Boldness and humility are a remarkable combination. Tommy Caldwell seems to have both in abundance, as evidenced by his autobiography, The Push, which was released May 16.
Caldwell’s writing is as daring as his multitude of world-class climbing accomplishments, which range from 5.14 and 5.15 sport routes around the world, and towering free ascents on Yosemite’s El Capitan–including the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) in January 2015 with Kevin Jorgeson–to the first completion of the Fitz Roy Traverse in Patagonia with Alex Honnold in 2014. And that list doesn’t account for his narrow escape in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, at 21 years old, after he and three climbing partners were taken hostage. Or how he managed to climb harder than ever after cutting off his left index finger on a table saw in 2001.
Throughout the 337 pages of The Push, Caldwell’s voice and style shines through–he doesn’t appear to hold anything back. He is honest and vulnerable, which makes his moments of triumph even more inspiring.
“I believe people read memoirs because they want to truly get to know the author,” he said. “Therefore, the author has failed at that job if they are unable to be fully transparent and honest. My book is pretty revealing. I have been a public figure for many years and believe that people cannot be truly inspired without genuine authenticity and honesty…. I am and always have been a reluctant public figure. I climb because I can’t imagine a life without. I have come to realize, however, that if my story can inspire, that is a gift that should not be squandered.”
I grew up climbing in the same areas around Estes Park, Colorado, where Tommy and his dad, Mike Caldwell, continue to live and climb today. I’m about five years younger (Caldwell is 38), and I have followed Tommy’s climbing career for about as long as I’ve been climbing, a solid 22 years, and often wondered if the character I read about matched the man in person. So it was with great interest that I finally shook his hand when we attended the Access Fund and American Alpine Club’s Climb the Hill event in Washington, DC, in the second week of May. I tapped his shoulder during the welcome party as he got a beer at the minibar, and he joined me in a corner of the room. He made steady eye contact and seemed as curious about my life as I was about his. He joked about his missing finger and treated everyone with equal respect as a cluster of people circled around, also eager to meet or say hi to him. The following day, as part of the Colorado delegation of climbers, we walked around Capitol Hill in the rain, met with representatives and senators, and later convened at a dusky bar. Tommy spoke with the government officials and various power players the same way he spoke to me, the pesky journalist. At the time, I’d only just started reading his book and was about 45 pages into it. After DC, I finished his book, and all my impressions of this American hero remained intact.
The writing in the book is not fancy. It’s simple and accessible, and that’s all it needs to be, because Caldwell’s stories speak for themselves. I noticed my fingertips sweating while I read about his moments of doubt on the Dawn Wall, even though I already knew the outcome. His writing provided an immense level of emotional context for those culminating moments when he had to accept the possibility that all the years of effort and sacrifices might still result in failure. The Dawn Wall initially seemed impossible to him, yet he continued to give it everything he had for more than five years (he started trying to free the route ground-up in 2010), knowing he might still come up short of his goal. It appears he’s invested the same effort with this book.
The Push goes deep into Caldwell’s most personal relationships, such as those he has with his dad; his ex-wife, Beth Rodden; his current wife, Becca Caldwell; and his Dawn Wall partner, Jorgeson. He told me in DC that he hadn’t shared any of the writing with these people until after the early editions were printed. (Rodden recently wrote a story about her life for Outside Magazine that can be found here.)
“I tried to paint full pictures of the major relationships in my life in a effort to humanize,” he told me in a recent email, which he typed on his phone while traveling on the book tour. “My dad felt exposed, that has been hard for him in ways, but I believe it is leading to a deeper relationship between us. Beth and I have not talked about it yet. I don’t believe Kevin has read the book yet…. My relationship with Kevin has always been way more professional than personal. That’s been hard for me because I have always felt one of the greatest aspects of climbing is how it creates close friendships. I devote plenty of space in by book to lamenting about this. Nothing seems to have changed in that regard since completion of the Dawn Wall.”
In the book, Caldwell details his apprehension about trying the Porch Swing–essentially a 200-foot rope jump from the top of El Capitan (nearly 3,000 feet of sheer granite). Starting the swing involves rappelling off the end of a short rope that dangles over the lip of El Cap and dropping onto a second rope that is tied to the jumper. By then, Caldwell had taken plenty of lead falls on the Big Stone that were 60 feet or longer, but willfully rapping off the end of a rope–a thing of every climber’s worst nightmares–into a massive fall posed a different type of fear for him.
“Climbing is a game of control. The Porch Swing is all about letting go,” Caldwell writes in The Push.
As a writer who has endured emotional fallout from writing about my own close relationships, I imagined that releasing a book like this might entail a similar type of fear as the Porch Swing, as the essence is about letting go and accepting the results.
“With the Porch Swing it’s pretty clear: five seconds of terror followed by elation,” Caldwell said. “The book publication is months of squeamishness with some definite up-sides. Hard to compare the two, I suppose.”
Caldwell gives his close friend Kelly Cordes–an accomplished alpinist and author, and a neighbor to Caldwell–a lot of credit for the book’s production.
“Most of my prior writing experience had been done with climbing industry publications in which I worked collaboratively with great editors,” Caldwell said. “I wanted to format the book-writing experience similarly. Kelly is one of my greatest friends and has been a professional writer for many years. I have great stories and wanted to take the writing journey. But I needed the expertise of someone smarter and more knowledgeable than me. Essentially we treated it like a climbing partnership. You don’t hire someone to climb a mountain for you but you do find the best partner you can. I would write the initial drafts of the chapters then Kelly would help me to shape and polish them. He took the lead on the more historical stuff. I never could have done it without him.”
Cordes recounted how he and Caldwell first met and how the book got started in an email:
We got to know each other in 2005, when I bought the cabin next to his. Little 500 square-foot units, and soon there was a path between our cabins–mostly from me walking over there, stalker style. When he and Becca married, they finally moved about a mile down the road, but they still can’t shake me. He’s probably tried to erase our initial meeting from his memory, but we first met in 2001, when I lived in the Colorado Mountain School guide shack with my friend the Danimal. This was before renovations, back when it was truly a shack, once described as “a foul pit of climbing ambition and dirty dishes” (at $65/month, it was a bargain for someone). I was an editor for the American Alpine Journal and guiding some, and talked Tommy into giving me some info for the Journal. He was kind enough to come over to chat, wading through the crushed [beer] cans scattered about the floor–I recall the Danimal offering him a fresh one, but he declined. He surely erased that meeting from his memory. Or perhaps it’s why he subsequently moved away after I took the cabin next door….
Tommy and I had talked about his writing a memoir, and we’d done some work on a sample chapter before he sent the Dawn Wall. After the send, it was mayhem for him, and everyone wanted his story, so we cranked out a 20,000-word proposal that became the skeleton for the book. He’s one of my very closest friends, and I know him and his life story at least as well as he does (see stalker reference, above). Whenever we talk about life and even climbing, we tend to go deeper than the surface level. It became a unique and wonderful collaboration, but without our relationship, it wouldn’t have worked; I’ve got strong views on writing, am stubborn, and I couldn’t imagine working with anybody else on such a project. But given our relationship and my experience (I’m no Bill Shakespeare, but I’ve done more writing than he has), it was a natural fit….
“Vulnerability” was our most commonly used word while working together. It’s crucial for a good memoir, I think, and too often absent from writings of high achievers; perhaps a personal shield is part of getting shit done for many folks. Might make for great climbs, but not for a great book. So, we talked tons about vulnerability, and he was game and willing to open up, including examining his own shortcomings. It’s no big trick to drone on like “there I was….” Our relationship was huge in this regard, because I know him well, and so we already had that rapport. I still remember the day, for example, when he called me, his voice cracking as he drove back to Estes, asking if he could come over–Beth was leaving him. Tommy cried on my porch while we talked and sipped tequila late into the night. Writing about heartbreak, and then finding love again, and of tension and elation with various people in your life–all of these human experiences–is challenging. While working on the book, we’d talk as friends about how he felt during these experiences, try to get him back to that place, how he felt, and then analyze the situations as well as we could–his feelings, along with questions and counterpoints, all of which required him to go deep. Sometimes, in early drafts, we’d descend into navel-gazing, but that’s fine, as it’s better to have too much and then scale it back. Being so open, so vulnerable, requires tremendous bravery, and I think Tommy nailed it.
Interview with Tommy Caldwell and Kelly Cordes
What was the most significant challenge of this book project? How did you work through it?
Caldwell: Writing this book was extremely labor intensive for me: 30 to 40 hours a week for over a year. I became really obsessed about making it as great as I could. At times that came at the expense of time outside. I also felt at times like I was not a present dad and husband because my mind was always in the story. I previously felt like I did a decent job of achieving balance in my life. Writing this book changed that for a time. Eventually I learned how to compartmentalize. Now that I am done everything seems to be returning to normal.
Which was harder to finish: the book or the Dawn Wall?
Caldwell: A book is never finished, just abandoned. The duration of the Dawn Wall was much longer. So I suppose I would say the Dawn Wall.
What is next for you, after the book tour?
Caldwell: I am intentionally not allowing myself to become consumed by any projects right now. I am focusing on family. Climbing will always be there, and I am sure there will be more big goals. But for now I am taking it one step at a time.
A reader gets a pretty good idea of what your family adventures are like from what you wrote in the book, but can you describe a more typical family outing around home in Estes Park–do you have a favorite type of climbing, or place that all of you enjoy? Have you taken your kids snow caving (like your dad used to do with you)?
Caldwell: No snow caving for the kids, yet. We do spend a lot of time generally exploring the mountains, though. Hiking, bike touring, and of course climbing. Estes Park is not the most baby-friendly climbing area. So we travel extensively. We just returned from a two-month European road trip. Mostly northern Spain and Fontainebleau [France]. Font is definitely the best kid-friendly climbing area in the world. My 1-year-old daughter can’t even walk yet but loves crawling up the boulders.
Kelly, in the book, Tommy mentions in a couple places how you were a friend that helped him see his way through some difficult times–was this book project one of those times?
Cordes: Yes. I’m starting a business as a life coach. Er, wait, nobody would believe that. Hell, [Tommy] helped calm me about the book on a few occasions. Big writing projects work me–I obsess endlessly over details, freak out, and stress myself into a frenzy. Tommy is about as level headed as they come, and collaborating with him was rad. He should be a life coach, and I can be “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker.”