Tommy Caldwell is currently hanging in Tahoe with the kiddos. Returning to the phone after a brief interruption in our interview as he talks to one of his kids, he says, “Sorry about that. I’m on Dad Duty now.”
But a week ago, he was on El Cap duty. Along with Alex Honnold, Caldwell spent four days freeing a new route they had scoped, cleaned and equipped along with Kevin Jorgeson and photographer Austin Siadak.
Honnold and Caldwell’s new line combines parts of several other routes—notably Leo Houlding’s 2000 route up to El Cap Tower, Passage to Freedom—with many brand new free pitches.
[For more Background Read Honnold, Caldwell and Jorgeson Team Up For New Free Line on El Cap]
They topped out on Halloween and sprinted down the East Ledges descent to make it back to the Valley floor in time to snag some candy. “Straight off the wall into my Jedi costume and trick or treating with my kids,” Caldwell says.
Caldwell told Rock and Ice all about the new route—the name of which he thinks will likely be Houlding’s original Passage to Freedom. Read on below for more on the cruxes, the choss, the difficulty, the partnership, and more.
Q&A with Tommy Caldwell
How did the plans come together this season?
I kind of scoped out the route last year, rapped the wall and figured out where it went. All those years on the Dawn Wall, climbing next to this line, it was pretty easy to essentially sort out where this one went.
So we got to the Valley and just started swinging around. We established the new pitches—this big giant traverse in the middle of the wall, which ended up being pretty reasonable actually.
It was Alex, Kevin and me, and Austin Siadak was photographer, but was also a climbing team member, drilling bolts and helping us haul.
How long did everything take?
Everything in total took about three weeks.
The route came together faster than I thought it would. I kind of blocked out two months. But then Alex was insanely motivated. He’s such a hard-driving force, and that helps me too. Kevin was having a bit more of a hard time carving out enough time in his life to make it all happen.
All three of us, I think, just needed to feed our climbing addiction this fall, because we’ve all been so busy with other non-climbing stuff. So yea, we made it happen pretty quick.
Does it feel good to be back in free climbing mode up there?
Yea, it felt super good. Felt amazing to be up there, definitely. At this point it feels like I need a little bit of that El Cap fix once in a while.
So where does the line go exactly?
The route is amazing. I couldn’t believe there was a route that good up there still unclimbed.
So it goes up Leo Houlding’s route Passage to Freedom which went to El Cap Tower. There’s a small variation on it that we did to avoid the Alfa Romeo badge that Leo bolted onto the wall. We just climbed another 20 feet up the original aid line instead.
That block that Leo did, that six or seven pitch block was still arguably the hardest part of the route.
What I discovered, though, that let us keep going—Leo was trying to climb directly off El Cap Tower, but didn’t find a way. We couldn’t either. So we decided to down climb 100 feet on the Nose, go across the Jardine Traverse, go up two pitches on the Nose to the beginning of the Lynn Hill traverse. Then we did this big traverse back over right in two big pitches—I think we’ll add a belay to make it three, so it’s easier for anyone else. So then it connects with the Dawn Wall, back on New Dawn [the original aid line], one pitch below Wino Tower. From there you climb a 5.13d pitch—that was also part of the Dawn Wall—to Wino Tower.
Then our line follows the Dawn Wall for another pitch and a half. So two and a half pitches of the Dawn Wall total on the line. Then it goes left and follows New Dawn to the top. It follows these overhanging Indian Creek-type splitters. Some of the most beautiful pitches I’ve ever seen in my life. Half Dome is right there in the background. It’s some of the sickest climbing in existence on Earth, I’m certain of that. And surprisingly, it’s not ridiculously hard.
Does it have a name?
We haven’t tottaly verified this, but we’re trending toward just keeping Leo’s original name, Passage to Freedom, since it was his vision to go to the top originally. I always like to kind of honor the history. And that history is pretty cool: Leo was such a character in the Valley. And that dyno near the bottom? I remember when I was 19 or whatever, and Leo was there, and I was like, a double dyno on El Cap?! My mind was blown. And then that he bolted that Alfa Romeo badge to the wall was kind of weird in one way, but he made it cool somehow, too.
There’s a style of climbing I’ve become real good at on El Cap, these parts that just look unclimbable. If you sit there and hangdog and look at these nothing holds—Alex calls them “aspirational holds”—you can figure it out. I’m sure Leo rapped by it and thought it wasn’t climbable. But when I got up there I was like, “I think we can just climb this way.” And it worked.
So how hard is this thing?
The first six pitches and another block up at the top are probably even in how difficult they are. The hardest pitch is I guess the fourth pitch. About 5.13d.
I think there are ten 5.13 pitches, and five of them are in the upper end of 5.13.
What was the actual “Hail Mary” push like?
We spent a couple of weeks prepping the route, putting in a few bolts, but we didn’t thoroughly check it out really. But we still decided we might as well climb from the bottom and start leading and see how it went. It really was a Hail Mary.
There were sleeper cruxes. Some pitches I thought would be 5.11 turned out to be 5.13. There were some sections where Alex was breaking holds while 60 feet runout on 5.11+ climbing. I think we’ll go back next week and add a belay and a bolt in one spot that just seems deadly, so it’s more friendly for anyone who wants to repeat it.
There’s one pitch at the top which is the crux, might even be 5.14. It has some of the sharpest holds I’ve ever grabbed. We finally figured out that there are some nicer holds where you can dyno through the sharp bits—that might be the way of the future.
I had splits on every fingertip when I got to the sharp crux pitch. And then I had to pull on these hideously sharp holds. It was one of the most painful things I’ve done.
That final push was four days. We were trying to get it in before Halloween. We were planning on three days, but it took us four. We topped out and then ran down the East Ledges in 40 minutes. Then I threw on my Jedi costume—straight off the wall into my Jedi costume and trick or treating with my kids.
Did you guys preserve the sideways dyno on Leo’s route?
I did it. Alex had done it a day earlier, but on our push it was dark, and he couldn’t get it. He managed to somehow climb two or three feet higher, and somehow found a way to reach through it. It looks way harder.
This is the first real big free project you and Alex have teamed up for on El Cap right? As opposed to SPEED CLIMBING, supporting each other on individual projects up there, etc. Did guys work well together in this mode, too?
Totally. It always feels good climbing with Alex. I mean, it kind of felt like what we always do. He’s just my favorite partner to climb with. He’s brilliant at climbing, really loves El Cap.
And we both do environmental work these days, so we had great conversations every night up there!
Going to try to squeeze anything else in this season?
No. It’s just hard to carve out time. In some ways, the way that we cranked it out pretty quick reduces the stress in my life now.