a way. On the other side of that, it's very inspiring. When Adam Ondra came and climbed the Dawn Wall in a month after I'd spent years on it, I felt like 'oh, I wish it would have taken him a year.' But the other part of me thought 'wow, that's so crazy, I can't believe he did that.' He's such a warrior and he trains like an Olympian and it's a glimpse into what's possible and I find that absolutely inspiring.

My dad is so good about accepting the next thing, and I try to follow that example. To get as far as I can from being a curmudgeon—you get a lot of older climbers who back-in-my-day and I try not to be like that at all.

If you could take on one climber’s mental or physical ability, who would it be?

I've always admired Chris Sharma for the way he moves on the rock. The confidence that he has. He just seems like such a phenom in that way, and he has such style. If I could take a little bit of that, I definitely would.

What about Alex Honnold? His free solo of Freerider route previously seemed impossible.

Alex's ability to be keep a cool head, combined with his rock-solid climbing prowess and dedication to the craft, are more developed than anyone. He seems to do this because it inspires him. Free soloing primarily to make an impression on others is a slippery slope, but Alex seems relatively immune to that.

With the Dawn Wall ascent you were climbing for 19 days straight. What’s it like to be on the wall for so long? It seems like being an astronaut, but you have to shit in a bag.

It's a weird existence. One of the things I liked most about the Dawn Wall is it really allowed us to be up just hanging out on the side of El Cap a lot, it's a really heightened experience. An astronaut is a good analogy, you're always in this high, small environment, with your good friends. That tends to make everything more intense, the jokes are funnier, the food tastes better. Not being able to walk at all always messes with my metabolism. I end up losing a lot of weight, I stop being hungry after a while. Ironically that helps climbing, 'cause I'm lighter and hang on smaller holds better.

Base camp in the middle of the Dawn Wall + Cooking at base camp around 1:00 AM // courtesy Corey Rich Productions - Novus Select

One of the most interesting things I took from The Push is the change in climbing culture during your career. You’re on the Dawn Wall, but you have 4G service.

It’s super bizarre. The Dawn Wall was such a crazy manifestation of that. It used to be, I was going up there with my friends and we’d have this pure experience, and that's the beauty of it. That changed on El Cap. It was two-sided. I feel like that's why I never bonded with Kevin that much. If you're on the phone all the time, you're no longer connected in the same way with each other, even if you're isolated on a portaledge.

On the other hand, you're allowed to tell this story to so many other people, and motivate them. At times I felt like if I didn't share, that was being selfish. I got to a place where there's room for all of it, you just have to pick and choose the experience you want at what time. The first time I posted on Instagram on the wall, it felt so wrong. That it shouldn't exist up here. But then I progressively got used to it. Like I said, I'm trying not to be a curmudgeon.

What was it like to be a world class athlete and be totally broke at the same time? That seems like another weird dichotomy that’s unique to climbing, or at least the sport as it was 20 years ago.

Well, when I was young and totally broke, it didn't feel like I was a world-class. Climbing wasn't world-class. It was such this tiny, niche world. And there was beauty in that, it was so pure, nobody climbed for the money of it, it wasn't about getting famous really. It was just about climbing. Ironically though, there was more ego involved back then. I don't totally have my mind wrapped around it, but there was this whole culture that came out of Yosemite of big, egotistical climbers. I think that's gone away a little bit.

"After cutting off my left index finger with a table saw my doctor told me I should reconsider my profession as a climber" // courtesy Corey Rich Productions - Novus Select

I guess that makes sense. Before cash or exposure, the only currency was your reputation. Doing the coolest thing and having an ego for it. But, having a mortgage is probably nice, too.

Yeah, well maybe it has to do with the fact that in climbing now, you have 16-year-old girls who are the best in the world. So all the good climbers are like, "well, that insane feat of mine is gonna get bested by a 16-year-old next year, so I better not be too egotistical about it."

How would you explain your relationship with a place like Utah's Bears Ears National Monument?

When we're climbing, we become so intimately aware of the environment, the actual process of being up there for days on end and getting up in the middle of the night and seeing the world from such a unique vantage, that's so much a part of it. I derive a lot of energy from that. I understand that climbers have this internal fire that often times burns hotter than a lot of people in this world, and I think it's part of that relationship with nature. 

Becca and Tommy with children, Fitz and Ingrid // courtesy Caldwell Family Collection

In the book, you said you were anxious about fatherhood, and losing time to climb. How’s that dynamic been, now that you have a four-year-old and a one-year-old?

It's a weekly challenge. I feel like I'm doing all right. Parenthood is inevitably a bit of a challenge for anybody. The ticket for me has been multi-tasking, and having an unbelievably amazing wife. She has this vision even more than I do that the climbing life and the family life merge quite well together.

If you raise your kids outside, it can be great for them. Especially these days, there's a lot of people doing it. We just got back from two months in Europe, climbing in Northern Spain, and were hanging out with other families doing the same thing. The kids were getting socialized, and they were playing outside on boulders with other kids, learning to speak different languages, and falling in love with nature. When I'm with my kids now, it's harder 'cause they're a bit bored. It works! We're hitting on something that my dad understood.

The Push is now avaialable from Viking Press

Matt Stieb is a fact checker and reporter at New York magazine, a middling climber, and an even worse skier. See more of his work here

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