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Learning the Ropes

The lessons pro climber Tommy Caldwell learned from his dad and over 30 years of climbing rock. 


When he was a kid, Tommy Caldwell’s dad, who worked as a teacher during the school year and a mountain guide during the summer, would take his son on climbing missions around Colorado. Tommy did his first roped climb when he was just three years old. By age 14, he was climbing the 2,000-foot-high, 5.10 route up the Diamond on Colorado’s Longs Peak. His dad took him on mountaineering trips to Bolivia and Europe and taught him everything he knows about staying safe in the mountains. Since then, Tommy, now 34, has gone on to become a world-renowned climber, known for his big-wall conquests and first ascents of some of the hardest routes around the world. These are the lessons he’s learned along the way, spoken from his home in Estes Park, Colorado.


My dad had this amazing love of climbing. It was so infectious and positive. I learned from him that climbing can bring us all of these great things and take us to amazing places. It’s made climbing fun for me every day since then. I don’t get burned out. 


My dad had this great sense of adventure. But he was also cautious and when it came down to it, he wanted to live. I’ve learned to analyze risk and decide what’s safe within the box that I’ve built; what’s safe enough that I’m going to live through it.


You need to have good stamina, so you can go all day. 


I’m really good at suffering. That’s something that I learned to embrace at a young age. I almost seek out the suffering as opposed to seeing it as something negative. 


In climbing, there are a lot things that seem really scary. On El Cap, there are no ledges, and it seems really extreme and dangerous to a lot of people. But if you look at it and analyze it long enough and you have the skills to handle it, it’s actually not that dangerous. 


I just did a trip to Switzerland, where I was looking at 50- to 80-foot falls and pretty hard climbing. Going there got me more comfortable climbing way above my protection and got me more used to falling. You get used to falling and that’s good mental preparation because you realize it’s not as bad as you think it’s going to be.


When I’m way run out and looking at a big fall, of course I’m nervous. But you take a few of those falls and you get less nervous each time. You start to understand what things can hurt you and what perceived dangers aren’t actually that bad. You understand logistically what you can do to make things safer, in terms of dynamic belays or positioning your belayer and how to fall to minimize the damage. 


Hitting things when I fall is what I’m most afraid of when I’m rock climbing. And I’m afraid of things falling on me. That’s why when you’re in an alpine environment, you do everything you can to try to avoid that. You identify your biggest dangers and then analyze how you can avoid them. 


There have been times when I’m working toward something I want really badly. The struggle to succeed creates anxiety, but that’s part of the excitement, too. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace what I’m doing for the process, to embrace the failure as part of the whole thing. 


When I was younger, if things didn’t go my way, I’d be devastated. But now, I’ve learned to stand back and take in the big picture. 


I’m lucky that I haven’t had many climbing injuries. The ones I have had have been mainly freak accidents. If you spend as much time off the ground as I do, you’re bound to get hurt. But I choose to climb things with hazards that I can control somewhat. I pick routes that I feel like I can manage the risk on. 


My advice to younger climbers? Climbing is a sport of finding mentors, people who can show you the right way. Surround yourself with people who have energy you can thrive on, people who can teach you how to be safe and teach you how to have the adventure you’re looking for. 



Seems Tommy is going to pass on the family wisdom to the next generation.

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