s
s
Sections
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
iPhone
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?
iPhone

Tommy Caldwell at Copperfield’s

When: Thursday, May 25, 7 p.m.

Where: Copperfield’s Santa Rosa, 775 Village Court

Info: copperfieldsbooks.com, tommycaldwell.com

There is magic in being first.

And there is something especially magical in doing something remarkable for the very first time while the eyes of the world are watching.

Tommy Caldwell, 38, has been first in nine major ascents in the climbing world but none bigger, by a long shot, than his successfully topping out on the Dawn Wall route on El Capitan in Yosemite in January 2015.

Caldwell, along with his Dawn Wall partner, Santa Rosan and Maria Carrillo High graduate Kevin Jorgeson, became household names as they used social media to share their journey up what is considered the most difficult free climb in the world. The duo were affixed to ropes only for safety — they used their bodies to inch up one of the sheerest slabs of granite on the planet as the world watched.

When they embraced at the top, 19 days after they left the valley floor 3,000 feet below and more than seven years after Caldwell first started mapping the route and planning the project, they were international rock stars.

And yet Caldwell was conflicted. Topping out meant the end of a dream and the termination of a project he had spent seven years, season after season, obsessing over. Caldwell had spent the fall and winter months for years suspended above the ground, working out a climbable route and getting his body and mind in shape to handle it. It was his release from the pain of a public divorce, the trauma of a kidnapping, the loss of his index finger in a carpentry accident, and a way to work through a complicated relationship with his father, former Mr. Colorado, Mike Caldwell.

“I needed the Dawn Wall as my own way to heal,” he wrote in his just-released autobiography “The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk and Going Beyond Limits.”

The process of researching and writing the book seems to be Caldwell’s way of dealing with everything that came along with the success of the Dawn Wall — the fame, the money, the speaking engagements and the increasing difficulty of finding time to be in the mountains that seem to fortify him.

Writing “The Push” helped Caldwell come to terms with his own story. He will be speaking about the book and his Dawn Wall experience at Copperfield’s Books in Montgomery Village May 25.

Looking back, Caldwell calls the aftermath of the ascent a confusing time. He had solved one of the greatest challenges in climbing but had not yet untangled his feelings about what led him to the Dawn Wall.

“The immediate feeling was that of loss,” he said of the days after he completed the storied journey. “I would say I went through a bit of a midlife crisis.”

So he began working on the book, interviewing family members and friends, and trying to figure out what made him do what he did and what made him the man he is.

“I wanted to figure out what shaped me,” he said.

In part, what shaped Caldwell was a hard-driving father and a prodigious talent. Caldwell was a climbing phenom, winning contests against pros, traveling the world with his father and gaining “first ascents” as a young man.

Caldwell said his dad, with whom he is close, hasn’t been able to bring himself to read the book because of its darker passages.

“With my dad, man, that’s a tough one,” he said. “My dad is like the most positive, over-stoker person you could imagine and it is impossible for him to see anything but the most sunny side.”

But Caldwell’s tale has darkness.

On a climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Caldwell, 22, his three companions, including Beth Rodden, the woman who would become his first wife, were kidnapped and held hostage for six days. Caldwell made international news when he pushed one of his captors off a cliff, allowing the foursome to flee to safety.

Then in 2001, Caldwell lost most of his left index finger in a table saw accident at his home in Estes Park, Colorado, putting his career and future in jeopardy.

“Losing a finger … it has an interesting effect,” he said. “It was when I became serious. It made me value what I do so much more, when it was in jeopardy.”

Caldwell also had to live through the public unraveling of his marriage and climbing partnership with Rodden, another big name in climbing circles.

The Dawn Wall became Caldwell’s path to surviving what he called the darkest time in his life.

“Beating my head against the Dawn Wall became my beacon in the night,” he wrote.

In the book, Caldwell is hard on Rodden, he’s hard on his father and he’s hard on Jorgeson. But he’s perhaps hardest of all on himself.

He gave a copy of the book to Rodden but hasn’t spoken to her about it. He gave a copy to his dad who wasn’t able to finish it. And Caldwell said he was unsure if Jorgeson, whom Caldwell said he has a complicated relationship with but, whom he loves like a brother, will attend Thursday’s talk.

“Sometimes you love your brother, sometimes he drives you nuts,” he said.

Jorgeson joined the project in 2009 and Caldwell writes about it, but his inspiration comes from Jorgeson’s natural gifts and frustration with what he described as his less-disciplined approach.

“Kevin was a much better climber than I was, even without training,” he wrote. “But the lack of training had taken a toll on his endurance. He could only manage about four or five hard moves in a row before melting off the wall.”

Year after year, he and Jorgeson would meet in Yosemite after the summer heat had burned away and search for climbable lines and practice move after move. Year after year, they didn’t unlock the puzzle.

After one disappointing season on the wall in 2011, Caldwell decided that he was quitting.

“Four years of training, of relentlessly beating my head against the wall and I’d come up short,” he wrote in “The Push.” “Not even halfway. Failure can lead to growth, but you also need to know when to stop. I’m not good enough, will never be good enough … I had wasted four of the best years of my life.”

But the wall always drew the pair back.

And the project gained new life in 2013 when Caldwell injured his ribs and Jorgeson had to work out portions of the route on his own or with other support partners while Caldwell recuperated. Free from Caldwell’s presence, Jorgeson took some ownership of the project, he wrote.

“He felt for the longest time that he was the stepfather of the Dawn Wall effort,” Caldwell wrote. “He had been living in my shadow. We had our differences — mostly about exploiting commercial opportunities and what the climb meant for our lives and careers — and that grated on our relationship.”

When one partner would find success on a specific part of the climb, it created a complicated wave of emotions, Caldwell said. When he returned from nursing his ribs, Caldwell successfully climbed a portion of the route that had long stymied them both.

“Kevin was shocked, and congratulated me wholeheartedly, but there was also an underlying air of jealousy like what I had so often felt toward him,” he wrote. “We had become so damned competitive, like two teammates pushing each other to a point that neither could reach alone.”

The pair also bickered over exposure. Jorgeson wanted to share the journey on social media, while Caldwell, who described himself as part of the old guard in climbing, was less keen to invite the world in.

“Advertising through your climbing is kind of like selling out,” he said. “Kevin is totally the opposite. He was like ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ He really wanted to commercialize the climb, and I wanted it to be the heart. It’s funny, I think the combination of the two things made it go big.”

There is no doubt that being able to read Jorgeson’s Twitter updates and see pictures of his shredded fingers as his climb stalled out for an agonizing seven days mid-route, added to the drama and drew people into their final, successful attempt. Jorgeson even took to social media to ask for advice on how to speed up the healing of his damaged fingers as Caldwell waited, having successfully moved well up the wall.

“When it started to play out the way it did, it just got so exciting,” Caldwell said. “It was like everybody got to watch in real time, peoples’ dreams come true. People could relate. It was an insight to basically a dream coming true that people don’t normally get.”

Despite the tension, Caldwell said the experience could not have happened without Jorgeson.

“Climbing at a really high level and pushing yourself to that level, for me, is way more possible in a collaborative type atmosphere, somebody you are competitive with a little bit, constantly pushing each other,” he said. “The sum is greater than the individual parts. Both Kevin and I could be way better with each other.”

Caldwell said he simply could not have done it alone, he had to share his dream with another climber.

“I definitely had some ego invested and that was hard to share, but the experience is so much richer when shared, and that won out in the end,” he said.

In an odd twist, Jorgeson became the voice for the pair after an illness settled in Caldwell’s throat on the final days of the push and stole his ability to talk. As media outlets came calling, it was Jorgeson who spoke.

“In the moment, I was like ‘This is the worst thing ever,’ ” Caldwell said of literally not being able to talk about the climb. “That came from a place of wanting to please everybody. I felt such a need to tell people what they wanted to hear, which was a weird thing in the moment.”

That said, he was wrestling with feelings of loss that his dream had been achieved.

“It was a confusing time, so maybe it was better” that he couldn’t speak, he said.

Caldwell said writing the book gave him both insight and perspective — on his own journey and why, perhaps, it seemed to capture the imagination of so many nonclimbers. And part of that may have come from how long it took, how many times he failed, how many times he had to pack it up and go home, not having reached what he came for.

“I loved those seven years so much,” he said. “I think if I was 15 years younger, I wouldn’t have been able to put up with that. It took a lifetime of failing to understand how awesome failing can be. That is really what climbing is all about.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry. benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Show Comment