Vail Symposium presents climbing legend Tommy Caldwell
If you go ...
What: Vail Symposium’s Unlimited Adventure Series welcomes climber Tommy Caldwell.
Where: Donovan Pavilion, Vail.
When: Wednesday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m.
More information: Visit www.vailsymposium.org.
Tommy Caldwell became a climbing legend when he climbed the nearly vertical 3,000-foot Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with his climbing partner Kevin Jorgenson, a feat that is widely regarded as the hardest climb ever accomplished in the history of the sport.
On Wednesday, Jan. 17, the Vail Symposium presents Caldwell, author of “The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk and Going Beyond Limits,” as part of its Unlimited Adventure Series. The presentation is at Donovan Pavilion in Vail at 6 p.m. Tickets are $10.
Penguin Books caught up with Caldwell to ask a few questions.
Penguin Books: You started rock climbing at an early age — you did your first roped climb at just 3 years old, and won your first competitions as a teenager. Can you describe how you fell in love with climbing and when you realized you wanted to make this your career?
Tommy Caldwell: When I was a kid, climbing was about adventure and playing in the outdoors. I didn’t understand how unique it was until I was a teenager and started to travel. Climbing took me to the wildest places in the world and showed me a community of passionate, non-traditional thinkers. I gained an understanding that climbing could be more than a sport. It could be a lifestyle and personal meditation, a way to find purpose and a beautiful addiction.
That’s when I fell in love with the endeavor. I did competitions because they motivated me to train and helped me to quantify progress. They also gave me enough money to quit my job and live full-time on the road. I never intended to make climbing a profession, I just did what I loved and the career grew organically from there.
PB: In 2000, you and three other climbers were kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan and held captive for six days. As harrowing as this was, you trace the Kyrgyzstan experience as the possible origin of your aspirations to climb the Dawn Wall. Describe how your capture changed you both as a person and a climber.
TC: The Kyrgyzstan ordeal was my coming of age moment. During those six days, my teammates and I weathered a level of emotional and physical pain that was far beyond anything I could have imagined before. For a time afterwards I doubted everything. But as I returned to climbing, I began to understand how the experience shifted my perspective and unearthed a strength I did not know I had.
It raised my tolerance for pain and suffering and ignited a curiosity for the limits of human and personal capability. It also increased my capacity to love and built a belief that I had the power to choose how to view the world. The Dawn Wall became a manifestation of these ideas.
PB: The crowning achievement of your climbing career was summiting the nearly vertical 3,000-foot Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with your climbing partner Kevin Jorgenson, a feat that is widely regarded as the hardest climb ever accomplished in the history of the sport. You trained and planned for seven years for this climb. Can you describe the feeling of summiting the Dawn Wall, after all those years preparing for and dreaming about it?
TC: For me, the feeling of summiting the Dawn Wall was not what most people would expect. Yes, it was powerful and emotional, and yes, I felt elation and a level of relief. But I also felt loss and sadness. The moment marked the end of a seven-year love affair. In many ways, the climb had been my closest companion through some dark days. Then it showed me how to dream. Topping out was like saying goodbye.
PB: As word spread, your Dawn Wall climb made worldwide headlines. Reporters from NPR, The New York Times and other major media outlets were calling for interviews. In one day, your Instagram account went from 5,000 followers to 50,000 thousand. You became a celebrity basically overnight. How did you cope with the attention on the wall, and how has it changed your life since?
TC: Outside recognition has never sat easy with me. But in a way, it’s part of the job that leads to a sustainable lifestyle.
The media explosion during our final climb was a new level. While on the wall, Kevin and I quickly realized that it would be too much of a distraction to pay attention to all media so we made the decision to only grant interviews to our favorite media outlets, NPR and The New York Times. After this, I dropped my cell phone off the wall and was therefore largely unaware of how big the story had become.
We topped out to news cameras, fans and a call from the president himself. People would greet us on the streets with tears in their eyes. I started to see that Kevin and I had unintentionally tapped into a formula for inspiration. The recognition still leaves me uneasy, but I understand now that the opportunity to touch the lives of so many is a privilege that should not be squandered.
In life there is a time to experience, a time to reflect,and a time to teach. More than anything the attention of climbing the Dawn Wall has changed my life from being purely a climber to being a climber, storyteller and teacher.