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There’s something about Tommy Caldwell’s actual Achilles’ heel being his figurative Achilles’ heel that seems fitting. The guy is revered among climbers: he cut off his finger—literally the most important thing for a climber—and still shattered the paradigm with a little climb called the Dawn Wall.
But over the past year, a string of injuries to his left Achilles’ heel have sidelined Mr. El Cap for the longest period of his career—going on nine months now.
“Literally the last injury that kept me from climbing was when I chopped off my finger, when I was 21 years old,” Caldwell says. “And now I’m 43.”
The injuries have been a combination of bad luck and bad decisions.
The first came in late February 2022. Caldwell was projecting Magic Line (5.14c), in Yosemite, Ron Kauk’s masterpiece thin seam beside Vernal Falls. Kauk first climbed it in 1996 on pre-placed gear, and his son, Lonnie Kauk, made the first true redpoint of the route—placing all the gear himself—in 2018. Since then it has been redpointed by Hazel Findlay and Carlo Traversi. It was with the latter that Caldwell was working on the line in February.
He had only been trying it for a few days, spread over two sessions, and it “suited me quite well,” he says.
“I was running it out through the crux a little bit because I was feeling so good about sending!” Caldwell says. “I was like, ‘If I don’t place this piece, I can just fire this section, and even if I fall I won’t hit the ground and it’ll be fine.’ That meant that Carlo, who was belaying me, couldn’t really give me a dynamic catch—to keep me off the ground. So the way I ended up falling, I fell straight down, and it was a hard fall. All the force on one leg, and it just forced my toe up really hard and popped my Achilles’ tendon.” There was no loud pop, and at first he thought it was his ankle. He walked back to the Valley Floor under his own power, as “it didn’t hurt too bad.”
Caldwell had surgery two days later to repair the mop-ends—the technical term—of his Achilles’ which was 95-percent torn. Six weeks later, still in a protective orthopedic boot, Caldwell started doing some climbing. He even resoled the boot with climbing-shoe rubber.
“I was getting away with it for a while. When you have an injury, I think your mind kind of protects your body, and doesn’t really allow the muscles to fire. But at a certain point, I was trying to send this 5.13, and even though I was in the boot, I ended up pushing hard through my toe, and I re-reputured my Achilles’.”
Only 70 percent torn this time, he forwent surgery and reset the clock on his road to recovery. All was going well; by the summer he was mountain biking, and even climbing (mainly top-roping and some Moonboarding) without the boot on—all OKed by the doctors. But then, during a physical therapy session on August 6, while doing lateral one-legged jumps—POP!
“It was traumatic this time, super loud,” Caldwell says.
Just like that, he was back at the beginning of the healing process.
Climbers are notoriously monomaniacal: We climb, we talk about climbing, we watch climbing videos, all often at the expense of other things in our lives. With his unexpectedly lengthy hiatus from the rock, how has Tommy Caldwell coped? Has he despaired? Gained a new appreciation for his otherwise good health? Developed a dad bod?
We asked him how he has approached his convalescence, and how these unexpected setbacks have affected him—emotionally and physically.
Q&A with Tommy Caldwell
What have your emotions been like through this whole spate of injuries?
At first I was pretty bummed. But overall I’ve been very surprised that my morale has not been overly affected. I miss climbing and adventuring terribly; my potential energy for adventure is just pent up ready to explode. But I think if you were to talk to my friends or kids or wife, I think they’d say I’ve been totally chipper and completely fine. Which has kind of surprised me. I think if I had done it in my 20s, I might have freaked out. But now that I have so much going on, I can kind of divert my energy elsewhere for a while. I don’t feel depressed or anything right now.
How have you stayed upbeat throughout all of it? As an injury-prone climber myself, I know all too easily how one can get pretty down without climbing.
I think over the years—and I couldn’t have told myself this when I was younger—I’ve learned more and more not to put all my eggs in one basket. Not to have my life’s worth be dependent on one thing.
I’ve had so many climbing projects that at the time felt like everything to me. And then you realize, maybe it’s not. And now I’m at a place where I have my family. I just adore spending time with them. And if I’m injured I’m with them even more! And the advocacy work and lobbying that I do related to climate change gives me great purpose. So being injured actually gives me the opportunity to drop the ball less on all these other things because I’ve got a little more time.
I’m doing a lot of work on these environmental issues, nature-based climate change stuff. Oak Flat. The CORE Act—I was working with Senator Bennett’s office on that. Camp Hale. I go to D.C. on occasion.
I’m doing a lot of work with Patagonia these days. I’m taking on a bit more of a role with the company, as it becomes more of a climate focused company, in getting other climbers to make that a part of their lives.
I do a lot of product-oriented stuff with Edelrid, I’m a part owner of that.
I also went to Italy at one point and hung out with the folks at La Sportiva to talk about a new idea with them.
So no new hobbies though?
We were remodeling our house, though, that’s another thing I did. After I got hurt, I pretty much fired the contractor and took over. That was enough of a hobby.
What I have been getting into a bit more is mountain biking and gravel biking, since I can do that with a less robust Achilles’ tendon. I’ve been doing that in my boot—as long as I don’t crash it’s fine. I’m getting really psyched: Coming out of this, I think there will be a period of time where I can bike pretty seriously before climbing hard, so I think I might bike to Alaska this summer.
What about climbing-specific training?
After the last rupture, I was like, “OK, I need to keep climbing as part of my life. I’ve been out too long, I’ll lose it all if I don’t do something.”
So I hired a climbing coach for the first time in my life; I started the Lattice program, which has been awesome.
Three weeks ago I got an adjustable Kilter Board at my house. Coming out of this, I think I might be better at bouldering than I’ve been in like two decades. The Kilter Board is great, I can just tilt it back to like 60 degrees, so the top of the board is only six feet off the ground, and just land flat on my back.
Will you return to Magic Line?
I would like to! I’m not too nervous about the safety bit of Magic Line. I’ll just make sure to get a bit stronger and place the piece that I skipped. Then it would be very safe and a better fall. It suited me quite well. I worked on it for like three days, then I had to leave because my son got Covid. I really thought I was going to send that day. I think I’ll go back for redemption.
Do you have any other El Cap projects brewing?
I had plans to go and try to do this route, the Heart Route [VI 5.13b V10], that I tried with Honnold last year. I’m cleaning up free routes I hadn’t done. We tried to do it ground-up in a day and failed. We were going to try that again. But the Heart Route has this downward dyno, where your toes are kind of sliding along, so my Achilles’ will have to be in a great place before I try that.
But I love El Cap and Yosemite. It’s my favorite place in the world. I’m sure I’ll keep going back, I hope to be there every year.
Have you really not had any other nagging injuries over the years?
I’ve had little things pop up, like tendonitis and stuff. But I’m generally very good at doing all the PT that I’m supposed to. I’ve never had something where I just have to chill out.
I started running a ton during Covid, and my Achilles’ was sore from that year, and I got tendinosis as a result. I think the Achilles’ is my weak link…