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Tommy Caldwell, Dominant Force In Big Wall Free, Sport And Alpine Climbing

The nine-fingered Dawn Wall climber was one of climbing’s first celebrities and a pioneer of big wall Yosemite free ascents.

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This article is part of Climbing’s ongoing Who’s Who biographical study of climbing’s all-time greats, achievers, and, in the case of Aleister Crowley, most notorious. 

Tommy Caldwell (August 11, 1978) is an American climber, primarily known for his big wall exploits, particularly in Yosemite National Park, in addition to pioneering hard sport climbs, such as Kryptonite (5.14d) and Flex Luthor (5.15b).

Among other accomplishments, Caldwell is widely known for the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) with Kevin Jorgeson and the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse (VI 5.11d C1) with Alex Honnold. Caldwell is also famous for completing most of his climbs without the majority of his left index finger, which was cut off by a table saw in 2001.

Tommy Caldwell climbs The Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson rely on a network of rigged ropes to move up and down the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in order to access the hardest pitches. They leave their portaledge camp each afternoon as the sun dips around the corner, and use mechanical ascenders to climb the ropes and go to work on the day’s climbing adventure. After spending 19 days on the wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson reached the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park for their historic first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on January 14, 2015. (Photo: Red Bull Content Pool/Corey Rich)

Early Life

Caldwell was born on August 11, 1978, in Estes Park, Colorado. He grew up in and around Loveland, the son of two mountain guides, and was climbing from an early age. His father, Mike Caldwell, was a former Mr. ­Colorado bodybuilding champion, as well as an avid climber.

In addition to climbing outdoors Caldwell began competing at the age of 16, meeting prominent female climber Beth Rodden in the American comp circuit in 1995. Caldwell and Rodden began dating in 2000 and would go on to put up a string of hard climbs in Yosemite.

Taken Hostage in Kyrgyzstan

During a trip to make first ascents of big walls in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Caldwell, Rodden, John Dickey, and Jason Smith were kidnapped and held hostage for six days by a group of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The group spent several days in captivity in remote mountain valleys, in and out of firefights, until Caldwell managed to hurl one of their captors off a cliff (the man survived), giving the Americans a window to escape to the safety of the Kyrgyz military.

Tommy Caldwell portrait.
Tommy Caldwell lost a finger in a tablesaw accident, but still went on to climb some of the world’s most difficult routes. (Photo: Corey Rich / Red Bull Content Poo)

Hard Climbing in Yosemite and Elsewhere

Caldwell is perhaps best known for his accomplishments in Yosemite National Park, including at least a dozen free ascents. For much of the early 2000s, he had freed more independent lines in Yosemite than any other climber.

Caldwell made the first free ascent of El Capitan’s Lurking Fear (VI 5.13c) with Rodden in 2000, as well as the first free ascents of El Capitan’s West Buttress (VI 5.13c) and Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a), in addition to free ascents of Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b), Muir Wall/Shaft Variation (VI 5.13c), and Zodiac (VI 5.13d). He also made an early free ascent of the Nose (5.14a) with Rodden in 2005. The pair were the route’s third and fourth free ascensionists, after Lynn Hill (1993) and Scott Burke (1998).

Caldwell and Rodden also made the first free ascent of The Honeymoon is Over (5.13) on Longs Peak’s Diamond, a route now considered the hardest line on the formation. He and Rodden were colloquially referred to as “climbing’s first couple” and their relationship was highly publicized in climbing media. (They married in 2003 and divorced in 2009).

Caldwell is also known for the first free ascent of the Yosemite Triple Crown (a linkup of El Cap, Half Dome, and Mt. Watkins) in 2012 and the first sub-two-hour ascent of the Nose in 2018, both with Alex Honnold.

In addition to big wall climbs, Caldwell made several groundbreaking first ascents of hard sport routes in the United States. He made the first ascent of Colorado’s Kryptonite (5.14d) in the Fortress of Solitude in 1999. The route is as considered the first of its grade on the continent.

Caldwell’s 2003 send of Flex Luthor was also the first proposed 5.15 on U.S. soil. The route did not see a second ascent for nearly 20 years until it was sent in 2021 by Matty Hong, who proposed 5.15b. Given the proposed 5.15b grade, Flex Luthor was also the first climb of that difficulty in the world.

Tommy Caldwell climbing Mescalito on El Capitan, Yosemite.
Tommy Caldwell, big-wall free climber, tackles a dihedral pitch on the Mescalito route on El Cap in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo: Corey Rich / Red Bull Content Pool)

The Fitz Traverse

In 2014, Caldwell completed the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse, a lengthy route linking the iconic Cerro Fitz Roy (11,170 feet) and six neighboring peaks, alongside Alex Honnold in a five-day push.

The route, located on the Argentine-Chilean border in Patagonia, entails over 13,000 feet of vertical gain and is approximately four miles long. It was considered the hardest alpine traverse in history at the time (though Vitaliy Musiyenko’s Goliath may now take that title).

The Dawn Wall and Later Life

Among many younger climbers (and in mainstream media) Caldwell is most well-known for his ascent of the 5.14d big wall route Dawn Wall, with Kevin Jorgeson. The duo worked for nearly six years on the project, and it is widely considered the hardest big wall route in existence. Upon its completion, which entailed a 19-day stint on the wall, Caldwell and Jorgeson garnered international acclaim even outside the climbing community. They were congratulated by then-U.S. President Barack Obama, among other accolades. The line was later repeated by Adam Ondra in an eight-day blitz, though no one has successfully sent the route since then.

The Dawn Wall project spawned an eponymous documentary film, which was well-received and became the first entry in a new wave of climbing films that have achieved mainstream success (Free Solo, The Alpinist, 14 Peaks, etc).

In recent years, Caldwell has become something of a climbing authority in the mainstream media and is frequently quoted (or appears) in climbing documentaries. Along with Alex Honnold, he is one of the most well-known climbers in the world. His 2017 autobiography, The Push, became a New York Times Bestseller.

Following his 2009 divorce from Rodden, Caldwell married photographer Rebecca Pietsch in 2012. They have two children and are currently based in Estes Park.

Climbing Accomplishments

  • Kryptonite (5.14d), Fortress of Solitude, Colorado (1999).
  • Lurking Fear (VI 5.13c), Yosemite National Park, California (2000). First free ascent with Beth Rodden.
  • Flex Luthor (5.15b), Fortress of Solitude, Colorado (2003).
  • West Buttress (VI 5.13c), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2003). First free ascent.
  • Dihedral Wall (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2004). First free ascent.
  • Nose (VI 5.14a) El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2005). Third/fourth free ascent with Beth Rodden
  • Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2008). First free ascent with Justen Sjong.
  • Yosemite Triple Crown (5.13a), Yosemite National Park, California (2012). First free ascent with Alex Honnold.
  • Dunn-Westbay (5.14a), Longs Peak, Colorado (2013). First free ascent with Joe Mills.
  • Fitz Traverse (VI 5.11d C1), Patagonia (2014). First ascent with Alex Honnold.
  • Dawn Wall (VI 5.14d) Yosemite National Park, California (2015). First free ascent with Kevin Jorgeson.
  • Author of autobiography The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk and Going Beyond Limits (2017).
  • Speed record of 1:58:07 with Alex Honnold on the Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 ft), Yosemite National Park, California (2018).