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.