Tommy Caldwell, man who free-climbed El Capitan, opening Winter Words series in Aspen

Andrew Travers
Aspen Times
Tommy Caldwell free climbing El Capitan's Dawn Wall in January in 2015.
Courtesy Photo

After his historic free-climb ascent of the El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park in early 2015, Tommy Caldwell stared down a nearly as daunting challenge: a blank page.

To write his memoir, published last year as “The Push,” Caldwell used the same tools he’d used as a climber to revolutionize his sport and accomplish the seemingly impossible.

“With climbing, I’m not super naturally talented physically and I’m kind of in the same boat intellectually,” Caldwell, who will open the Winter Words author series Jan. 8, said in a recent phone interview from his home in Boulder. “I always struggled as a student. But I have this ability to apply pretty incredible discipline and to feel impassioned toward things. That’s what I do with my climbing. That’s what I did with the book.”

Focused on the book for a year, Caldwell set his alarm for 4 a.m. to wake up and start writing no matter how he was feeling or whether he had anything to say. Eventually, “The Push” started taking shape.

“I love digging that deep into things and committing and making it as great as I can,” he said.

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And, just like he needed Kevin Jorgeson as his climbing partner for the Dawn Wall, he needed editors and co-writer Kelly Cordes to creatively belay on the book. Once he committed and prepared, he knew what to do.

“In climbing you have to analyze things, but at some point you have to go for it and go all in,” he said. “That’s what I did with the writing.”

“The Push” again proves Caldwell, 40, can do just about anything when he commits to it.

It’s an honest and surprisingly vulnerable memoir from the world-famous climber — not some chest-thumping recitation of mountaineering glory. The book offers tactile physical and emotional detail about what it’s like to climb the Dawn Wall — the wind, the fear, the feel of rock on fingers — and also digs thoughtfully into big question of “why?”

“When I was writing the book I tried to think as little as possible about the fact that a bunch of people were going to read it in the end,” he explained. “I was just trying to create the best piece of literature that I could. That required being very vulnerable.”

The book offers an unflinching look at some of the thornier sides of Caldwell’s private life and the backdrop of his very public inner life. He doesn’t shy away from his father’s fanaticism as an outdoorsman and some of the questionable and dangerous ways he pushed Caldwell as a teen prodigy climber. It details the Colorado native’s harrowing experience of being captured by armed militants while climbing in Kyrgyzstan, his dramatic escape, and how the traumatic event may have led to the dissolution of his first marriage. It shares the story of Caldwell cutting off his left index finger in a table saw accident and pushing ahead with elite climbing with nine fingers.

“The part that is harder is the personal relationships with people who didn’t necessarily choose to be characters in my book,” he said. “I tried to be as true to my heart as possible and hoped that they would understand that.”

His father, Caldwell said, was upset when he first read the book. But he’s come around and now regularly asks his son to sign copies for friends.

This fall, the documentary “The Dawn Wall” about the climb was released. Caldwell said the film marks a sort of end to three years of reacting to public demand to hear about the Dawn Wall — in speeches and public appearances like his 2015 presentation at the 5Point Film Festival, in the book, and then in the documentary.

And, of course, there’s another recent movie about another historic climb that’s kept Cladwell in the public eye.

“Free Solo,” Jimmy Chin’s vertigo-inducing and genre-smashing documentary about Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider route, has signaled a rare cross-over from the mountain movie circuit to the mainstream. Caldwell, who Honnold tapped to assist with preparations on the death-defying and controversial climb, is the major figure in the film after Honnold and girlfriend Sanni McCandless. Caldwell, with his two young kids and his ambivalence toward Honnold’s wish to do El Cap without ropes, emerges in the film as a voice of relative reason.

One of the most acclaimed features of 2018, “Free Solo” appears poised to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. It screens Friday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. Honnold and the creative team have been swept up into awards season campaigning, but Caldwell said he’s mostly been able to sit out the glad-handing and schmoozing of the awards circuit. He attended the world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and the red carpet premiere in New York, but otherwise has been able to stick with his ongoing tour for “The Push” and “The Dawn Wall.”

“It’s been amazing to watch the whole thing,” he said of the “Free Solo” phenomenon. “Everybody involved in the thing are such huge performers and trying to achieve excellence in this incredible way. … The whole tuxedo scene has taken some adjusting for Alex, but I think he has adjusted quite well.”

As Caldwell was writing “The Push,” his wife gave birth to their second child — they’re now 2 and 5 — and the onset of fatherhood, he said, animated every word of his memoir. The self-examination in the book, Caldwell sees now, resulted from his transition into being a dad and out of the inherently selfish life of a professional climber.

“The book is really introspective and I think that’s a reflection of where I was,” he said. “I was trying to figure out how I lived, what were the good decisions I made, what were the bad decisions I made and all that was an effort to be a better father. You’ve got to understand yourself before you can pass that on.”

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