Yosemite Climber Tommy Caldwell Speaks on Risk, Reward, and Life After the Dawn Wall
The Dawn Wall was the climb heard and seen around the world. Over 19 grueling days last January, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson achieved their seven-year pursuit of free-climbing the hardest multi-pitch route in the world: the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall of El Capitan.
(Read: “Duo Completes First Free Climb of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, Making History”)
Through the Jorgeson and Caldwell’s use of social media, as well as the efforts of a photography and video team that joined the climbers up on the cliff, people around the world got to follow the climbers’ incredible efforts in real time, and see just how unlikely it is to be free climbing the smooth, steep walls of El Capitan, perhaps the most famous granite massif in the world.
Overnight, it seemed, two hitherto unknown dirtbag rock climbers became global sports celebrities.
This year’s REEL ROCK Tour features a segment on the Dawn Wall, showing, for the first time, actual video footage captured during the historic climb. The film, however, is only a short preview to much longer feature film that is still being cut together by Sender Films and Big Up Productions.
This makes two films in which Caldwell appears in this year’s REEL ROCK Tour. Caldwell also stars in A Line Across the Sky, which captures his and Alex Honnold’s five-day enchainment of all seven stunning summits of the Fitz Roy range in Patagonia, Argentina. (The Fitz traverse garnered Caldwell a Nat Geo Adventurer of the Year nod.)
We reached out to the 37-year-old Caldwell to hear about how his life has changed post Dawn Wall, and ask him more about how he approaches risky climbs, especially now that he’s a father.
How has the Dawn Wall changed your life?
Well, I have been traveling on an airplane about twice a week. Mostly climbing-industry events, but a few speaking gigs as well. I have wanted to write a book for many years, and now is a obvious time for that. For the first time in my life, I feel like I kinda have a office job. And in another way, it feels like I have gone back to school. It feels good to develop some skills other than just climbing, and I do feel like there is a world of possibility in front of me.
But I am spending less time outside and climbing, and that is definitely an adjustment.
When Lynn Hill first free climbed the Nose of El Capitan in 1993, it was an incredible achievement. The next year, she went back and free climbed the Nose in a single day—even more incredible. Have you considered following this progression, and trying to free climb the Dawn Wall in a day?
The seed is planted. I doubt it, though. That would be some next-level stuff. I would have to get a heck of a lot better than I am now. Maybe I should save that one for someone else!
Have you been recognized by non-climbers out in public?
Just after Kevin and I finished the Dawn Wall, I had three separate encounters with older women, who approached me in tears telling me how inspired they were. They were definitely not part of the demographic that I thought would be inspired by big-wall climbing.
In Line Across the Sky, you reflect on the risks you took to climb the Fitz Roy massif, weighing them against the fact that you’re now a father. How do decide what risks are worth taking?
- Nat Geo Expeditions
It’s a constant process of evaluating risk. I tend to pick objectives that I feel are safe because I know that, in the moment, I always go for it.
I have some rules for myself, though: Look for the rock faces without a lot of loose rock. Always rope up on glaciers where there is even a slight chance of falling into a crevasse. No pure free soloing. Never climb below hanging glaciers. Choose solid partners.
Even with these parameters, I occasionally find myself doing things that I don’t think are responsible as a father and husband. I view risky climbing a little like a drug. It makes you feel good and powerful, but if overused, it’s a one-way road. So, I do my best to keep it in check.
What’s next in your climbing career?
The Dawn wall and the Fitz traverse were super satisfying climbs. But I will always be searching for the next thing—the need to accomplish and explore are just woven into the fabric of who I am.
Right now I am consumed by writing a book. Who knows what will come next? I have always let my motivation guide me and that has served me well. Climbing has taught me how to thrive and created a life that I I feel incredibly lucky to have.