Legends: Tommy Caldwell
Current age: 33
Started climbing: as a toddler in the early 1980s, in Estes Park, CO
Disciplines: bouldering, sport climbing, adventure and big-wall free climbing
Résumé highlights: FAs of 5.14+ sport climbs in Colorado, has free-climbed 11 different El Cap routes, including five FFAs and two El Cap free routes in a day
When and where was your first road trip?
My first road trip was probably to Yosemite at around age 4—my sister, my mom, my dad, and myself. We did that trip every summer until around the time I was nine. That was kind of my dad’s stomping ground. He always had Yosemite in his heart, and that’s probably where my love for Yosemite came from, because I have all these fond memories of being there as a kid. At first it was just floating down the river in a raft, or sitting in the meadow watching my dad climb. Then around the time I was 6, I can remember pretty vividly doing the Lost Arrow tyrolean.
Who were your first heroes?
I was so young that my heroes were my dad and the dirtbags in Camp 4. They were the people around me, not so much the people I read about or heard stories about. Both my parents worked at the Colorado Mountain School, and I was the little kid running around in the parking lot goofing off and stuff all the time. And the mountain guides of the Colorado Mountain School were some of the people I idolized.
What was the state of the art when you started climbing?
I was in middle school when I started to take trips alone to places like Shelf Road. I guess that’s when I had my own motivation and starting to think of climbing other than as something I did as a family outing. Sport climbing was just coming into fashion, and we were kind of following in the footsteps of the French, at least in my mind back then. Places like Buoux had come around. I think not too long before that was that thing that Tony Yaniro did at Sugarloaf [Grand Illusion]. That was kind of state of the art.
Then here where I lived, in Estes, my dad and a few other people were trying to embrace that sport-climbing vision and bolting, but there were a lot of old traditionalists who were really pissed off about it. And I just remember as a kid there being so much tension. It was like shortboard versus longboard surfers, with routes getting chopped and a lot of egos flying around, and it definitely wasn’t a very harmonious scene.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in climbing since you started out?
Well, right off the bat, I feel like the tension has gone away. I feel like people have embraced all the different kinds of climbing as their own independent facets. And then it’s kind of cool how they’ve merged, too. People realize that hard bouldering or hard sport climbing are really good for going and doing big-wall free climbs. Or even in some ways those are the same people who are crushing it in the alpine—like people like Hayden [Kennedy], who was a sport climber for the longest time, is just rocking it in the alpine.
What’s better, what’s worse?
The whole scene is much more harmonious. I think people respect each other and get along. There’s a lot of positive energy out there. What’s worse is… I don’t know, anytime something grows bigger and bigger it can lose a little bit of its soul, maybe? Sometimes I feel like there is a bit of little-league parenting type stuff—and I’d say I was even a little bit like that for a short time when I was competition climbing. My dad was pretty stressed about that. And that’s something that’s a little hard to see. I really liked the culture of climbing that was sort of rebellious, and it was something you did as an outsider. And now it’s becoming more mainstream.
Most surprising climbing experience?
I suppose getting shot at in Kyrgyzstan was pretty darned surprising. If we were smarter, maybe we would have been able to foresee that.
Biggest milestone in the next decade?
I think one of these days someone is going to go into some big alpine realm, a little bit like Ueli Steck or something, and just crush things really fast. People who are good free soloists—mostly free solo, probably, is how it’s going to happen—are going to be able to go and do things like the Fitzroy massif traverse in a day. The Fitzroy massif one is the most obvious one that I know of, but I’m sure there’s all sorts of stuff like that in the Himalaya. You know, taking these high-end free climbing skills and these mental abilities and taking them to places that are really alpine. I feel like not all the perfect elements have come together yet in that realm. I don’t feel like anyone’s hit all the right windows yet.
In rock climbing, for me, I think that 5.15a is really, really hard, and it’s hard to imagine someone climbing any harder than that—and then it becomes pretty commonplace in Europe. And I really think it has to do with these people starting super-young, and having so much experience by the time their bodies are at their peak. Probably the physical peak of pure rock climbing is pretty young, but people haven’t started early enough in the past to have all this experience by the time they reach that peak, and I think that’s just starting to happen.
I did, but I really only started training and climbing hard when I was 16. And now people are starting climbing hard and joining teams when they’re 7, and then by the time they’re 16 they’re climbing well into 5.14, and then by the time they’re 20, who knows?
I think there’s something to be said for climbing hard when your body’s developing. Like I never get finger injuries for instance, and I credit that partly to the fact that I started really young, and my tendons and my body just matured into that.
What do you think about climbing entering the Olympics?
I hope it happens. I look forward to seeing it in there. I went through the X-Games, and it was cool that climbing was in there, but it was a little bit disappointing when they built the bouldering wall on the side of the snowboard ramp on the beach on San Diego. People were hucking 50 feet of air on a snowboard, and then there we were climbing these 20-foot walls, landing in pole-vault pads—it looked pretty lame in comparison.
For me, the cool thing about climbing is the environment and the stories that come out of it. I think climbing has better stories than pretty much any other sport—you know, real adventure. And competition just doesn’t hold. I’m not trying to diss competition. I love it. I think it pushes people, and it’s a really good quantifier, but it’s not the magic.
What’s the biggest challenge climbing is facing?
I think access is a minor threat, in that as there are more and more people, there’s a lot more impact. Especially bouldering—you notice that in places where there’s a lot of bouldering, the ground gets pretty beat up. And areas are definitely getting closed because of that, so there’s a threat there.
But I think on a grand scale there’s nothing that’s really going to stop us from climbing completely. Places have gotten more crowded but a lot more places have been found and people just have to travel a little more. I think places reach a point where they’re crowded enough that people say, OK, I’ll just go somewhere else. And that’s OK.
If you could start climbing again now, instead of when you did start, would you?
I think I hit it at just the right time. If I was 16 right now, and I had the abilities that I had as a 16-year-old back then, there’s no way I’d be a full-time climber right now. The level is just raised too much. So for me, I hit it at a time that was perfect. I hit El Cap at a time when it was this huge, almost blank slate of potential free climbing. Climbing had just got to a point where El Cap was a real viable free-climbing place, and I got to be there for that.
I’m also the kind of person who really loves what’s around me and really embraces what I have, and not the one who’s like, “If only…” But I really do feel incredibly lucky to have been brought up the way I was and be a part of the climbing world in the way that I have been.
Any advice for the next generation of climbers?
I just think being open-minded and embracing other styles than what you have or other personalities or whatever it may be, is really important, and I just urge people to do that.