My Next Adventure After Climbing the Dawn Wall: Writing a Book

We’re never still. When we think we are at the very beginning of a journey, we may well be at the end. Or when we’re convinced we’re at the end, we’re really just getting started.  -Willie Nelson

I wonder where I am now. Nearly two decades spent obsessing over a silly activity of rock climbing. Mostly on a single hunk of granite, El Capitan. It did crescendo into quite the fairytale ending. At least in the modern “look at me now generation.” The world watching as Kevin Jorgeson and I pulled over the top of the Dawn Wall after 19 days—or was it seven years, or maybe a lifetime. 

We got a call from the president, 13-billion media impressions worldwide (as cited by Back Bone media). The absurdity of it still sits uneasy with me. Unexpected, possibly unwanted, I am not sure yet. The attention was a nice stroke of the ego, which for a clumsy and dyslexic late-bloomer like me has always been a good thing. Why do I feel so damn uneasy then? On TV It looked heroic.

Perhaps it comes down to an identity crisis. Climbing used to be a fantasy world, a barbarian cult, escapism from modern day society where money and power rule all. As climbers we had found a way to cheat the system: Live on fresh air and good views, avoid the stress. But as climbing became more mainstream it lost some of its counter-cultural appeal. Without intending to, the most dedicated climbers became professionals. For me, the recoil of climbing the Dawn Wall created real world opportunities I never could have imagined. Therein lies the dilemma. I have found myself caught at the inflection point of climbing’s identity crisis: escapism or conformity.

My ambition to write a book was supposed to be a search for truth. And I wanted a good adventure. After 30 years of being little more than a mindless monkey I figured it was about time I diversified my life and used my brain. If there is one thing that sets climbing apart from other sports, it’s the way it creates a powerful narrative. I read countless stories, even started to formulate my own. 

To me it seemed ripe for a novel, starting with the way I entered the world: translucent skin, deflated lungs, three pounds. Then there was the whole hostage ordeal in the mountains of southwest Kyrgyzstan. Six surreal terrifying days of war and starvation. All leading to a single life-changing moment. I was looking into the eyes of the woman I loved, lit by the moon and wide with terror. That’s when I decided to take a life. That’s just the beginning. 

The Dawn Wall was supposed to put a period on it, but of course it hasn’t. Life doesn’t just stop like that. And we all carry around ghosts and skeletons. Sooner or later, most of us will get caught in an avalanche. Whether we emerge on top or melt out in the spring depends mostly on luck, but hopefully just a little on how hard we fight. So maybe that’s what climbing, and now writing, have become for me. An attempt to learn to swim in the avalanche so that next time we just might emerge on top. 

In a fateful and possibly misguided moment of blind optimism following my success on the Dawn Wall I believed that I could in fact write a book. So I wrote a proposal, baited the hook, and cast off into the foreign seas of the publishing world. Then I found myself on the 19th floor of the Chrysler Building in New York City with my literary agent. Over two days we met with 16 publishers. I must have done a decent job of faking it, because the book went to auction and a few weeks later I was under contract. 

That was a little like starting up El Cap barefoot with nothing more than a single set of stoppers. My reaction at the time was something I had learned through climbing: Joyful Masochism. Jon Krakauer told me writing a book is like ditch digging. “You just gotta get in there and dig a few feet every day.” I am nothing if not a bull-headed hard worker. 

Forty hours a week behind the computer for a year? Hell yeah, I was fired up. 

That’s when the agony began.

I think it came from my ambition to write well. Right off the bat I realized there was a big problem. Despite the positive feedback I received from readers of Alpinist and Rock and Ice, I did not know how to write. Luckily, climbing teaches us to rely on partnerships. Early on I made the lifesaving decision to enlist the help of my dear friend and great author, Kelly Cordes. He agreed to be my “writing doctor.” Without Kelly and the encouragement of many others I surely would have failed a long time ago. 

That brought me to Banff Centre. Kelly had applied us for the Fleck fellowship scholarship. We would be spending the last two weeks before the due date of the first draft in a little cabin in the woods designed for creative thinking. 

Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell at the 2015 Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Photo by Rita Taylor.

I sat at a mahogany desk inside an historic old house that was transported from downtown Banff to the Leighton Artists' Colony at Banff Centre. The smell of antique oak permeated the space. Next to me sat a grand piano. In the few surrounding acres of pine forest there are seven more custom-designed creative spaces. A sailboat, an octagonal log hut. One day while walking through the woods I met a painter; another day, a pianist. Everyone wore scarves and shiny back shoes. In one way I felt absurdly out of place, in another, I was at home. 

I have never considered myself a creative person, but amongst these peers, I understood that creativity comes in many forms. Climbing has been my art. Not unlike painting or playing the piano. Is climbing really what I have fallen in love with for all these years? Or is it a venue to channel obsession and love and excitement? All that brings colour and stoke to life. When I look into the eye of our neighbour, the painter, who is preparing for his gallery debut, I see the same kind of excitement I feel when embarking on a big climbing expedition.  

There was another author here. I didn’t learn her name but I saw her at the café each day. She sat in the same chair every day across the room from me. Grey hair draped around the frames of silver rimmed glasses, usually chewing on her pinky nail. Typing frenzies interspersed with long moments of contemplation. Sometimes her face twisted, full of angst, other times she suppressed laughter. I dared not talk to her because I didn’t want to pull her out of her zone. 

But I understood her focus. After arriving at Banff Centre I felt equally single-minded. My climbing gear sat unused in a duffel bag next to my bed. I wrote 16 hours a day and for the first time in my life I wasn’t even tempted to go climbing. When my brain felt tired I hit the rest button by going on short runs up Tunnel Mountain. Inevitably, while running, more ideas emerged and I constantly had to stop to jot down notes. I did the same thing at night while attempting to sleep. The ideas turned themselves into sentences, then pages and chapters.  

I wish there was more originality to my words, more poetry in my language. But the act of creating feels fulfilling on the molecular level, not unlike climbing. I thought I wanted to write a book as a way to find answers. But now, nearly a year into the process, I’ve come to the conclusion that good writing is never about answers, but more unanswerable questions. 

In climbing we often think that we are working towards a goal, a summit. But when we get there we find little more than hollowness, uncertainty. Maybe that’s okay, because uncertainty seems to be a precursor to euphoria, and euphoria a precursor to uncertainty. So maybe our search for summits and truth will not bring us to the end, but in fact, back to the beginning. 

I relived a lifetime in that little cabin in the woods.  

As I put the final touches on the first draft of my book I felt riddled with self-doubt, yet thankful for the journey and the people that continue to walk it with me. 

I cannot thank the kind folks at Banff Centre enough. Notably Jo Croston, who helped Kelly and I apply for the Paul D. Fleck fellowship, which provides one fellowship to one mountain-related artist each year.