FEATS OF STRENGTH
The Key To Climbing El Capitan: Kale
Over 19 punishing days, rock climber Tommy Caldwell and his partner climbed El Capitan’s Dawn Wall—a never-been-done-before free climb.
On January 14, rock climber Tommy Caldwell and his partner, Kevin Jorgeson, made history when they completed a never-before-done free climb ascent of El Capitan’s 3,000 foot Dawn Wall. It was the completion of years of planning and arduous training, made even harder for Caldwell, who only has nine fingers with which to grip the razor thin hold—he lost part of one in a saw accident more than a decade ago, a potentially career-ending event that only fueled his fire more.
Over 19 grueling days, they literally crawled hand over fist up the granite face, as the world’s attention slowly came to focus in on them. By the time they finally summited, their feat was headline material all over the world, a media frenzy of talk shows, websites, and magazines that continues to this day. While thousands upon thousands of words have been written about what it was like to be suspended in the ether’s extreme for weeks, I sat down with Tommy to talk about the what it takes, mentally and physically, to get ready to do something no one ever has.
First thing’s first. How does one prepare for something that’s never been done before?
It’s a culmination of a lot of experience. I’ve been climbing since I was three, and climbing on El Cap for 18 years. I’m constantly looking at how I live my life and how I train and how I eat to try and get stronger.
So really, to do something that’s never been done came via a long process of understanding what exactly I was trying to do: Picking the objective itself, and then figuring out how to format my life in a way to make sure I could achieve that dream.
How long had you been focused on the Dawn Wall climb?
I started working on the route, looking at it, seven years ago. I started pursuing it with the intent to do it, and the knowledge that it was probably possible—maybe possible (laughs)—six years ago.
What did you immediately implement into your diet and training? How did that change as time went on?
Right off of the bat I wasn’t thinking too much about diet and training, because I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.
I was in the middle of a divorce and I needed a distraction from it, from the tornado going on in my head. I looked at this as a great distraction, being up there pursuing this thing, suffering. The pain of the Dawn Wall in some ways overwhelmed the pain that was in my head.
And now, upon its completion, you have a new wife and a new son.
Does that leave you feeling like a chapter of your life closed?
For sure. It’s crazy. It’s like a long relationship has ended. I’ve been with the Dawn Wall longer than I’ve been with my wife (laughs).
Do you think she ever got jealous?
No, I don’t think she got jealous—she got whipped into my world of climbing, and once you’re in there you realize it’s pretty cool. She was totally supportive, amazingly supportive, from the start.
Is she a climber as well?
Yeah. When I met her she was just barely a climber, and now, you know, that’s the life she lives. But she’s definitely not obsessed the way I am, which is a good thing. We would probably spontaneously combust if two of use were that way! But she loves the lifestyle.
We’ve been working on the Dawn Wall every fall, but the rest of the year we travel, like 10 months a year. Now our little son, Fitz, just comes along with us. It’s a pretty cool life.
Your son’s name is Fitz? Like the Fitz Roy traverse (another famous first ascent by Caldwell, with partner Alex Honnold)?
Fitz Roy, yep.
So as a world-class professional climber, what does a day-to-day routine look like?
I’ve done 11 other routes on El Cap. To train for those I would get up in the morning, go for a run, go do a climbing workout at an indoor gym, then go bouldering, then I’d do this fingerboard [a special board with various molded rock holds mounted on a wall] workout, and then I would lift weights. I would make sure I was climbing 13 hours a day, three or four days a week. Just trying to raise my tolerance for suffering, really.
I started training for the Dawn Wall that same way. But then I realized the Dawn Wall was something where each pitch was way harder, but overall we would be climbing a lot slower. We were actually climbing like five hours a day when we did it.
That realization brought it all together. I started doing really intense power building workouts, like lifting weights and a ton of finger boarding.
In some ways it was harder. I would end each day sorer in my fingers and my arms. But those years of training fourteen hours a day, they made me tough, and once you have that toughness you can get back to it pretty quickly without constantly training it, whereas power was the missing element for me.
So what were you guys eating on the wall?
We brought a bunch of stuff.
A big Tupperware container of vegetables and bagels and cream cheese. One of my sponsors, Patagonia, now makes food, so we had all this great salmon up there from them. We also ate a lot of Clif Bars and Bloks—those are just convenient—and for dinners we’d eat pretty standard stuff: pasta with pesto, I’d always add a bunch of kale. Kale is something that, if you get a hardy type, can last a week up there. Or Indian food.
It was nice that we climbed it in the winter, so it didn’t spoil and we could have fresher food up there.
Were people running you food?
Yeah. From the start of this project we were making a documentary film, and when it looked like we were gonna make it this year that kicked into full gear. So there were photographers up there with us, and people going up and down.
Once every five days—our push was 19 days long—I’d compile a shopping list and somebody would go to the store and get it and haul it up to us.
Now that you’ve done it, how has your life changed?
You saw the media circus that erupted around the climb!
My normal day is doing what I’m doing right now, honestly. Lots of interviews. This climb touched people in a way that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
It exposed them to this amazing world of climbing, it opened people’s eyes to it in this way, and there’s this tremendous amount of fascination right now. So I’m just trying to be a good ambassador, really.
What’s next for you?
I always have a list of minor goals in mind. I was supposed to be in Patagonia and Argentina to do a climbing trip right now, but I had to cancel.
I’ve always got things like that. A lot of our trips are just, “Oh we’ll go to Europe and spend a month and a half there and see where the wind takes us and climb every day.” But for me, for something like the Dawn Wall, that’s something that doesn’t just happen. It has to really grow organically, be the kind of thing that keeps me up at night and gets me up really early in the morning super psyched to do it.
I think right now I’m exhausted, and my mind isn’t really open to that…. Yet.
What’s the craziest thing that has come from all the media attention?
There’s been this interest for corporate speaking… I’m in Vegas right now, and I’m going to a Samsung sales meeting tomorrow to talk about the Dawn Wall. Weird stuff like that.
As an inspirational speaker?
I’ve also had this idea to write a book bubbling up inside of me, even before I finished the Dawn Wall, I’ve had a lot of other crazy stuff in my life happen. That’s my next big thing. I’m basically, not physically going back to school, but going back to school to learn how to write a book, public speak, and stuff like that.
So you see this as another aspect of your career now?
That opportunity exists right now, so I’m gonna pursue it. It’s exciting in a whole new way.
I’m viewing it like a big climbing expedition: There are all these things and you don’t know how they’re gonna work out, and it’s scary but exciting at the same time. At some point, you just have to jump in and believe that you’re gonna make it happen.
That’s how my life feels right now.