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Tommy Caldwell: What I've Learned

25-Mar-2014
By Tommy Caldwell

Published in Rock and Ice No. 217 - April 2014


Tommy Caldwell, 35, Master of Rock, Estes Park, Colorado.

At home high on the Dawn Wall. Photo by Tim Kemple.Climbing has taught me a ton. It has allowed me to travel and see the world, and given me a venue to live a very full, exciting life. Above all else, I think climbing has taught me to live life without fear.

My greatest hardship would be the ordeal in Kyrgyzstan where four of us were kidnapped by Islamic militants for six days. It’s a long, complicated story but, in short, we and our captors were hunted by the Kyrgyzstan military. We abandoned our food and warm clothes and hid out under boulders and in holes in the ground. We eventually escaped when I pushed one of our captors off a cliff and we made a run for the nearest military outpost. 

The experience in Kyrgyzstan rocked my world in ways that I am still learning about 14 years later. There was definitely a dark side to the recovery process, but in the end it made me a much stronger, more life-loving person. The amount of suffering and fear we endured made the rest of life seem like a cakewalk. It reset my idea of what real pain is (physical and emotional) and now I walk through life without much fear. I learned that pain sharpens us.

Kyrgyzstan tops the list of hard experiences, but my divorce in 2010 comes in a close second. Chopping off my index finger was stressful because I thought it might end my full-time climbing career at a time when I still had a ton of big dreams I wanted to pursue. But through these experiences I learned that hardship is what changes us the most. It puts us in an intensely meditative state where we figure out what we really want. And it motivates us to go for those things we have always dreamed of.

I have learned that the longer I climb, the more I will love it. And I have learned that I can’t predict what will happen in my life one year ahead—much less 25.

My wife, Becca, and I welcomed an amazing little boy into our lives nine months ago. His birth has made me much more responsible and intentional because I want to set a good example. But having a son also makes me want to let loose and have fun. I want little Fitz to see how awesome life can be. 

From the Dawn Wall project, I’ve learned to take joy in the process and to be patient. I love the way the Dawn Wall breathes energy into my entire life. And I love how it motivates me to constantly push myself.

Being able to make it as a pro climber is many times better than winning the lottery. I get to dream up the biggest adventures I can and go for them without having to worry about a nine-to-five job. It doesn’t get much better than that.

There are rigors to being a pro climber. Like everyone these days, I spend quite a bit of time on the computer. And the constant travel can drain my power. But in those moments I try to remember that when you are doing what you love, you never work a day in your life. 

But climbing, just like being filthy rich, tends to spoil people. Many of us become self-absorbed and this selfishness makes both climbing and relationships hard. I’ve learned that I love climbing, but I love people more. 

"I quickly realized that I wasn't going to be able to climb the Dawn Wall alone." Photo by Tim Kemple.From the Dawn Wall project, I’ve learned to take joy in the process and to be patient. I love the way the Dawn Wall breathes energy into my entire life. And I love how it motivates me to constantly push myself.

I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to climb the Dawn Wall alone. I am incredibly lucky to have found such an amazing partner in Kevin Jorgeson. Sharing the experience with him has made it many times richer than it would have been without him.

This season in Yosemite, Kevin and I experienced setbacks both from the government shutdown and from my injury. One of the biggest challenges with free-climbing the Dawn Wall has been that the southern aspect of the climb makes it boiling hot up there much of the time. But because of the setbacks we climbed a lot in December, which actually gave us good conditions and helped us realize that it is best done as a winter free climb. When I injured myself it looked as though the cards were stacked against me this season. It would have been really easy to throw in the towel for the year. But on a project like this, it is important to keep a sense of urgency. While injured, I continued to do finger- strengthening exercises, and I started climbing again as soon as possible. In the end it paid off. I learned to trust my instincts and continue to push forward. 

I’ve found that my strengths are the ability to dream big, to never give up and to endure a lot. Combine those with a sport- climbing background, and big-wall free climbing is the thing in life that I can be the best at. The best moments of my climbing life have been on El Cap. 

My goals for the future are to be a loving husband, a great dad and to share my love of life and climbing with the people that will listen … and hopefully send the Dawn Wall.


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