Many climbers in the last two decades have grown up with Tommy Caldwell, an American climbing leviathan surpassing many in faculty and just about everyone else in vision. It’s a rare thing to see a climber of Caldwell’s ability with such poise and savvy. He seems unflappable and add to that an entirely natural positivity and affability and you’re breathing very rare air indeed.
As a Red Sox fan, it pains me to write this, but Caldwell reminds me of another great athlete, similar his age but far surpassing him in fame. For two decades Derek Jeter swatted the ball at a career .309 batting average and perfected his signature jump throw as a shortstop and captain for the New York Yankees. Only eight players in MLB history scored more runs than Jeter. Only five had more hits and they had last names like Aaron, Musial and Rose. Jeter anchored Joe Torre’s squad to five World Series Championships. He did all of this in the most ruthless media spotlight in North America.
The congruencies that unite Jeter and Caldwell are not their dizzying accomplishments but rather the grace with which they have navigated their careers. What makes both of these world class athletes so unique – more so than any of their peers during the same stretch of time – is the way they’ve handled their careers in this age of insatiable social media and endless news cycles.
It’s worthwhile to note that both athletes entered their respective sports with a work ethic firmly in tow. It seems they both intrinsically knew that a maniacal, never-abating work ethic allows an athlete the freedom to pursue excellence with no excuses. Derek Jeter, in an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci, said, “I’ve always been a believer in hard work and no excuses. I would never want to play a game and be unsuccessful and think, Well, I could have been successful if I had done this.”
Caldwell, for his part, has always been a hard worker and natural sufferer. His training regimens are growing into legend, with dawn till dusk punishments ranging from half-marathons at altitude, weight training, and hours on the bouldering wall and hangboard – all in the same day, nearly every day. You’ve probably seen the videos.
Both Jeter and Caldwell have plowed through their share of injuries while maintaining a positive, if not outright jubilant, faÃ§ade. Jeter, because of his stoic and tough play, gave off the impression that he was uncommonly healthy throughout his storied career. In 2001, after suffering the worst post-season of his career, it was revealed that Jeter had been hobbled by both an injured knee and ankle. In 2003, Jeter kicked off the season by dislocating his left shoulder in a massive collision. He went on to finish third in the batting race.
Caldwell, for his part, has suffered through some of the most newsworthy injuries and traumas in climbing history. In 2001, he was infamously bitten by his own table saw and lost his left index finger above the knuckle. Two years later Caldwell established Flex Luthor (5.14d/.15a) at the Fortress of Solitude, Colorado, then the hardest rock climb in America. It remains unrepeated.
Caldwell’s most trying experience must be his 2000 ordeal in Kyrgyzstan, where he and his fellow climbers spent six days as hostages to al-Qaeda affiliated militants. In Rock and Ice in April, 2014, Caldwell wrote:
My greatest hardship would be the ordeal in Kyrgyzstan where four of us were kidnapped by Islamic militants for six days. It’s a long, complicated story but, in short, we and our captors were hunted by the Kyrgyzstan military. We abandoned our food and warm clothes and hid out under boulders and in holes in the ground. We eventually escaped when I pushed one of our captors off a cliff and we made a run for the nearest military outpost.
The experience in Kyrgyzstan rocked my world in ways that I am still learning about 14 years later. There was definitely a dark side to the recovery process, but in the end it made me a much stronger, more life-loving person. The amount of suffering and fear we endured made the rest of life seem like a cakewalk. It reset my idea of what real pain is (physical and emotional) and now I walk through life without much fear. I learned that pain sharpens us.
Kyrgyzstan tops the list of hard experiences, but my divorce in 2010 comes in a close second. Chopping off my index finger was stressful because I thought it might end my full-time climbing career at a time when I still had a ton of big dreams I wanted to pursue. But through these experiences I learned that hardship is what changes us the most. It puts us in an intensely meditative state where we figure out what we really want. And it motivates us to go for those things we have always dreamed of.
Now, poised to make climbing history, along with his game partner Kevin Jorgeson, Caldwell stands on the verge of completing the Dawn Wall project, the most difficult big wall route in climbing history. Because of his affability, positivity, and otherworldly drive, the team’s efforts are gathering media clips not seen since Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell (no relation) summited El Capitan’s “Wall of the Early Morning Light” after 27 days of battle in 1970. Two epic climbs on the same expanse of unyielding granite, separated by 45 years of climbing history.
Just pitches from the end of his voyage, the entire climbing world, and many beyond, are cheering him and Jorgeson. We are emboldened by his passion, inspired by his devotion, and thrilled by his skill. Perhaps alpinist and author Kelly Cordes sums up our gathered thoughts best, writing on his Facebook page, “I’m just so freakin’ proud of Tommy and all his hard work. Makes me want to try harder in my own life.”
We are rapt. The Dawn Wall push has us coming together, celebrating two of our own in real time, watching as they fight against great odds, digging deeper than they ever have in their lives. For the first time, climbing – adventure – feels like a baseball game. Game 7 of the World Series. Two outs. One on. Home team trailing by one. Derek Jeter standing at the plate. Only this time it’s that Estes Park kid with the mischievous grin, chalking up his hands and flipping on his headlamp. He exhales deeply and shakes his arms out one last time and then he closes his three fingers around the first crimp, slowly leaving the portaledge. This is real electricity.
Photos courtesy Tommy Caldwell