Tommy Caldwell climbing Yosemite
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Tommy Caldwell: Who’s the Dawn Wall Climbing Legend?

Published on: 09/16/2022

Tommy Caldwell is widely regarded as the most well-rounded rock climber on earth. Chief among his many feats are his first ascent of Flex Luthor (the first 5.15b route) and his first free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California, with Kevin Jorgeson.

But climbing accolades don’t reveal the full story of Tommy Caldwell. His story appeals to an audience outside the climbing community because people relate to his defiant spirit. Even the loss of his left index finger couldn’t keep him from climbing at the highest level. And some of the events of Caldwell’s life are shocking in ways that go beyond the usual tales of mountaineering endurance.

Early life

Tommy was born in Loveland, Colorado, in 1978. His father, Mike Caldwell, was a teacher, bodybuilder, rock climber, and guide. His mother, Terry, was also a mountain guide. Tommy and his sister were introduced to rock climbing and outdoor living early. The family would take annual trips to Yosemite National Park in California, where Tommy’s love affair with climbing took off. Tommy’s introduction to the broader climbing world surprised him and his family.

In the early 90s, at age 16, Tommy’s father entered him in the Snowbird competition. Caldwell was a wildcard entry and not expected to progress far. He was facing off against some of the best climbers on earth. In the Dawn Wall documentary, Tommy’s dad, Mike Caldwell, describes the moment he realized that his son was going to win: his hands shaking as he could no longer hold up the camcorder.

Still only a teenager, the unknown Tommy had gone up against elite climbers and won.

Climbing Style and Specialty

Caldwell is best-known for topping out some of the hardest sport routes on earth and claiming the first ascent of many routes. And though sport climbing is what he’s known for, Caldwell also includes bouldering in his training plans. His vision was to free climb the biggest, most technical walls possible.

Jack of all Trades

In his New York Times bestseller, The Push, Tommy Cadwell goes deep into the psychological components, fear, and personality factors that affect his climbing. He’s best known as a big wall, free climber. But Tommy is also known as perhaps the most well-rounded climber of his generation. His gifts are as much to do with his mindset as his extraordinary physical abilities.

The Dawn Wall and other Notable Feats

Tommy Caldwell climbing the Dawn Wall c
© Photo: Corey Rich – Aurora Photos

An exhaustive list of Tommy’s accomplishments could take forever. But among the most impressive are his first ascents of some of America’s most challenging sport routes. In 2003, Caldwell made the first ascent of Flex Luthor in Colorado.

First 5.15b

This route was so technical that his feat went unrepeated for 18 years until 2021 when Matty Hong completed the same route. He suggested a grade of 5.15b. This makes Tommy’s first free ascent of Flex Luthor the first confirmed 5.15b, as it happened 5 years before Chris Shwarm’s Jumbo Love success.

5.14 on the Diamond

In August 2013, Caldwell and Joe Mills redpointed the first 5.14 at the Diamond in Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado. The pair had tried free ascents of the route before but had to abandon their attempts to assist with the rescue of an injured climber.

Dihedral Wall and Routes on El Cap

El Cap climbing Tommy Caldwell
© Photo by @austin_siadak on Instagram

In May 2004, Caldwell claimed the first free ascent of the Dihedral Wall in Yosemite national park. In 2005, he and Beth Rodden made the third and fourth ascents of the nose. The next day, Tommy summited The Nose in under 12 hours.

Caldwell and Honnold atop El Cap
Tommy and Alex atop El Cap © Photo: Jeff Johnson

Several days after that, he shaved the time down to 11 hours. He then descended the Easy Ledges and climbed Freerider. This made him the first climber to send two routes on El Capitan in under 24 hours. Some of the more notable routes Caldwell has free climbed on El Cap include Lurking Fear, Muir Wall, West Buttress, and Magic Mushroom.

Yosemite Triple Crown

In 2012, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell became the first climbers to free climb El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins in Yosemite national park in California in a twenty-four-hour period. These three peaks are known as the Yosemite triple crown. Sending all three climbs within a lifetime is out of the reach of most people. To do so in a single day is mind-boggling.

Fitz Traverse

In 2014, Caldwell and Alex Honnold claimed the first free ascent of the Fitz Traverse (5.11d) in Patagonia. This big wall is in a remote location and requires a serious level of alpinism to even approach. It wasn’t until 2021 that Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll completed the second ascent and first solo ascent.

The Dawn Wall

Tommy Caldwell climbing the Dawn Wall at night
© Corey Rich – Aurora Photos

In January 2015, Tommy enlisted the services of Kevin Jorgeson to complete the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite, California. This extraordinary climb was watched from around the world. In the weeks leading up to their final push, a local news van, some international celebrities, and even the president of the United States had taken notice. Eventually, the global media picked up the story. It’s easy to see why this climb captured people’s imaginations. The Dawn Wall (named for the light that strikes it at sunrise) had loomed large in the minds of Yosemite National park climbers for generations. This was a serious undertaking with 3000ft of sheer rock and no known route to the top.

Tommy Caldwell taking a break from climbing the Dawn Wall
© Corey Rich – Aurora Photos

Six years of planning and preparation culminated in their January push for the summit. They spent nineteen days on the Dawn Wall in what might be the most challenging first free ascent in history. To make it even more interesting, Jorgeson had almost no prior experience with big wall climbing. He was known in the climbing world as an elite boulderer. The documentary of this event (conveniently called The Dawn Wall) conveys the hardship and glory of the climber’s journey better than many of its contemporaries. It’s a recommended watch for any who’ve missed it. But the film is compelling for more reasons than simple rock climbing. It’s a piece of climbing history.

Hardships and Setbacks

No portrait of Tommy Caldwell would be complete without taking account of the obstacles he’s overcome. His endurance is an integral part of the Dawn Wall documentary and Tommy’s books. This is a common theme in the climbing/mountaineering genre. But it’s usually focused primarily on feats of great physical endurance. Caldwell endured kidnap, disfigurement, and heartbreak before emerging as one of the leading climbers of his generation.

Kidnap

In 2000, Caldwell, Beth Rodden, John Dickey, and Jason’ Singer’ Smith were on a climbing expedition in Kyrgyzstan. They were taken captive by Islamic militants and held hostage for six days. Starving, freezing, and dehydrated, Tommy saw an opportunity when their lone guard approached a cliff with his back turned. He kicked the man over the ledge. The group then escaped to government forces and was safe. The events undoubtedly had an impact on Tommy’s life and outlook. Incredibly, the militant survived the fall. When one of the expedition visited him in prison years later, the rebel said he understood why Caldwell had acted and bore none of the group any ill will.

Injury

While remodeling the house he shared with Beth Rodden in 2001, Caldwell accidentally cut off most of his left index finger. Though doctors were able to reattach the severed portion, it would never fully heal or be fit for climbing again. Tommy chose to have it removed rather than be a hindrance to his climbing.

Perseverance and Return

Some in the climbing industry assumed Caldwell’s days as an elite climber were over. Tommy not only returned to his pre-injury form, but he was able to surpass it. Many of his most notable first free ascents were achieved after losing most of an index finger! This incredible story of toughness made Tomy Caldwell even more climbing magazine-friendly. Every account of his achievements makes a note of his injury. But Caldwell rarely does.

Quotes

Caldwell climbing Fitz Traverse
Tommy Caldwell eyes the road ahead and sets up yet another rappel on the way to Aguja Saint-Exupéry, one of the seven peaks of the Fitz Traverse, 2014. Photo credit: Austin Siadak

Among Caldwell’s published work are a surprising number of quotable gems. His attitude towards adventure is sparingly worded and beautiful:

A great adventure without success is far superior to a climb where everything goes as planned.

The influence Tommy’s father, Mike, had on his son is evidenced throughout the documentary and books:

“How do we build grit in our children? For my dad and me, it was a combination of bribery and exposure to minor traumatic experiences.”

Books

In 2017, Tommy published The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. It explores Tommy’s life, childhood, the influence of his father, and the obsessive nature that drove him to the top of the competition climbing circuit. But it’s also a reflection on the kidnapping incident, the loss of his finger, and the breakdown of his marriage to Beth Rodden. The two had married in 2003 and divorced in 2009. Climbing magazine coverage of the time often referred to them as climbing’s first couple. And in losing his marriage, Caldwell also lost his main climbing partner.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Tommy Caldwell sponsorship by Coros Global
© Tommy Caldwell for @corosglobal on Instagram
Where is Tommy Caldwell now?

Tommy lives with his wife, Rebecca Pietsch, and their two children in Colorado.

How old is Tommy Caldwell?

He was born in 1978 and is currently 44 years old.

How tall is Tommy Caldwell?

Anywhere from 5 foot eight inches to 5 foot eleven inches tall, depending on the source. The most reputable one puts him at the higher end of that scale.

Is Tommy Caldwell the best climber in the world?

Best is a speculative concept. But there’s a solid argument to make that no one links together the worlds of sport, free climbing, and big wall climbing on mountains like Tommy. Many of his climbs have already achieved legendary status – particularly the free ascent of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite, California, with Kevin Jorgeson.

Are Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold friends?

They certainly seem to be. In 2018, the two claimed the sub-2-hour record on the Nose of El Cap in Yosemite national park. And as recently as 2021, the two were featured on a climb together in an Instagram post at the Rainbow Wall in Red Rock.

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