Widely regarded as the best big-wall free climber of all time, 38-year-old Tommy Caldwell has already had a very full career. After becoming a national climbing champion at 16 and finishing the country’s then-hardest sport climb — Flex Luthor — at 25, Caldwell established many of Yosemite’s toughest big-wall routes, and won the highest award in alpinism — a Piolet d’Or — in 2015. A year later, he pioneered the most difficult big-wall climb in the world, the Dawn Wall. Now he’s putting his life to paper in his new memoir, The Push ($16, Amazon.com). We recently talked to Caldwell about life after the Dawn Wall, the future of climbing in America, and his next epic projects.
What was your goal in writing The Push?
I just tried to document my life experiences as honestly as possible. The Push was meant to be a traditional adventure book — it became a personal narrative because the writing process was so cathartic. Reflecting on my most painful moments rounded out how I view the world. Nothing is black-or-white for me anymore after writing about my ex-wife, Beth Rodden, and about being kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan. I think readers will appreciate how vulnerable and honest the story is, but I also think, “Oh, dude… should I have included that part?”
How do you want it to impact the readers?
I hope climbers are motivated to take on big projects in the mountains, and that non-climbers are inspired to try the sport — but the overarching theme is overcoming adversity every day, not just on the wall. I hope readers appreciate the non-Dawn Wall chapters as much as that final section.
The Dawn Wall climb became a surprise media sensation. Was it strange when the spotlight moved on?
After the initial craze went away, I did 60 or so speaking events over the following 12 months, so the transition felt like a long, slow process, instead of an abrupt shift. I wrote most of the chapters in my van — our house is loud with two little kids running around.
Has climbing changed for you since the Dawn Wall?
I wrote for 30 hours each week throughout the past year, so climbing temporarily dropped off. I’ve been trail running to compensate for the lack of physical toil — that way I still get the mental anguish. Once I get back into climbing, not too much will be different. We took 70-foot falls on the Dawn Wall — it was scary but relatively safe. I’m not going to stop adventuring; I just need to continue to do so in a calculated way: clean walls, no avalanches…
Did climbing change for you at other phases in your life?
When I was young, climbing was a father-and-son activity. During high school, it was all about competitions, winning, and chasing harder routes. That was a very stressful period. It’s tough to go on a road trip with Chris Sharma and realize you’ll never be as good as him. I had to get into adventure climbing before I understood what a fascinating and pure activity climbing could be when it’s not about winning. From then until finishing the Dawn Wall, I knew it had to be a part of my life, or I wasn’t going to feel alive. I had to climb every day. I’m more laidback now, but climbing will always be a part of my soul — that’s never left me, and never will.
It took you and Kevin Jorgeson seven years to scout and complete the Dawn Wall. Adam Ondra earned the second ascent last November after less than a month’s work. Both are epic achievements, but does it frustrate you when people don’t know that establishing a climb is more involved than repeating it?
Establishing and putting up the first ascent of a route is a lengthier process, but Adam is so unbelievably gifted. I gave him a little bit of advice while he was up there, but he’s just a total warrior. An outlier in every way. His ascent was almost a relief for me, as in, “Okay, he can take the torch. The pressure doesn’t have to be on me anymore.” But yeah, of course there’s a tiny part of me that thinks, “Well… I wish it had taken him two years instead of just one month.”
What’s the future of climbing in the United States?
I think it’s in a transitional phase — it’s becoming mainstream but not there yet. I’m from an older generation, so sometimes I’m kind of a curmudgeon about maintaining the purity and old-school nature of climbing. I like the idea of going out with a buddy and having this incredible, private adventure, versus Instagram it — but at the same time, I know that social media will show the way forward. I don’t want to be a dinosaur. The Dawn Wall was able to inspire a lot of people and bring them to the sport, and Kevin Jorgeson showed me that. I’ve come around. It’s incredible to see the enthusiasm and participation at massive, urban rock gyms. Climbing is a great thing, and if Instagram is how people discover it, then I’m just happy they’re finding something they enjoy.
Do you feel pressure to establish an even bigger and badder route than the Dawn Wall?
A bit, because I think that’s what people want. Right now, the book tour is my project… but once that’s over, I’ll start looking. I’m motivated by climbs that inspire me. That’s what I’m going to search for.