Tommy Caldwell: Beating the Odds on the Dawn Wall

There’s a very fine line between dedication and obsession. Tommy Caldwell’s personal story, leading up to his and Kevin Jorgeson’s never-before-attempted climb up El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, explains why and how the young man managed to pull off such an impressive feat.

It took years for Tommy and Kevin to plan their climb, and, on January 14, 2015, they literally pulled themselves up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in front of a circus of friends, family, and media.

Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell being interviewed. / Tommy and Alex resting in tents attached to the wall with clips

Source: Pinterest / Instagram, @tommycaldwell

It took them 19 days to make it to the top. That’s 19 days of incredibly hard climbing and maneuvering, sleeping in tents that are hanging off a cliff, eating canned food, relieving themselves off the side of their tents, and essentially talking themselves into making it out alive. While that climb in and of itself is incredible, the real story is how Tommy got to that point in the first place. And it involves a kidnapping…

Not Just a Regular Story

For those of you who haven’t seen Netflix’s documentary The Dawn Wall, then you should know that while this may seem at first glance like a story for climbing enthusiasts, it is not, by any means. This is no regular extreme sports story. This is a story with many layers, involving family values, love and heartbreak, obsession and determination, and even a kidnapping.

Tommy hooked up to the wall hundred of feet in the air sitting in a chair while holding an umbrella

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

When Tommy was young, doctors told his parents that he was slow and likely had a learning disability. He was a scrawny kid who only started crawling at the age of two. His father Mike was a bodybuilder, mountain guide, and rock climber who felt that he needed to show his son what it was to “be a man.” So he toughened him up by showing him the great outdoors and teaching him to climb.

Making It to the Top

The Loveland, Colorado native grew up climbing under the guidance of his father. One day, when Tommy was 16 years old, Mike took him to a climbing contest. The teen managed to climb up to the top, making him the first-ever contest winner to defeat that wall. Suddenly, this unknown kid became a local celebrity.

Tommy and Austin resting on their climb

Source: Instagram / @austin_siadak

It was around this time that Tommy met Beth Rodden, a fellow rock climber. The two hit it off despite their awkward teenage personalities. The two started dating, climbing together, and going on rock climbing adventures together. When they were in their early 20s, the young couple was given an opportunity to join a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan. They eagerly agreed to go, but little did they know that the trip would prove to be both dramatic and life-changing.

The Kyrgyzstan Expedition

You see, while the Kyrgyzstan expedition left Beth, and perhaps the rest of their group, forever traumatized, Tommy came out the other end a changed person – a new person. But if you ask me, it takes a certain kind of person to take such a dramatic event and create something positive out of it.

Tommy climbing at night with a light on his head

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

So what exactly happened on this trip to Kyrgyzstan? Well, essentially, Tommy, Beth, and their climbing crew were kidnapped. In 2000, Beth, Tommy, and other climbers traveled to the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. It was going to be the ultimate climbing challenge for the young yet elite climbers. The cliffs of Kyrgyzstan are massive, beautiful, and dangerous, and not only because of the mountains.

Kidnapped by Rebels

Instead of being tested on their climbing skills, they were ultimately tested on their ability to survive. One early morning, having camped on a rock they were climbing, they suddenly heard gunfire. They were being shot at – right there on the mountain –with nowhere to hide. There were rebels at the bottom of the mountain, shooting at them and motioning for them to come down.

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold at the top of a mountain with a lot of rope

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. Photo by J Chin / National Geographic / Kobal / Shutterstock

Another member of the team, John, volunteered to go down and see what was going on. That’s when he radioed back: “I think you guys need to come down here.” As the team headed down, they were met by three men in army uniforms, with full beards, rifles, grenades, handguns, and knives.

Friendly, but Scary

According to Tommy, they were friendly. “We shook their hands. But they were scary looking, so we knew that we had to do exactly what they said.” Soon enough, Beth, Tommy, and the others were taken hostage by armed rebels. At the time, there were bands of rebels at war with the Kyrgyz government.

Tommy, Beth, and Lee standing at the bottom of the cliff with their gear on

Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, and Lee. Source: Flickr

For the following six days, this group of American climbers was pushed to limits they never imagined possible. The rebels forced them to lead the group to their main camp, where the men ransacked their stuff and ate all their food. While Beth and Tommy thought the whole thing would end there, they met another prisoner: a captured Kyrgyz soldier.

“If You Move, You’re Dead”

Beth recounted that the rebel communicated to them through charades (they didn’t speak English) that these guys had killed many Kyrgyz soldiers, and they were basically taking them captive. These 20-somethings looked like they were barely pushing 17, and they had to fight for their lives on what was supposed to be a rock climbing adventure.

Beth and Tommy resting on the side of a wall

Source: Pinterest

The group was forced to follow them and play hide and seek with government helicopters and patrols that were sweeping the valley, looking for these rebels. Tommy remembers how helicopters would fly over, and the rebels would point their guns at them, telling them to hide in the bushes. There was one point when a rebel pointed his gun directly at John’s head and said, “If you move, you’re dead.”

A Very Serious Situation

“We hid under boulders, under trees, covered in pine boughs — anywhere that seemed really unlikely for people to be,” Beth described. It came to a point where a fight broke out between the rebels. As they were crossing a river, the Kyrgyz Army showed up, and a battle broke out.

Tommy Caldwell and another climber resting on a small ledge in the cliff

Source: Flickr

“We were hiding in bushes, and there were bullets going through the bushes, so our captors told us to run up to this rock,” Tommy explained. One of the rebels was shot right next to them as they were hiding in the bushes. And that told them that this was a very serious situation and that these people wouldn’t hesitate to kill.

To Push or Not to Push?

What were they surviving on? Beth said they had a toiletries kit and power bars, which they ate every day. After four or five days, the situation was getting desperate. Two of the guys, Jason and John, were talking among themselves about escaping – finding ways to try and overwhelm these rebels.

Tommy Caldwell climbing a mountain

Source: Instagram / @tommy Caldwell

All their scheming was going nowhere, that is, until three of the rebels left, leaving one man in charge of all the captives. They were climbing and getting really close to a steep point. Tommy recalled how the lone rebel was really scared the whole time on the cliff because he wasn’t a climber. That’s when they decided that pushing him off the edge would be their only chance at survival.

A Defining Moment

Tommy asked Beth if she thought he should do it. Should he push this man off the cliff, sending him to his death but ultimately freeing themselves from captivity? If you put yourself in their shoes, you can understand how difficult a decision this was, especially for such young individuals.

Beth Rodden climbing between two large rocks

Source: National Geographic

It was then that Tommy ran up behind him, grabbed him by his gun strap, and literally pushed him over the edge of the cliff. At 2,000 feet above the river, they watched as he fell about 20 feet, bounced off a ledge, and then fell into the abyss below. “I totally panicked. I broke down. I couldn’t believe I’d just done that,” Tommy admitted.

Adrenaline High, Finding Rescue

“It’s something that I never morally thought I could do, and I never wanted to do.” Beth, as well as Jason and John, comforted him and reassured him that he did what he needed to do to save their lives. At that point, their adrenaline was sky high and they ran – for three hours – searching for the Kyrgyz Army to save them.

Tommy as Beth being interviewed after being rescued

Tommy and Beth. Source: Imgur

Several miles and hours later, frightened and exhausted, the climbers finally found an army camp. That’s when Tommy and the group learned that the man they thought he had killed actually survived the fall. But he was captured by Kyrgyz soldiers and later sentenced to death. The group was saved and sent back to America, but the story was far from over.

The Aftermath

They were now safe, but the expedition left them in a very different state than they had been in before. Beth had nightmares for the first six months and didn’t enjoy climbing at all anymore. “I related climbing to being kidnapped,” she revealed. But she and Tommy stayed together, went to church and therapy.

Tommy and Beth posing together

Tommy and Beth. Source: Imgur

They worked through it and soon got back into climbing again, together. There was a media frenzy, though, and the couple was constantly being interviewed by reporters. Tommy’s father noticed a drastic change in his son. He was a different person at this point; he had a newfound confidence and energy – something Tommy noticed in himself as well.

An Injury That Led Him to New Heights

After the kidnapping, something else happened to Tommy that would take him to even higher levels of determination. A year after the event, Tommy and Beth were living and working on their cabin in Colorado. As Tommy was sawing wood, he accidentally sawed off half of his pointer finger.

Tommy Caldwell holding up a plastic fork with a knife built into it next to his missing finger

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

For a free climber who uses his hands to literally pull himself up, being told that he wouldn’t be able to climb anymore wasn’t what he wanted to hear. But while some may take the news as a sort of death sentence, Tommy went in the other direction. Again, Tommy isn’t like most people. He wasn’t going to let this injury ruin his life. In fact, it pushed him to greater heights.

Training His Finger to Feel Again

For free climbers, their hands and fingers are their tools. Every nerve ending in their fingers assists them in their climbs. Now, with one of his fingers missing its tip, there weren’t exactly nerve endings to work with anymore. But Tommy wasn’t going to just let that happen. So what he did was train his finger to feel again.

Tommy Caldwell resting in his tent on the side of the wall

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

He retrained the nerves in his finger by basically abusing it – applying all kinds of objects and textures to it, from nails to herbs. With time, his nub of a finger was behaving as though it was full length, which meant one very important thing: he could climb again. And now, Tommy was even more determined. He was revitalized, confident, empowered, and ready to tackle his next adventure.

The “First Couple” of Climbing

Having nine fingers wasn’t going to prevent him from achieving his dreams. And his biggest dream was to attack the Dawn Wall. He and Beth, who by now were married and climbing together, spent the next five years climbing all the known walls on Yosemite’s El Capitan. Together, they climbed them all, becoming known in the media as the “first couple of climbing.”

Tommy Caldwell and Beth Rodden in climbing gear posing for a photograph with a large drop behind them

Source: Twitter

But, like the cracks in the mountains they ascended, the seams in their marriage were starting to appear. Beth was starting to feel resentful, for reasons of her own, and eventually looked outside of the marriage for comfort. In the end, she left Tommy for another man. They divorced, and Tommy was left alone, without a wife or a climbing partner.

Attacking the Dawn Wall

As Tommy was healing from his divorce, he did the only thing he could do to distract himself: climb. El Capitan became his therapist – climbing his therapy. Tommy himself became obsessed. His goal? To climb the 3,000 foot Dawn Wall, a never-before-attempted climb that had yet to be mapped out.

Tommy Caldwell climbing

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

The Dawn Wall, given its name, because it’s the first wall on El Capitan to see any light (in the dawn of the morning), didn’t have a route for climbers. That meant that Tommy was the first one to do it. And he spent a year figuring out each and every pitch (like a point on the map) of that wall. In the beginning, he invited his father to join him.

Finding a New Partner

15 years after the kidnapping, Tommy, who was now married to a woman named Becca and the father to their son Fritz, had a new mission: to defeat El Capitan, the Mecca of rock climbing. But first, he needed a partner. Without Beth, he needed someone he could trust to climb with him because he knew he couldn’t do it alone.

Becca and their son with an ice cream cone

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

As fate would have it, a guy named Kevin Jorgeson emailed him out of the blue. Kevin, raised in the wine country of Santa Rosa, was a climber himself. But Kevin was what they called a bouldering champ. He would free climb massive boulders, which was similar to but different from climbing cliffs.

Showing Him the Ropes

Nevertheless, Kevin wanted a new adventure, and so he sent Tommy, his idol, a message asking if he wanted a climbing partner. Lo and behold, it was exactly what Tommy was looking for. Kevin and Tommy would spend the next six years of their lives tackling the Dawn Wall, marking their route with all of its 32 pitches.

Kevin and Tommy with a hanging tent attached to the wall with a hook

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

Kevin, not being a true free climber, learned a lot from Tommy, who literally showed him the ropes. And so, in the dead of 2015’s winter, Tommy and Kevin started what would become a daunting 19-day climb – an ascent up a never-before-tested path on El Capitan that would turn these two young men into not just local but international celebrities.

Like a Man Possessed

Kevin learned that Tommy was “like a man possessed,” totally obsessed with completing this mission. As for Kevin, he was just trying to keep up. Ascending this mountain required insane amounts of mental and physical strength. At first, there were maybe a couple people – hardcore fans – who wanted to see history in the making with their own eyes.

Kevin Jorgeson resting in a tent which is hanging from a hook on the side of the El Captain’s Dawn Wall

Kevin Jorgeson on El Captain’s Dawn Wall in 2015. Photo by Corey Rich

But, as the days passed, and after The New York Times, the previously unheard-of attempt became a national event. People other than their friends and family started camping out at the bottom, watching as these two “crazy guys” made the climb of their generation. Even Yosemite climbing legend, John Long, figured the climb to be futile.

The Media Was Buzzing

By day nine or ten, the media was buzzing. Having the country’s eyes on them as they attempted this climb was both motivating and nerve-racking at the same time. It came to a point where Tommy was able to complete the dreaded Pitch 15 – a point that was particularly difficult because it was lateral, and the rock was extremely smooth.

Tommy Caldwell climbing a cliff

Tommy Caldwell. Source: Red Bull

It took him a while, but Tommy successfully made it past the pitch. Now he needed Kevin to catch up to him. All eyes were on Kevin as he attempted Pitch 15. But, try after try, he just wasn’t making it – and cursing and yelling every time he fell back. It’s at moments like these when people tend to differ dramatically.

Would He Give Up?

Many would give up. But not these two. As days passed and Kevin was not making the pitch, he decided to take a few days to rest, give his fingers a chance to heal and talk himself into it. People were starting to wonder: would he make it? Would he give up? Would Tommy carry on without him?

Tommy and Alex resting in tents attached to the wall with clips

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

Even the media was doing what it does best and making it look a lot more dramatic than it was. They made it out to be a feud between Kevin and Tommy, when, in fact, Tommy was supporting Kevin all the way, telling him that he wanted to make it up to the top together.

He Did It

But even with Tommy’s support, after Kevin’s second round of attempts at Pitch 15, he gave up and surrendered to being Tommy’s supporter for the rest of the climb. But Tommy wouldn’t let that be the narrative. He encouraged Kevin to keep trying – he knew he could do it. He knew they could reach the top together. Tommy was committed to Kevin.

Kevin climbing while Tommy rests

Source: Pinterest

And then, after seven full days of trying Pitch 15, Kevin did it. He managed to reach his way across. From then on, the extremely difficult remaining pitches weren’t a piece of cake, but they were doable. It was day 19, and the two of them were just 300 feet from the summit.

Achieving the Impossible

In the end, both Kevin and Tommy reached the top, each one making the pitch individually but together, as partners. In essence, they achieved the impossible. Crowds below cheered them on as the two peeled their way to the summit, tears in just about everyone’s eyes. Both Tommy and Kevin were emotional as they let out a howl of victory at the top.

Tommy and Kevin hugging their loved ones at the top of the wall

Source: National Geographic

Of course, the two were bombarded with reporters and fans asking them how they felt. The emotional climbers gave exhausted but heartfelt answers. And, when one reporter later asked what it’s like to take a shower after 19 days, Tommy could only smile and give a thumbs up.

Lessons of Perseverance

Tommy admitted that defeating the Dawn Wall was bittersweet. The sweet is obvious, but it was also bitter because what he had spent the last six years preparing for was now over. His purpose, as he saw it, was now gone. Of course, Tommy is still climbing in Yosemite. Although it’s been five years since the Dawn Wall, Tommy didn’t know “if I’d come back to the valley for a while,” he said.

Tommy and other climbers resting

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

“But it feels like home here. It’s great for the family; my wife loves it; my kids love it… What brings me back more than anything is the family scene. The way that climbers use Yosemite, it feels peaceful. In a lot of ways, it’s changed, but in a lot of ways, it still feels the same as it did when I was a little kid.”

Turning Fear into Inspiration

As a child, Tommy learned how to embrace fear and transform it into inspiration. When he was six years old, his father took him to Yosemite’s Lost Arrow Spire. “People thought my dad was insane for taking such a small child to these places.” But his father was “all about life experiences,” Tommy said of those early years.

Tommy climbing at age 12 / Tommy and his father resting on a rock

Tommy Caldwell 12 years old next to Tommy with his father. Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

By the age of 14, Tommy was climbing with his father. He started competing at age 16. He would often surpass the climbers in his age group and even adults. Tommy quickly became one of the best young climbers in the world. His first big climbing trip came at the age of 17 when he attempted El Capitan’s Salathé Wall with his dad.

An Early Desire to Win

But Tommy was overwhelmed and defeated, and he decided to leave the park. He wanted to gain the experience he needed to climb the Big Stone. The following year, he came back and mastered the Salathé Wall, marking his first of 13 big wall free climbs on El Capitan. Later in life, as an all-around climber, Tommy proved himself in the alpine area of Argentine Patagonia.

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, with El Capitan in Yosemite in the background.

Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, with El Capitan in Yosemite in the background. Source: planetmountain.com

The mountains there are known for their towering peaks and fierce winds. In 2014, a year before he climbed the Dawn Wall, he and Alex Honnold, another American rock climber, climbed the massive 5,000-meter Fitz Roy Traverse. After that and the Dawn Wall, Tommy finally sat down and wrote a memoir at the age of 39.

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance

Tommy Caldwell actually wrote two books, The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance and The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path. For Tommy, who had a learning disability throughout his life, writing didn’t come easily. “I always struggled as a student [and] I’m not a fast writer at all. But just like with climbing, I put tremendous effort into it, like 30 to 40 hours a week.”

Tommy Caldwell standing next to his book cover for The Push

Source: Pinterest

The memoir project also kept him indoors for prolonged periods. If you ask him, he’ll say it was like a mid-life crisis. “I was sitting behind a desk. It was great as I was meditating through all the intense experiences in my life. Sticking with it helped me sort stuff out.”

Balancing Family Life and Climbing

His hard work surely paid off as his book became a New York Times Best Seller and even a finalist for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature. Other than becoming an author, he’s also an environmental activist, and a father to two children. His daughter Ingrid was born in the last few years.

Tommy Caldwell holding his baby in one arm and rope balled up in the shape of a wrapped baby while he pretends to give a kiss to the rope

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

So how does he balance family life and climbing? Today, like his father did for him, he’s purposely instilling outdoor values and transformative experiences into his kids. Fitz is now six, and Ingrid is three. And as far as taking them climbing, Tommy doesn’t push them toward it, but he recognizes that it shows them how to deal with adversity and builds self-confidence.

What about That Finger?

As for his missing finger, “Going through things like that strengthens the mind,” he said. He also mentioned how sport climbing and bouldering are harder for him, but big walls aren’t. “Maybe I’m just better at them anyway.” Climbing continues to play a central role in his life, but Tommy’s priorities have shifted.

Tommy Caldwell sitting behind a desk testifying to the Senate Democrats special committee

Source: Instagram / @tommycaldwell

He’s passionate about the environment and works on projects revolving around the climate. He does a lot of environmental activist work, doing 50 to 60 events a year on average, including festivals, books, and movie events. “As a climber and a father,” he said, “I’m seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand and feel the need to do everything in my power to protect my children’s future.”

An Obsession

For Tommy, climbing has always been his “safe place,” his way to deal with life. If he’s not at Yosemite climbing big walls, he says that he misses it. “It’s feeding an addiction.” But despite that, he admits that he now sees these big walls as more than just “a selfish endeavor.”

Tommy Caldwell climbing

Source: Twitter

What keeps him coming back to the walls is the time he gets to spend with his friends on golden stone with only air beneath their feet. For Tommy, friendship is huge. He climbs more for these bonds than for personal fulfillment. “That shared experience is more important to me than the accomplishment.” And judging by his bond with Kevin, as seen in the documentary Dawn Wall, it’s pretty evident just how close they became.