What It Took for Professional Climber Tommy Caldwell to Climb El Capitan’s Dawn Wall

Tommy Caldwell is one of the most well-known climbers in the world. To list all of his accomplishments alongside his world records would certainly be a tedious task. But what many people don’t know is that – in addition to climbing a mountain that was once considered impossible, even by his standards – Caldwell has overcome obstacles larger than most could ever imagine.

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Firefall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, USA. Photo: Courtesy of Shawn Reeder/Red Bull

When Caldwell was 21-years-old, he and a group of friends were kidnapped by an Al Qaeda affiliated group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan during a climbing mission in Kyrgyzstan. After six days of being held captive at gunpoint (nearly starving to death and fighting hypothermia symptoms) Caldwell found an opportunity to push their captive leader off a cliff and escape to freedom.

Fast forward, Caldwell is now 23-years-old, and is being told that he will never be able to climb again – after accidentally cutting off his left index finger with a circular saw.

But none of that stopped him from accomplishing his goals and setting forth feats larger than climbers with all ten fingers could ever image doing themselves.

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A physical representation of one of the obstacles he overcame. Photo: Courtesy of Becca Caldwell/Red Bull

Taking all that into consideration, this was Caldwell’s experience climbing Dawn Wall of El Capitan with Kevin Jorgenson. To put it in short, he said, “It turned into the the Super Bowl of climbing.”

How long has climbing Dawn Wall been on your mind?

For about 13 years. When I first saw it in 2005, I started wondering if climbing it was possible. In 2006, I did a brief exploratory visit then it fell off my radar until 2010 – which is when I decided to start training for it.

How do you even train for something like that?

So, as far as the climbing, I spent eight years figuring it out. I would climb it with different routes that I had in mind so I could get familiar with the terrain.

I also started going sport climbing two to three days a week, and do boulder workouts to gain the most boulder power as possible. I kept doing that for a while, alongside my normal climbing, but it just wasn’t giving me the results I was looking for.

During my final season, I switched it up and started training how people train for the Olympics. I’d work out six days a week but only for two hours a day. It felt like that was effective, but it wasn’t. I was getting super fit, but I needed more pure boulder power.

I could go on forever about it … Above all the things I did to prepare, one of the most important things I did was getting my skin stronger.

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Spiderman? Photo: Courtesy of Corey Rich

I think it’s crazy that above all of the training you guys endure, it can come down to finger skin strength.

Haha, yeah totally. You wouldn’t think that doing something so large comes down to something so small. Skin strength is a huge part of climbing. Other than climbing, the only way to strengthen your finger skin strength is with hangboard workouts. But even then, it can be a toss up.

A good story to share that illustrates how important skin strength is when Kevin and I were climbing Dawn Wall. Kevin had to wait two weeks before climbing one of the pitches because his skin wore down so much. He literally had to sit there and wait for it to heal.

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Jorgeson waiting patiently … Photo: Courtesy of Corey Rich

Once it healed, he’d climb at night because the weather was colder – which causes the friction to be less abrasive. That was pretty crazy actually because by that point, there were news trucks and large crowds of people following us. The coolest part was watching how well Kevin handled that kind of pressure.

But it’s funny because as much as you want strong, calloused fingers, having them become too strong and calloused is an issue because they become less adhesive. Like, if your fingers are rock solid, they wont absorb into any of the crevasses or bumps that are sometimes your only thing to grip.

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Kevin Jorgeson finding his nocturnal grip. Photo: Courtesy of Corey Rich

Did you expect the amount of media attention that you got? And how did you respond to it?

It lingered in the back of our minds for sure. We knew people in the climbing world would be watching, but it went on for so long, we thought they’d lose interest and catch up with it later. That’s not at all what happened.

While we were stationed up during the climb, we took an interview with The New York Times and NPR but after that, we had to block all phone calls and emails because we had to focus on climbing.

Like I said, the coolest part was how well Kevin responded to the media when he was struggling to get through that pitch that I mentioned. All the attention created a spectacle – almost a “Super Bowl Sunday” effect where everyone was rooting for us (which really encouraged Kevin when it got tough).

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The first wave of media and fan attention. Photo: Courtesy of Bligh Gillies

So you had already made it through the pitch that Kevin was struggling with at first: What was going through your mind while you waited on him?

At first, I thought, “I’ll just sit here for a week.” But then I figured that if I don’t climb for more than a week, I might end up being too sore or too tense to get through it. So every few days, I’d climb a few sections just to stay loose – because I really wanted to finish the climb with Kevin. Luckily he made it through and we got to summit together.

Not to ask you the most cliche question, but I have to know: How did it feel to summit?

Relieving. Obviously, it felt good because it was a big accomplishment. But by the end of it, I was exhausted. So above all, I was just happy that I was finally able to chill out and relax.

What can we expect next from you next?

Oh man, that’s a tough one. I don’t know really. Since summiting, I’ve gotten so much media attention that I actually go climbing to get away from it. I’m still climbing and I’m still going to work on projects but I’m not too sure with what exactly is next. We have a lot of ideas we are playing around with, though.

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Caldwell and Jorgeson at The Dawn Wall Premiere in New York, New York, USA

So you’ve never really had media spotlight like this before?

Not at all. It’s good though, because as a professional climber, you always kind of wonder how long you can do it for. After summiting Dawn Wall, there’s been so many opportunities to make this a sustainable way of living so even when it feels like busy work, it always feels good.

It’s funny too because my style of climbing has never really been considered cool until now. So on that note, it’s cool watching experienced climbers all over the world view free climbing Yosemite as the grand challenge.

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Caldwell being considered cool. Photo: Courtesy of Starpix/Red Bull

For more viewing information, check out “The Dawn Wall” screenings.

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