The Dawn Wall | Interview With Tommy Caldwell
Missed our screening of the Dawn Wall film in October? Don’t worry – here’s your chance to see it! Join us at the Richmond Olympic Oval on Sunday, Nov 18 for a screening of the film, plus free climbing workshops and a community marketplace. Check out the interview from Red Bull Media with Tommy Caldwell below and get your show tickets before they are gone!
What initiated the idea of climbing the Dawn Wall?
I’ve been climbing El Capitan for probably 25 years, and so for a long time I was sort of doing all the existing routes, or climbing the major crack systems. I got to a point where I just wondered: What was physically possible? And I was probably the only person up there that understood, that the very blank face, this thing that seemed really impossible, could potentially be climbed. So, I started to search out this route on what became the Dawn Wall, and then the journey continued with Kevin when he joined.
What was driving you for so many years?
For me it started out as sort of this dream like: What is possible? And then I went through a divorce it became this: “How do I cope with this sort of pain? And then it kind of came back around to: What is possible?” There‘s also a moment early in the movie that talks about my first expedition in Kyrgyzstan where we got kidnapped by Islamic militants. I had to endure so much during that experience that it showed me that we, as humans, are capable of way more than we ever think we are in a normal, everyday basis. I’ve had this curiosity about that, and the Dawn Wall was a way to try and fulfill that curiosity.
Can you describe what a day on the wall looks like – from getting up until you go to bed?
Generally, when you big-wall climb, you get up at first light and you climb all day long until it gets dark, no matter what. The Dawn Wall was completely different than that because we needed good conditions and really cold weather. If it’s hot your fingertips cut much more easily and the rubber on your shoes is softer and falls apart, so we had to wait until it was cold, which often meant night-time. Our daily logistics were pretty funny: we would wake up with the sun – it’s impossible to stay asleep up there without shade in the blazing sun. So you‘d wake up and just hang out in your portaledge for the whole day until night-time comes around. We would climb from about 5 o‘clock in the evening when the sun would leave the wall until 1 o‘clock in the morning, under headlamp a lot of the time. It was a good combination of a lot of time to enjoy the place that we were in and joke around, and when night-time would hit it would be down to business and it would be really intense for a few hours each night.
How important is a climbing partner in a long year process like the Dawn Wall?
The energy that is derived from having a good partnership is much more powerful than anything you could have on your own. It’s really important to have a good partner. It’s about having a good adventure, it’s about accomplishment, and we are also mildly competitive which made us try a lot harder, honestly.
Can you describe the support of your family and friends along the way?
My parents have always been my biggest supporters in a lot of ways and would oftentimes come to Yosemite and watch, even come up and belay me at times. And then the larger community would rally behind us and give us so much encouragement. It was interesting, the people who really cared about us would rally because they saw that it was bringing a lot to our lives. But it did seem unlikely that it would ever happen, so we also had people that where like, ‚They‘re being dumb, why are they wasting their lives on this, on this giant climb that’s never going to happen?‘ I felt it most intensely from the people that were encouraging. And family and friends were really a huge part of that.
Your climb attracted a huge media interest. How bizarre did it feel to have cameras on you and people watching you all over the globe while you are challenging yourself with the climb of a lifetime?
The media circus was one of the weirdest things that has happened to me. I’ve never been someone who was hugely comfortable being a public person and suddenly I was like really a public person. Which was cool in a way because it sort of validated the obsession – we thought it was cool for all these years but a lot of other people just thought it was crazy. But the fact that everybody was so inspired, was really great to see. Going on every television network in the US, and a lot of other ones around the world, still felt quite bizarre.
How did you find out that the captor from Kyrgyzstan survived?
We escaped from Kyrgyzstan by me pushing our one remaining captor at that time off a cliff and us running for it. So, I left Kyrgyzstan thinking I‘d killed somebody. About 3 months after we got home, a reporter found out that the guy survived and had been captured by the Kyrgyz’s Military and was imprisoned. When they told me that he had lived, I couldn’t believe it. But we were able to validate the news, and in a way it was a relief. I was pretty broken up about the fact that I had thought that I’d killed somebody so the fact that he didn’t die definitely helped. I think what was the hardest for me, was the fact that I had it within me to kill somebody. I mean, it’s easy to think of the rebels as being the enemy but in a lot of ways I just saw them as being a victim of their own circumstances. Like, who‘s to say that if I didn’t grow up in their world I wouldn’t be doing the same thing?