Obsessed to Push with Tommy Caldwell Episode #125

Aaron McHugh


Tommy Caldwell is driven. Check that. The English language lacks vocabulary that rigorously translates the fullness of Tommy Caldwell’s drivenness. Outside of the Patagonia store in downtown Denver, I interviewed Tommy Caldwell in our 1974 VW Joy Bus. I listened to his stories of grit, fortitude, obsession, badassery, long-suffering, resilience, vision, humility, and fierceness but all of those words fall flat to wholly convey Tommy’s DNA. Download entire interview

He starts his new book, The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits, with a story from when he was five years old attempting to dig a hole to China. He sat in the hole for two years digging. I’ve never met anyone who would last longer than a week sitting in a hole. Tommy Caldwell, the relentless hole digging toddler, never quits resulting in pushing to unthinkable boundaries.

Tommy Caldwell and Aaron McHugh in the Joybus on Work Life Play topic his new book NY Times Bestseller The Push. Photo Credits Averi McHugh.

Highlights from my interview with Tommy Caldwell

Tommy’s book was released on May 16th and today has hit the NY Times bestseller list.

What matters to you most? Why do you do this?
It is a total life experience and journey. I have these big goals that I strive for. They are just a reason to get out and focus on it. If you’re obsessed with something. You’re going to be out there every day doing it.

Why does the word accomplishment or conquer make you cringe?
I love having these dreams and having them come to be. But words like conquer feel like ego to me.

Humility seems like your ethos. I’m curious why you don’t brag about your achievements?
I’m a reluctant public figure. I am really driven by personal growth that has to lead to some relatively noteworthy things. I love exploring. I recognize I am at this rare place. If you get to explore something that nobody has…you have to do that.

Tommy Caldwell on The Push telling stories of climbing, writing, adventure, and fatherhood. Photo credits Averi McHugh

What are you dreaming about next?

I always struggle with what’s next. I get focused on things and I don’t see beyond them. Right now, I’m intentionally trying not to find one of those things. I’ve pushed too hard before.

What are some of the liabilities of being so microscopically focused?

You become very non-diverse. I dropped out of high school-can I still use my brain? I started into the book writing process like I do a big wall climb. The Dawn Wall media craze didn’t really fully represent the fullness of my climbing experiences. I started writing and it helped me re-experience my whole life and process these big experiences. In climbing, you have to be super focused on small views. But in writing, you have to expand your view to see the whole story.

Who helped you write The Push?

My good friend and neighbor, Kelly Cordes, wrote this great book called The Tower. Like when you take on a big climb, you need a good partner. Kelly became a really good friend and he became my collaborator. I spent about 30-40 hours a week for about a year and a half. Kelly would help me elevate each section and chapter. He became my personal therapist, best friend, and writing doctor. It’s like climbing when you’re doing something big and scary. We were able to apply that to the writing world, very collaborative awesome way.

Tommy Caldwell and I in the Work Life Play mobile podcast studio

The Dawn Wall

I’ve spent twenty-plus years focused on climbing on El-Cap. I fell in love with the process of failure and success on El-Cap. I have a very short-term memory of pain. There is this one section of this wall that is blank. I realized I maybe the one person in the world who realized I could “make this go”. There were plenty of times I felt like I was wasting my life away on this wall.

Which part was a genius and which part was a delusion?

I found the route at a time in my life where I needed something to distract me. I stuck it out for the first year because “what else do I have”. It was quite miserable at first. I have nothing going in life and it felt like I was on a deserted island. So I gave up and then a friend of mine called and wanted to make a film about it. We gathered a team of my best friends and suddenly we had a party of five guys going. I started inviting friends up there and it became a very social thing. People who were not climbers it became a life experience.

A climber’s hands are like tools, equipment, instruments that make all things vertical possible. Tommy Caldwell’s hands probably should have an insurance policy. Photo credits Averi McHugh

Kevin Jorgeson the partner

He called me and all of sudden I had a solid partner. Kevin Jorgeson is the one who was interested in the route and I realized I could pass the torch of this project to the next generation, I became a mentor. From despair, toil and isolation, everything changed and I craved the experience of being up on the wall. Jokes are funnier up there, everything is so much more intense up there.  I could withstand this project if I could format the experience with going up there with all of these people. So I’d find myself back there the next season.

Friends who helped make the Dawn Wall happen

The main people were up there Josh Lowell-filmmaker, Cooper Roberts, Cory Rich-adventure photographer, Chris McNamera-El Cap addict.

When did you know the route would go?

It wasn’t like that. We were always waffling. Holds would break. I have this really hard work ethic. The route got under Kevin’s skin and he’d always want to come back again.

You dad

My dad’s biggest gift is, better than anyone in the world, is spreading stoke. The gnarliest weather, the craziest stuff he convinces people that the experience is way better when it’s terrible out. There was always this element of being on the battlefield and couldn’t sit still. I inherited that. The relationship with my dad in the book was very complex. I get into all of these complicated issues in the book.

Now you’ve told all these intimate stories

Mostly I’m very excited. I knew I wanted to write a book that would transcend the typical climber’s book. I did and while I was writing this I knew it was very cathartic. I’m used to being exposed. I did expose some very deep and dark things about characters in this book. That’s probably the hardest part. My dad’s read the book twice already. My dad got a galley copy once it was finished. “Here you go dad, I hope you like it”.

Tommy Caldwell and wife Becca with their children – credit Caldwell Family Collection

Tommy Caldwell

From Tommy’s website

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits. A dramatic, inspiring memoir by legendary rock climber Tommy Caldwell This engrossing memoir chronicles the journey of a boy with a fanatical mountain-guide father who was determined to instill toughness in his son to a teen whose obsessive nature drove him to the top of his sport. But his evolution as a climber was not without challenges; in his early twenties, he was held hostage by militants in a harrowing ordeal in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Soon after, he lost his left index finger in an accident. Later his wife and main climbing partner left him. Caldwell emerged from these hardships with a renewed sense of purpose and determination. He set his sights on free climbing El Capitan’s biggest, steepest, blankest face—the Dawn Wall. This epic assault took more than seven years, during which time Caldwell redefined the sport, found love again, and became a father.

About Tommy

Tommy’s dad taught him to embrace fear and doubt and turn them into inspiration. Given this attitude, Tommy has established some of the hardest routes in the country and free climbed 12 routes on El Capitan in Yosemite. He believes difficult journeys, with little chance for success, teach him the most.  This attitude is no better exemplified than by his by his first free ascent of Dawn Wall in January of 2015, and his first ascent of the Fitz Traverse in Patagonia in February of 2014.

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