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Behind the Shot: Tommy Caldwell Climbs Above the Clouds in Switzerland

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Climber Tommy Caldwell; Photograph by Mikey Schafer

Climber Tommy Caldwell tells us about this climb, the benefits of thick clouds, his decade-long Yosemite Dawn Wall obsession, and his favorite recovery food.

“I think most climbers will drool over this photo,” says top climber Tommy Caldwell, who has made several significant first free ascents in Yosemite, Colorado, and Patagonia. “The rock is unique and perfect. Its gotta be one of the more aesthetic pitches I have climbed.”

Dream team Tommy and photographer Mikey Schaefer have been in Switzerland doing what they both do best, as showcased in our current Extreme Photo of the Week. We eagerly await following Tommy’s progress this fall on Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, likely the world’s hardest big-wall free climb and a project he has been working on for a decade.

Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?
Tommy Caldwell:
Climbing these big routes is about letting the moment carry you. I was doing my best to focus on the climbing but at the same time in awe of the unique nature of the rock and our surroundings.

A: Where are you? Why did you want to climb this route? Was it hard to get to?
TC: I am at a climbing area called the Wendenstock in Switzerland. This area has some of the best quality multi-pitch climbing I have seen on limestone. There is about a two hour approach on one of the steepest grass slopes I have ever seen.  The setting is amazing. The route itself was established by a friend of mine. These water runnels are pretty rare and I have always thought it would be cool to climb on them.

A:  Are there any good anecdotes from the climb?
TC: On the morning that we went to climb this route the clouds were sitting low in the valley. From the car we hiked up out of the clouds and climbed above them for the first half of the day. Around noon the cloud level raised and engulfed us.

A: Do clouds like this make climbing harder or easier? In some ways, as someone afraid of heights, I kinda like the idea of not seeing all the exposure. 
TC: In some ways, climbing in the clouds is comforting. You can no longer see how high off the ground you are. But in other ways it was a bit eerie. On this day the clouds were so thick that your rope would disappear into the clouds below.

A: Tell us about this rock wall. It looks very pretty. Is it good for climbing?
TC: I think most climbers will drool over this photo. The rock is unique and perfect. Its gotta be one of the more aesthetic pitches I have climbed.

A: Do you spend much time climbing in Switzerland? Is his area a hub for climbers?
TC: This climb is less that a hour from the Eiger and in one of the more climbing rich regions in Europe. I have been to Switzerland a handful of times, and it is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to climb.

A: When will you be headed back to your multiyear project on Yosemite’s Dawn Wall? How are you feeling about it?
TC: I plan on returning to the Dawn Wall mid October. Each year I get closer and closer to completing the project. Right now I am feeling optimistic. Having said that, I still feel like many things will have to go right to make it happen.

A: What are you most interested in achieving at this point in your climbing career?
TC: The Dawn Wall has been a decade-long obsession, and I would love to see it through. Other than that I love travel and share the love of the mountains with people around the world.

A: How do you train to do what you do in rock climbing?
TC: I travel and climb about eight months a year. That’s pretty great training in itself. When I am home I do a lot of bouldering, gym climbing, and specific strength training in a effort to get stronger for climbing.

A: What’s your favorite recovery food?
TC: Mexican.