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On Friendship, Type Two Fun, & Peeing from Great Heights: A Conversation with Tommy Caldwell

Writing the opening line of an article about Tommy Caldwell is tough.

Do you mention the tweet he got from President Obama congratulating him for his first ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, or do you talk about the seven-year process of making that dream ascent happen? Do you describe his completion of Patagonia’s legendary Fitz Roy Traverse, also a first, or do you mention his belief that losing a finger in an accident was a launching point for his professional climbing career?

The obvious catchy first line has something to do with how he escaped terrorist kidnappers holding him and his friends hostage in Kyrgyzstan by pushing one of the captors off a cliff, but Tommy’s recent presentation at the Backcountry office in Park City poked fun at a reporter who used that tactic, so I’ll avoid it.

Needless to say, listening to Tommy speak about his wealth of life experience was enthralling. The surprising part, though, was his laid-back and cool demeanor and the way that interviewing him and then listening to his presentation felt just like talking to a friend.

TC-portrait-2aTommy stopped by recently as part of his new gig with European climbing brand Edelrid.

It makes sense, then, that despite accomplishing unreal climbing objectives on both the Dawn Wall and the Fitz Roy Traverse, it is moments of friendship and brotherhood that most stand out in his memory. He spoke of a moment ten days into the Dawn Wall ascent when his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, couldn’t make it past a difficult section on the route’s 15th pitch and urged Tommy to go on without him.

“It was something that I’d personally been working on for seven years and Kevin for five, and we were so invested,” he said. “And then all of a sudden he’s failing. And it’s the middle of winter, a storm could come … we’re really under the clock and all of a sudden I have to make the decision of whether to wait for him or [take him up on his offer] to belay me to the top.

“So what’s more valuable, actually doing this thing or this friendship and bond we’ve built? You have to decide. I think throwing out the idea of doing the climb, putting that in huge jeopardy and putting the partnership ahead of that was huge; it was a moral decision that felt so right. It was a little bit scary, but when it was made it was like, ‘This is the right thing to do and this is awesome.’ It made us bond more, and I think, ironically, it’s one of the things that drew so much attention to the climb as well because people saw it as this authentic, pure, cool adventure that wasn’t just about the accomplishment, necessarily. It was more about doing something rad together.”

As the pair regrouped, the crowd gathered in El Capitan meadow to watch their attempt continued to grow. When they finally reached the top, together on day 19, they were met by a cheering group of about 60 people who had hiked up another route. “What are we, the Beatles?” Tommy asked of the screaming crowd.

Tommy talked about finally reaching the top of the Dawn Wall with his typical nonchalance blended with humor. “There’s a pretty crazy phenomenon on big walls, when the sun hits the surface of the rock it creates this heat that makes this pretty intense thermal updraft,” he said. “And there’s no bathrooms up there, so when you pee your urine tends to drift in this updraft and float all around you. It’s pretty beautiful, actually, and those glimmering droplets will hover all around you, and almost like you’re in outer space or something, you can pluck them out of the air with two fingers. But the net effect is that you end up pissing all over yourself and your climbing partner and everything within a quarter mile of you.

“So as we summited El Cap and were greeted by friends and family and reporters, we just smelled horribly of urine.”

All told, the ascent of the Dawn Wall received about 13 billion media impressions and boosted Tommy to star status. The attention has certainly changed his life, but it’s also prompted him to really consider what he most loves about climbing and what his motivations are. He discussed his love for the climbing lifestyle and for having projects that he finds “emotionally appealing.”

TC-in-article-1

“One of the coolest things about climbing is the process of taking these huge things that look incredibly daunting and impossible, breaking them down to their elemental parts, and therefore making them possible. And El Cap was that way,” he said.

“For me it’s all about living the most vibrant, exciting life I can, and having projects as a focal point makes you super psyched to get out every day and get up early in the morning. I find the projects incredibly invigorating and energizing, and that’s kind of why I go after them.”

I asked him how he gets through the times he feels discouraged, like the moments during his seven-year preparation for climbing the Dawn Wall when the objective seemed utterly impossible.

“When I was younger I would get discouraged at things because I was so focused on the outcome, on the accomplishment, he said. “But as soon as you can shift your perspective and realize that it’s all part of the experience, the tough times are going to be the ones that teach you the most and the ones that you remember.

“You can even see the tough times as really beneficial. [There is] Type One and Type Two fun…Type One is fun in the moment and Type Two is fun only in retrospect. A lot of times climbing is Type Two fun. But when you’ve been doing it long enough some of the Type Two fun becomes Type One fun because you’re looking down the road, you know that it’s going to turn into something cool in the end.”

Tommy is no stranger to persevering through pain. He started climbing with his dad at the age of three and learned from him the value of embracing difficult times.

“My dad is a mountain guide and a fly fishing guide, and with all his clients he convinces them that the worse the conditions are and the more gnarly it is, the more of a life experience it is and the more they’re getting their money’s worth,” he said. “That’s how it was with me. From a super early age I loved to get out there and get beat up in the mountains, and it served me pretty well.

“Probably the most important thing for climbers is that they have short memories. They forget pain really quickly, and I was one of those people. But the fact that I got so beat down really lit the fire…I learned to love the hardship.”

This mentality helped him get through the experience of being kidnapped by militants while climbing in Kyrgyzstan during his mid-twenties, and being held for six days without food or water. That story is worth checking out, but his explanation of the experience and its aftereffects gives a fascinating picture of just why and how Tommy does what he does.

He describes being kidnapped as “intense beyond comprehension.” “We had to push ourselves physically and mentally further than I could have ever experienced in climbing, and much farther than I ever thought I could … we as humans are capable of so much more than we would ever recognize on a day-to-day basis until we’re actually forced to go to that place. In a lot of ways my life ever since then has been an effort to get back there to understand more about that. It was a pretty life invigorating thing to go through, if you can frame it correctly.”

It is no surprise that within the climbing community that Tommy has reached legend status. He’s married now and has a son, Fitz, named after Patagonia’s Fitz Roy, and it seems as if this growth in perspective has shifted his priorities a bit. In 2014, he took his family down to Patagonia along with climbing partner, Alex Honnold. They went without a distinct climbing objective, and it was only a lucky break in weather that gave Tommy and Alex a window to attempt, and complete, the pipe dream objective of the first completion of Fitz Roy Traverse.

Fitz-Roy-1The Fitz Roy Traverse, 5k along the knifedge ridgelines of Cerro Fitz Roy and its satellite peaks. Photo by Todor Bozhinov

It was clear in my conversation with Tommy that what he most values now is relationships—family, friends—and the camaraderie that comes from the sport he loves. I think this is evident in the to-the-point answer he gave when I asked if he had any advice for beginner climbers: “Find the community,” he said. “It’s all about the stoke, really, and you have to share that.”

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