Tommy Caldwell, an interview with the man of the Dawn Wall
by Agnese Blasetti
(published on alpinismi.com on May 11, 2018)
We meet on a late spring morning, at Montagnalibri, under a temporary marquee set up in the heart of Trento, at Fiera square, which treasures the best of mountain literature. In a few days the Trento Film Festival will be over, and Tommy Caldwell had just introduced his book “The Push”, in which he delves deep into his experience as climber and a man, and analyses the most difficult big wall in the world ever to be free-climbed. With him are judge Carlo Ancona as moderator and Luca Calvi as interpreter.
As expected, the Dawn Wall is the main point of the meeting, a mega-route climbed with friend Kevin Jorgeson, an odyssey which lasted years and that ended in a 19 days final rush, the final push, as we were saying. Dozens of readers listen closely, raising their hands to ask questions and satisfy their curiosity. As anyone else, we are there, to watch and listen before discovering something more about the enfant prodige from Colorado, who is deeply enamored with the steep walls of El Capitan, and has an intriguing and complicated personal history.
A life that goes beyond the 32 pitches, with some of them at 5.14d. That almost 3.000 feet high granite wall, those 7 days waiting for Kevin on the infamous 15th pitch, or trying again and again the “dyno”, a 6-foot jump in the middle of the wall. Tommy’s career begins almost casually, when as an amateur, he wins first place in a professional climbing contest. The beginning of a striking career, full of love, sacrifices and tragic moments.
There’s the trip to Kirghizstan, in 2000, where he and his climbing buddies are kidnapped by four Kirghiz militants. After days of being held captive, at 10.000 feet altitude, with no food or water, frightened, they decided to try an escape. Tommy pushed the last militant with them down a cliff, almost killing him. From that moment on, the life of the American climber changes, he becomes more silent, and maybe more resolute.
A dramatic accident at home, the loss of his left index finger and the possibility of not climbing anymore, or not at the same level. Then the divorce from his partner in both climbing and life, a pillar crumbled to the ground, dragging with it every one of Tommy’s certainties.
He’s living a difficult time.
And in the dark of this personal crisis, Tommy Caldwell had a glimpse of a line on the Dawn Wall, maybe a reaction from his separation from his wife, a weight that had to be released on that labyrinth of 3.000 feet. As he says, to come up from that darkness it is perhaps not a coincidence that he chose the Dawn Wall, a promise of light. And it is here that Caldwell the man emerges from Caldwell the climber, just what we were hoping for in this interview, carried out between books and films, on the edge of the Trento Film Festival…
First, I would like to ask you more about Tommy Caldwell the man, the human being, not the famous climber, the public figure. We already know a lot but what I would like to ask is how do you feel about being such a famous person? Do you prefer the “exposure” on a wall, or with the media?
Definitely, my comfortable place is in the mountains, on the wall, but I do also understand the fact that I’m well known. I get to go to places and people are just excited to see me, I mean, that’s like a privilege in a way, it’s not something I’ll ever like or looked for but it’s something that I do my best to embrace and it also enables me to live a pretty cool life.
Your book is very profound, you tell us a lot of your personal life, the kidnapping, your divorce, your experience on the Dawn Wall. Did you find it hard to write it down? And what was it like to have all those people with you on the wall? Maybe it was a very personal experience between you and Kevin, what does it feel like to be so exposed?
Writing the book was hard, because writing a book is hard, but I would say, being vulnerable in this way, it just felt like what you have to do, if you want to write a good book you have to go deep and that’s why I wrote it. I wanted to process my own experiences, it’s like my own therapy almost, and so that’s just the way I had to write it.
On the Dawn Wall, sharing the experience with the photographers itself… They are my best friends, they are closer friends than Kevin was, I’ve been making movies with them all my life.
Who was there with you?
The main guy on the wall, holding the camera, was Brett Lowell actually (Josh Lowell’s brother), he was the director of photography up there, and I know him since I was like twelve, so he’s a really close friend. So it was fun, it was really fun.
How many people were on the wall?
It was Brett most of the time, and then one of my closest friends, Corey Rich, came up also, and then another guy, Kyle, all people that I know really well.
You said that relationships are very important. This summer I read your piece about Alex (Honnold) and Freerider and how much you were scared about it. It’s kind of fascinating how you live the relationships with your friends, it must be pretty hard sometimes to see someone else on the wall. How do you feel when you’re not the center of the attention?
It feels good, sometimes it’s better that way (laughs)
A question is about Kirghizstan, if you want to go back there to see those places again and maybe to better understand the point of view of the militants, the people that kidnapped you at the time. Would you like to know something more about that place?
Yes, part of me wants to go back, for sure, and I thought about it from time to time but it’s not that safe really. I think I’d like to go but my family is like “No, you cannot go!”, I think it would be really hard on them but I’d like to, but I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.
Regarding your family, what do you say to Becca, Fitz and Ingrid when you are on some expedition?
It’s getting harder to leave. I mean, I managed, ever since Fitz was born, to not be away more than two weeks. I value family time a lot, and a lot of time they come with me and actually it’s a great way to live it, travelling with the family.
But at those times when I do have to leave, you know, going out there on the mountains, it’s getting harder. They know that’s who I am, I was that before I was a father or a married man, and I can’t give it up, it wouldn’t be a very good example for your kids. But it’s tough when the kids miss me, they start to cry when I leave and I’m like “Oohh” (sad face).
How old are they?
Ingrid is two and Fitz just turned five.
And they already started climbing?
We have a question from one of our readers, he’s a father too and a climber. He says that by the end of the book it seems that your mentality has changed because now the important thing is to play the game without too much risk. Your family led you to this or do you think it’s a process that would have happened anyway?
No, I think being a father changed it. On the mountains my mentality is exactly the same as it always has been, I’m always like “Let’s go!!”, I’m pushing hard when I’m on the mountains in a way that maybe is not such a good idea as a father, so I have to be careful from afar.
I did change a lot, if I wasn’t a father, I would be going on bigger expeditions all over the world, climbing on big snowy mountains, now I can’t really do that, I need to be safe.
I’m trying to find things that fulfill that sort of adventure needs inside of me .
Is there another project like the Dawn Wall in your future or you had enough? What’s next?
I will be climbing more routes on El Cap, in Yosemite, next week for speed climbing. I’ve got another big project next to the Dawn Wall that I’ve looked up a little bit, hopefully it won’t take this long.
I don’t know if I’m looking for something that draws me in as much as the Dawn Wall did, but I do like being in the Yosemite, I do love going up on El Cap, like I have all my life so I’ll probably continue on this.
My personal question. I’ve never been to California and the Yosemite always fascinated me, but what’s so special about this place? I read a lot from you, Alex Honnold, Cedar Wright, Renan Ozturk and you all seem to be so in love with it.
It’s beautiful, that’s part of history and it’s incredible.
And the way the rock forms, the quality of the rock, the way that the walls get steeper as they go up.
It forms up this very, very intense experience in a way that’s easier to access then a lot of other places in the world, I mean I can bring my family there, we can stay at the campground, I can go climbing during the day, the community is amazing…
I still get more excited when I go to Yosemite than anywhere else. It’s hard to fully articulate that but a lot of people feel that way.
I don’t think that general visitors had something like that. I don’t know how many, maybe only a hundred thousand are climbers, but the climbers are the ones that get the most obsessed, something about the relationship you feel with the place as a climber, it is much more special than as a normal tourist.
We have a couple of huge big walls here in the Dolomites, there are lot of people inviting you to Marmolada and Civetta. Are you considering coming?
Yeah, I will come at some point for sure, maybe next year. I’ll travel with my family all year and we’ll spend three months in Europe.3