Tommy Caldwell hardly needs an introduction. Most well-known for his free climb of the Dawn Wall in 2015, Tommy, aged 39, has also made first ascents of some of the hardest sport routes in the United States, written a book, The Push, and survived kidnapping by rebels in Kyrgyzstan in 2000.
During a recent visit to REI headquarters, we sat down with him to talk about his advocacy for public lands, his new documentary, The Dawn Wall, and how he’s raising his kids outdoors.
You’ve been outspoken about protecting public lands. What motivates your advocacy efforts?
It’s been a growing sentiment within me in the past four or five years. When you have kids and a little influence, comes a feeling of responsibility. I’ve focused mostly on public lands, doing the occasional trip to D.C. to lobby. And it feels right. As a professional climber, we spend so much time thinking about exactly what we personally want, when you can think of things outside of that, it feels like the right way to be an adult.
Climb the Hill, a lobbying event in D.C. organized by the Access Fund and American Alpine Club, is coming up. What do you hope to achieve?
I did the Climb the Hill event last year and started to build some relationships with senators and staffers in D.C. You just have to keep going back and keep trying to move the needle. I learned something interesting: D.C. is mostly run by the staffers, who are all in their 20s and climbers. Climb the Hill last year was really successful, and that’s part of it.
The Dawn Wall, the new documentary about your historic 2015 climb with Kevin Jorgeson, recently premiered at SXSW. What was it like to have your progress on the wall documented?
I’ve been working with Big Up Productions and Sender Films since I was a teenager. When Kevin and I sent the Dawn Wall, we were on the wall for 19 days with Brett Lowell, the head videographer. It wasn’t me and Kevin, it was me and Kevin and Brett. That was the team that did the Dawn Wall. It wasn’t a hindrance. If anything it was helpful to share the workload of moving all of our equipment around. A lot of big wall climbing is the grunt manual labor stuff. Plus, it’s a creative outlet. We’d sit there on the portaledge and think, “How can we get a helicopter-type angle?” We’d start innovating systems with ropes. The Dawn Wall was different because the climbing was so hard and so conditions dependent that we could really only climb about five hours a night. So we would have every day, all day long, to just hang out in such a beautiful place in the middle of winter on El Capitan. It was pretty magical.
There is a moment during the climb where you have to choose to stay with Kevin or go on alone. Why is partnership so important in climbing?
I got to mentor Kevin from never having big-wall-climbed in his life, going through this period where he was super scared and uncomfortable to actually being quite comfortable. It was passing the torch in a way.
By the end, there was a crazy moment. I was certain that I would do the route. And I had to decide whether to wait for Kevin. It was a really risky thing, because it was the middle of winter and you could have to abandon the whole project. It was something I had worked on for seven years at that point and I didn’t know if I ever would be fit enough again. I really had to decide would I value that partnership or value my own personal success? The decision seemed pretty obvious to me in the moment.
You approached writing your book, The Push, with the same fervor you do climbing—30-40 hours a week for a year. How did the process of writing a book compare to climbing?
You can obsess in a very similar way. When I get really excited about something, I get very disciplined. I would wake up at 4 o’clock every day for a year and put in eight hours of writing. That was a way it was similar. But I’ve been climbing my whole life. I haven’t been writing my whole life. Learning that craft and trying to excel in a way that I’m not totally used to was unsettling. I would never take that year back, but it didn’t feel like it flowed as well as when I’m out climbing.
Your son just turned 5 and your daughter is a toddler, but that doesn’t stop you from getting outside. How are you raising your children outdoors?
That’s how I was raised. My wife is such a good advocate for that. She’s got this vision that raising our kids outside is going to mold them into the best possible people. We’re outside all the time. My wife even started the Little Explorers Club, where she goes around and gets other people to go to national parks with their kids.
How, if at all, has becoming a father changed anything about the way you climb?
It has made life more hectic. Having kids takes a lot of time away from climbing. But then my climbing time is very, very surgical and productive. In some ways I value it more. The risk elements have changed for me. I never wanted to die before, and so I still don’t want to die, but I am more cautious. If I didn’t have kids and a wife, most likely I’d be going on several big Himalayan expeditions a year and most likely die in the mountains. Hopefully that’s not going to happen now.
There is a whole new upstart of climbers starting in the gym—worlds away from the way you learned to climb. What do you want to tell them about the sport?
I’ve made my climbing life from merging real adventure with real athletics. The thing that worked for me is that I took that athleticism from [competition] climbing to the big mountains. In the future, we’re going to see everything as an outgrowth of the pure skill that people build. That skill is most efficiently built in the climbing gym. It’s going to create this incredible jump in climbing—it already has. It’s going to change our ideas about what is possible.
You talk about the fear of exposure leaving you and feeling most comfortable on the wall. What is your advice for people who still experience fear while climbing?
A bit of fear of heights is a healthy thing to hold on to. If you continue to get yourself into situations where you are scared, it is like training a muscle. You just steadily get better. That feeling of fear turns into a feeling of excitement. When that happens, it’s very empowering.
You’ve done quite a few climbs people thought to be impossible. How do you know the line between the possible and impossible?
It’s an incremental process. You don’t just go into a different realm and do things people thought were impossible. El Cap is something I spent 20 years of my life incrementally getting better at. All the people who are witnessing that don’t experience that day-to-day process, so it seems like you’re doing something impossible. But it’s really because you broke it down into parts and figured out how to make it work.
What drives you to keep pushing yourself to the edge of your ability?
I’m like a growth junkie. I’m addicted to that feeling of getting better. If you’ve had success, it makes you want more. The more times I’m able to do things I previously didn’t think I could do, the more I strive to do that again.
What is next on your list?
Next year, before my kids fully age into school, we’re renting our house and getting back into the lifestyle of being on the road. There’s a ton of people doing this. Just two days ago, I got back from Fontainebleau. We had [my son] Fitz’s birthday, and there were 11 kids and 22 parents at his birthday party, people from all over the world who had connected while traveling. It’s this really social community. Living on the road seems like it could be a lonely existence from afar, but now there are enough people doing it that it’s actually overly social.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.