Nobody, but nobody, can question Tommy Caldwell’s toughness.
For 19 days the man clung to and climbed the sheer, 3,000-foot sheet of granite in Yosemite National Park known as the Dawn Wall, conquering one of the greatest challenges of nerve, endurance and technique in all of sport. Years earlier, he and three colleagues were captured by Islamic militants and marched freezing and starving for nearly a week in Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir-Alai mountains, finally escaping when Caldwell surprised an armed guard and shoved him off a cliff.
“I don’t know if it’s my genetics or just how I’m hard-wired. But the harder life is, the more I’m brought to life,” says the 39-year-old Coloradoan, one of the best and most renowned sport climbers in the world. “I tend to get the most anxious when life is too easy.”
There’s a measure of that machismo — starting with the title — in Caldwell’s new memoir, “The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits.” How could there not be? Caldwell was only 3 when his dad took him up the Twin Owls rock formation outside their hometown of Estes Park, Colo., enticing the youngster with a promise to fly his kite from the 300-foot summit. By his early teens, he was climbing the Andes in Bolivia and the Matterhorn in Switzerland.
Much of his life has been spent on impossibly smooth, straight-up rock, using just his fingertips, feet and often-miniscule cracks and ripples in the rock to inch upward. Ropes and other gear are employed only for catching falls.
But the rugged adventurer has drawn praise for revealing his vulnerable side in the book. As much as “The Push” is a story of climbing, of pushing man’s physical and psychological limits, it’s also an exploration of Caldwell’s sometimes complicated relationships — with his dad, with his first wife (who left him) and his current spouse, Becca, with his younger climbing partner on the historic Dawn Wall ascent.
Caldwell looks, too, at his struggle to come to grips with the incident in Kyrgyzstan 17 years ago and the fact that he had it in some corner of his soul to send a man to his apparent death. “I had become the evil that surrounded us for the past six days,” he anguishes in the book.
He struggles still, he says. No matter that the guerrilla he ambushed was found later to have survived.
“I see toughness — I tend to use the word boldness — as a willingness to be vulnerable,” Caldwell says of that sensitivity and his willingness to bare it in the book. “If you try to be what you traditionally think of as tough, I look at it as actually a bit of insecurity or a way to half-ass it or chicken out a little bit (in writing a life’s story).
“You’ve got to go deep. You’ve got to go all the way. You do that in climbing, and I tried to do that in writing, as well.”
Caldwell has never known another way. His climb up the Dawn Wall with Kevin Jorgeson in January 2015, the first free ascent of arguably the most difficult incline in rock climbing, is testament to that. Caldwell spent seven years in preparation, training, scrutinizing the surface of the wall and meticulously plotting a route. The climb itself, completed on Jan. 14, 2015, drew worldwide attention and a congratulatory tweet from then-President Barack Obama, who told the pair, “You remind us that anything is possible.”
Caldwell recently discussed that triumph in Yosemite, his life both on and off the wall and the tenacity that carried from climbing to his work on “The Push.” He chose to write it himself — no ghostwriter — with guidance and polishing from close friend Kelly Cordes, an author and fellow climber.
Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: So what was harder, the Dawn Wall or writing a book?
A: From most any other climbing perspective, I’d say writing the book was harder. But the Dawn Wall was a seven-year process, a huge part of my life for a really long time. The book took me about a year of equally intensive obsession. It was over more quickly.
Q: How did the Dawn Wall become such an obsession?
A: At first, it was a way to deal with the pain of my failing marriage at the time. I think I was searching for something that would both distract and sort of energize me in a different way.
And then I just got addicted to the lifestyle, having this very distinctive goal that I was working toward every day. I loved the puzzle-solving aspect of it, the mastery. Most athletes are into the idea of mastery, and I felt like I was doing the one thing in the world that I was potentially the best at.
There were times when I thought about giving up, or I did give up for a while, and I would miss it. That life of very, very intentional pursuit is something I crave.
Q: Those times you stepped away, was it because of things outside of climbing? Was it burnout?
A: It was more about feeling like I was pursuing something that a part of me felt was quite selfish. Climbing rocks, that really doesn’t benefit anybody except yourself, and I wondered if I should be doing something more noble.
Once I married (Becca in 2010) and had kids, those concerns became even more relevant. But my wife convinced me that that pursuit was actually a great thing for the family in a lot of ways.”
Q: The Dawn Wall climb became a media event with Facebook posts, tweets, video clips, newspaper and TV reports. Did it nudge climbing into the mainstream?
A: I think it had a pretty big impact. Climbing gym owners, for instance, say that during those weeks that the Dawn Wall was in The New York Times, places across the country were packed, and their membership numbers went up by 10 percent or something like that.
I’m sure some percentage of that can be attributed to the Dawn Wall. I still run into people quite often who say they started climbing because of news coverage of the Dawn Wall.
Q: Are you good with mainstreaming the sport?
A: I’m really mixed. I feel nostalgic for the old days, the sort of simplicity of life when climbing was about being in nature.
But I also appreciate the fact that I can raise a family as a professional rock climber. That’s unbelievably cool. In the past, if people wanted to be good to their wives and kids, they pretty much had to give up their rock climbing dreams. I don’t have to do that.
Q: Is that primarily from sponsorships? I assume it’s not prize money.
A: When I was into competitive climbing in the early days, it was prize money. I didn’t have sponsorships, but I would make $5,000 or $6,000 a year (in winnings) and that’s what I lived off.
And then at some point, it became a bit about sponsorship. There’s also guiding. There’s writing. I’m also doing a little film production. But the sponsorship side of it works now. I make a good portion of my income from that, just like athletes in other, more mainstream sports have for a while.
Q: How, exactly, are you still affected by your six days of captivity in Kyrgyzstan and the way the four of you escaped?
A: I go through life with a lot of energy, I get very focused on things, and I wasn’t always that way. Or I wasn’t that way to quite that extent before Kyrgyzstan.
Going through an experience that dramatic and coming that close to death makes some people want to live every day of their lives to the fullest. I’ve sort of had that sense ever since.
Q: Has any part of you wanted to try to look up and contact the militant you pushed off the cliff?
A: I’ve had a bit of that curiosity. But if I play it out in my mind what it would be like, I don’t know that it would create any sort of resolution. Looking at his circumstances, he was a young hired mercenary, and he didn’t want to be in that position any more than we did.
The fact that I had to go to that place (in my mind) and push him off a cliff, I think I would almost be embarrassed by that if I were to meet him. And I would be incredibly sorry.
The act of actually deciding to take someone’s life is something that probably will always trouble me … though the fact that I found the strength to do it, in some ways, I’m proud of that. I think it has given me a lot of confidence.
In climbing, specifically, I now know I’m the kind of person who, when things are really, really bad, it’s when I perform best, when I pull it together.
Q: You write about a moment of reflection on the Dawn Wall as it was becoming apparent you’d reach the top, essentially wondering “where do I go from here?” Did you come up with an answer?
A: I still worry about that a little bit. Honestly, I haven’t found objectives that energize me in the same way the Dawn Wall did. That was, like, the sweet spot for me that perhaps I’ll never find again.
But it sort of reinforced the idea that I need these goals and I need to be constantly challenged. Writing a book was that for me.
Q: Is there another climbing target?
A: I think there could be. I know of a route very close to the Dawn Wall that I’m probably going to go back this year and start poking around on and see if it’s something I want to pursue. There are big walls like that in more remote regions all over the world.
Q: You haven’t had a normal life since you were 3, when your dad got you into climbing. Do feel you missed out on anything, particularly when you were young?
A: If you pursue one thing, you’re always going to miss out on other things. And I think I made the right decision. I never doubt that for a second.
But I realize, through high school, for instance, I was so focused on climbing that I didn’t go to prom. I didn’t focus on being as good a student as I could have been. I didn’t go to college. Those are I things I don’t regret, but I think, “Oh, it would have been nice to have experienced that as well.”
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
From Chapter 14 of “The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits” by Tommy Caldwell, published by Viking. Here, Caldwell struggles on a preparatory climb of a portion of Yosemite’s forbidding Dawn Wall.
“Alone, I lie on my back staring at the fixed rope as it swings in the gentle breeze. Almost as if the rope has hypnotic powers.
“I talk out loud to myself, meditate, visualize success.
“ ‘You can do this. You’ve done this before. You’ve put in the hours.’
“Then I prayed.
“Dear God, please give me the strength and the power. Please help my skin heal.
“I shut my eyes and shake my head. I’m ridiculous. Do I really think that God cares about someone sending the Dawn Wall? How arrogant am I to think that he will hear me and grant my ridiculous requests?
“But this means so much to me. Will these four years be a waste?
“I stare at my fingertips. Layers of dried blood and skin flake and flap like tattered tissue paper. I gently press my thumb against each tip. Zings of pain shoot up my arms. I slather on hand salve and tape them up. I know the likelihood of their healing in two days is slim. But what am I to do? What would I do without this climb in my life? Where would I go, who would I be?”
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the library’s director of readers’ services, will lead a discussion of “The Push” by Tommy Caldwell at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21, at the RoKC climbing gym, 1501 Howell St., North Kansas City.
Caldwell will join the discussion via Skype or Facetime. If you would like to attend, email Stover at firstname.lastname@example.org.