Tommy Caldwell’s next excellent adventure
If You Go …
What: Yosemite Sunday at 5Point Film Festival
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Carbondale Rec Center
Info: Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Lynn Hill will be featured in this program celebrating Yosemite Valley.
As Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s historic free climb up the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park progressed, the daring feat of two men alone on a massive piece of rock became a communal national experience. We followed them daily online and in the news, as climbing — for a stretch of those days 19 days, at least — went mainstream.
Caldwell, 36, and long one of the most accomplished climbers in the world, was suddenly a household name and an American folk hero, counting President Obama among his new fans. In a recent phone interview, he said he was baffled by the attention, and is now figuring out how best to use his time in the spotlight.
For starters, the Estes Park native is writing a memoir and making the rounds as a speaker, which brought him to the 5Point Film Festival in Carbondale this weekend.
“I skipped out on college to be a climber, and now I feel like it’s time to use my brain a bit,” he said. “I feel like I’m on a bit of a pulpit right now, people will listen to me. I’m realizing now that my life hasn’t been normal. These experiences that I’ve been through, and that led me to things like the Dawn Wall, are kind of out there. People have caught a glimpse of that and they’re curious. It’s cool to think that I can inspire some people. So I’m trying to do the best job of that that I can.”
Caldwell’s relationship with 5Point goes back to the festival’s beginning. He spoke on a panel in its inaugural outing, in 2008, and has been back with films along the way. In middle and high school, he spent most of his weekends on the Western Slope, climbing in Rifle (he and his father, Mike, bolted the route on Colorado’s biggest limestone sport crag, on a cliff between Rifle and New Castle).
“Rifle is where I gained all the strength that I’ve been able to apply to free-climbing,” he said.
While pioneering new free routes on big rocks around the world and carving out a niche as a professional badass, Caldwell also became a husband and father. With the Dawn Wall behind him, he’s not planning another monumental ascent for the moment.
“I achieved my biggest climbing thing ever, so I’m taking a break from really hard climbs, focusing on family and writing a book,” he said.
Less than a year before the Dawn Wall climb, Caldwell and Alex Hannold completed the first Fitz Traverse in Patagonia, making their way across the skyline of Cerro Fitz Roy and its six satellite peaks. The climb — across 4 miles of icy rock — won the pair the Piolet d’Or, alpine climbing’s highest honor. The award was a surprise for the pair because generally they’re not alpine experts.
“I think our experience in Yosemite and climbing big chunks of rock really fast paid off in this more alpine environment,” he said.
A new 25-minute movie, “A Line Across the Sky,” which premiered Friday night at 5Point, documents the trip, which Caldwell describes as “a super-crazy, four-day adventure through the mountains.”
Partnering with Hannold, who has captured many a free solo speed record and is familiar to 5Point audiences for his biking and climbing trip docu-comedies “Sufferfest” and “Sufferfest 2,” was key for the brutal journey across Cerro Fitz Roy.
In climbing, as in traveling to less death-defying destinations, who you’re with is as important as where you’re going.
“I try to choose my partners before choosing the climbs, because the experience is so much about that personal relationship,” Caldwell said. “The kind of experience you have is painted by the attitude and the spirit of the people you’re climbing with. Alex is one of the most amazing people to climb with because he believes everything is not only possible, but also not a big deal, which makes you feel like you can do anything.”
So suffering more than 13,000 cold feet of climbing and repelling with the guy who chuckled his way through “Sufferfest” was a good fit.
“In climbing, to be in a really miserable situation with your partner and laugh your way through it, that’s pretty important,” Caldwell said.
For the Dawn Wall, Caldwell went through many partners before hooking up with Jorgeson.
“I needed somebody who was super strong and experienced at doing really hard moves,” he said. “The Dawn Wall really came down to a couple of intensely hard sections and having someone who was willing to stick it out.”
As he returns to Carbondale this weekend for the debut of “A Line Across the Sky,” Caldwell also is speaking at 5Point’s “Yosemite Sunday” afternoon presentation, alongside Lynn Hill — the first person to free climb El Capitan — and others in a celebration of the Yosemite Valley.
The walls and crags of Yosemite are a second home to Caldwell. He spent 20 years climbing there before the Dawn Wall ascent and pioneered 11 different free routes on El Capitan over the past decade or so. For each of those, he’d spend as many as three months camping and climbing in Yosemite — at one point, he stayed for two years. Over time, the sheer face of the Dawn Wall became an obsession.
“I wanted to do something bigger and I started to look at the Dawn Wall,” he said. “It’s just this bigger, blanker piece of the wall. From a distance it looks totally blank, it doesn’t look like you could do a free climb there.”
Translating that kind of commitment to the 5Point crowd and the national audience now listening to Caldwell means helping people find a Dawn Wall in their own lives.
“The last thing I want to do is show up and have someone say, ‘I don’t feel like I can relate to that because it was so out there,’” he said. “We’re still normal people. Sometimes we find ourselves in these extraordinary circumstances, but we are who we are.”
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