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Rock climber Tommy Caldwell’s memoir ‘The Push’ has lessons for us all

Tommy Caldwell (left) and Kevin Jorgeson met with the press Jan. 15, 2015, the day after they became the first to free-climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell (left) and Kevin Jorgeson met with the press Jan. 15, 2015, the day after they became the first to free-climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. AP

Imagine: Every morning begins with an unobscured, brilliantly multicolored sunrise and overwhelming gusts of wind racing through Yosemite Valley.

As El Capitan’s “ocean of granite” begins to warm, chunks of ice loosen, hurtling down from hundreds of feet above, only to explode against the 3,000-foot-tall monolithic wall from which you are suspended. Proud trees look like green rug pile far below, and the peaks of the High Sierras undulate as far as the eye can see.

This scene describes the daily wake-up call for professional rock climber Tommy Caldwell during his seven years of working on the world’s hardest climb — the Dawn Wall — which culminated in his 2015 ascent.

For his next challenge Caldwell took on something a little less vertigo-inducing, and the result is his exceptional new memoir, “The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits.” The book is full of rich stories that fluctuate between gripping, tender, moving, laugh-out-loud funny, devastating and inspiring — sometimes all within a few pages.

Caldwell’s memoir hits shelves at an opportune moment. Public interest in rock climbing is growing beyond Sylvester Stallone’s antics in “Cliffhanger.” The sport is receiving increased media attention, and it will make its Olympic debut in 2020.

Climbing gyms are sprouting up all over the country. “The Push” seems to have been written with this in mind, and it succeeds where many previous books have failed; it finds the delicate balance between being accessible to readers unfamiliar with climbing (by clearly defining the sport’s technical vocabulary and including a series of photos that serve as visual aids) while remaining engaging for those already familiar with the sport and Caldwell’s place in it.

Caldwell’s love for the outdoors started early, as he was “a child of rock-climbing privilege.” His father, a mountain guide, first roped him up at age 3 and welcomed legendary climbers into his childhood home in Colorado. As a teenager he was propelled into the world of competitive rock climbing, featured on magazine covers but often struggling with the pressure and expectations that accompanied success. He found the prospect of being the best at something “the most tempting elixir in the world.”

Caldwell’s life took a sharp turn when, in 2000, Islamist militants took him and three other American climbers hostage during an expedition in Kyrgyzstan. They were violently pursued by Kyrgyz military; the harrowing six-day ordeal ended when Caldwell pushed one of the captors off a cliff.

In the years after, he made groundbreaking ascents on El Capitan, but then he lost most of his right index finger in a home improvement accident that doctors told him was the end of his career. Despite all of these trials, Caldwell went on to receive a Piolet d’Or (mountaineering’s highest award) for ascents in Patagonia. After years of grueling effort and perseverance, he completed the most ambitious climb of his life.

“The Push” is memoir in the truest sense, full of subjectivity, reflection and humanity. He delves into his past, the formative bond with his father, his persistent nature (as first evidenced by a two-year-long childhood attempt to dig a hole to China), and the effects of growing up in a house where “obsessive tendencies were admired and nurtured.”

Professional failures and success are mirrored by personal ones. He suffers a failed marriage and finds new love, contrasts instances of clouded recklessness with the transcendent clarity of parenthood, and wrestles with a spiritual journey and his apparent capacity to kill.

Caldwell’s writing also crystallizes moments of intense natural beauty. He has seen piercing blue glaciers, “falcons tackle swallows in midair” and “droplets of water the size of marbles” pause in a cliff’s updraft, “as if pondering their position in space, floating and glimmering in the sunlight.” One would expect nothing less from someone who has spent the majority of his life literally hanging out in the world’s most magnificent corners.

The scope of “The Push” is truly impressive, moving across five continents over the course of decades, from hectic Bolivian markets to “the smell of junipers swirled amid the metallic odor of machine-gun fire.” With equal ease, Caldwell writes about vast landscapes or the minute details of his own body and sport, zooming in on “the shape and size of each hold; and how to place … fingers just so and dig them into the crystals in just the right way.”

While most readers have probably heard some business leader draw a cheesy motivational parallel between rock climbing and revenue growth, “The Push” is a genuine source of inspiration. That’s not to say that it doesn’t occasionally lapse into cliche or reach a conclusion before fully earning it. But these instances are forgivable. After all, Caldwell can write far better than most authors can climb.

The key insights of “The Push” aren’t necessarily unique, but they are uniquely embodied in Caldwell’s rich life, inviting prose and uncommon perspective. Toward the end of the book he reflects: “I used to think that adventure and risking one’s life were intrinsically linked. I now realize that adventure might be more about embracing the unknown.”

In that sense, “The Push” is an adventure in its own right, exploring the unknown self, being open to growth, sharing hardship with others — and encouraging readers to do the same.

Kevin Kotur is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s creative writing MFA program.

“The Push” by Tommy Caldwell (336 pages; Viking Books; $27)

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