Wall climbing

Tommy Caldwell Best Climber, Star of The Dawn Wall

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Tommy Caldwell (August 11, 1978) is an American rock climber, best known for his exploits on the big walls, particularly in Yosemite National Park, in addition to having pioneered hard sport climbs, such as Kryptonite (5.14d) and Flex Luthor (5.15b).

Among other accomplishments, Caldwell is widely known for the first free ascent of the dawn wall (VI 5.14d) with Kevin Jorgeson and the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse (VI 5.11d C1) with Alex Honnold. Caldwell is also famous for completing most of his climbs without the majority of his left index finger, which was cut off by a table saw in 2001.

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson rely on a network of rigged ropes to ascend and descend El Capitan’s Dawn Wall to access the toughest terrain. They leave their portaledge camp each afternoon as the sun sets around the corner and use mechanical ascenders to scale the ropes and get to work for the day’s climbing adventure. After spending 19 days on the wall, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson summited El Capitan in Yosemite National Park for their historic first free ascent of the Dawn Wall on January 14, 2015. (Photo: Red Bull Content Pool/Corey Rich)


Caldwell was born on August 11, 1978 in Estes Park, Colorado. He grew up in and around Loveland, the son of two mountain guides, and practiced rock climbing from an early age. His father, Mike Caldwell, was a former Mr. Colorado bodybuilding champion, as well as an avid rock climber.

In addition to outdoor climbing, Caldwell began competing at the age of 16, meeting prominent climber Beth Rodden on the American competition circuit in 1995. Caldwell and Rodden began dating in 2000 and continued to climb a series of tough climbs in Yosemite.

Taken hostage in Kyrgyzstan

While on a trip to make the first big wall climbs in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Caldwell, Rodden, John Dickey and Jason Smith were abducted and held hostage for six days by a group of militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The group spent several days in captivity in remote mountain valleys, in and out of firefights, until Caldwell managed to throw one of their captors off a cliff (the man survived), giving Americans a window to escape to the safety of the Kyrgyz army. .

Portrait of Tommy Caldwell.
Tommy Caldwell lost a finger in a table saw accident but still continued to climb some of the toughest routes in the world. (Photo: Corey Rich / Red Bull Content Poop)

Challenging climbing in Yosemite and elsewhere

Caldwell is perhaps best known for his accomplishments in Yosemite National Park, including at least a dozen free ascents. For much of the early 2000s, he had released more independent lines in Yosemite than any other climber.

Caldwell made the first free ascent of El Capitan hidden fear (VI 5.13c) with Rodden in 2000, as well as the first free ascents of El Capitan’s western buttress (VI 5.13c) and Dihedral wall (VI 5.14a), in addition to the free ascents of Wall Salathe (VI 5.13b), Muir Wall/Well Variant (VI 5.13c), and Zodiac (VI 5.13d). He also made a first free ascent of the Nose (5.14a) with Rodden in 2005. The pair were the third and fourth free climbers on the route, after Lynn Hill (1993) and Scott Burke (1998).

Caldwell and Rodden also made the first free ascent of The honeymoon is over (5.13) on Longs Peak’s Diamond, a route now considered the toughest line in the formation. He and Rodden were colloquially referred to as “the first climbing couple” and their relationship was highly publicized in the climbing media. (They married in 2003 and divorced in 2009).

Caldwell is also known for the first free ascent of the Yosemite Triple Crown (a link between El Cap, Half Dome and Mt. Watkins) in 2012 and the first sub-two-hour ascent of the Nose in 2018, both with Alex Honnold.

In addition to big wall climbs, Caldwell has achieved several groundbreaking first ascents of hard sport routes in the United States. He made the first ascent of Colorado Kryptonite (5.14d) in the Fortress of Solitude in 1999. The route is considered the first of its kind on the continent.

Caldwell’s dispatch in 2003 Flex Luthor was also the first 5.15 offered on American soil. The route hadn’t seen a second ascent for almost 20 years until it was sent in 2021 by Matty Hong, who came up with 5.15b. Given the proposed score of 5.15b, Flex Luthor was also the first ascent of this difficulty in the world.

Tommy Caldwell climbing the Mescalito on El Capitan, Yosemite.
Big wall free climber Tommy Caldwell tackles dihedral terrain on the Mescalito Highway on El Cap in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo: Corey Rich/Red Bull Content Pool)

Crossing the Fitz

In 2014, Caldwell completed the first ascent of the Fitz Traverse, a long route linking the iconic Cerro Fitz Roy (11,170ft) and six neighboring peaks, alongside Alex Honnold in a five-day push.

The route, located on the Argentina-Chile border in Patagonia, features more than 13,000 vertical feet and is about four miles long. It was considered at the time to be the most difficult alpine crossing in history (although Vitaliy Musiyenko’s crossing Goliath can now take this title).

The Dawn Wall and Afterlife

Among many young climbers (and in the mainstream media), Caldwell is best known for his ascent of the 5.14d Great Wall route dawn wall, starring Kevin Jorgeson. The duo worked for almost six years on the project, and it is widely considered to be the toughest big wall route in existence. Upon its completion, which required a 19-day stint on the wall, Caldwell and Jorgeson achieved international fame even outside of the climbing community. They were congratulated by then-President Barack Obama, among other accolades. The line was later repeated by Adam Ondra in an eight-day blitz, although no one has managed to send the road since then.

the dawn wall project spawned an eponymous documentary film, which was well received and became the first entry in a new wave of rock climbing films that achieved mainstream success (Free Solo, The Mountaineer, 14 verticesetc.).

In recent years, Caldwell has become something of a climbing authority in the mainstream media and is frequently quoted (or appears) in climbing documentaries. Together with Alex Honnold, he is one of the best known climbers in the world. His 2017 autobiography, The thrusthas become a New York Times Bestseller.

Following his divorce from Rodden in 2009, Caldwell married photographer Rebecca Pietsch in 2012. They have two children and are currently based in Estes Park.

Climbing Achievements

  • Kryptonite (5.14d), Fortress of Solitude, Colorado (1999).
  • hidden fear (VI 5.13c), Yosemite National Park, California (2000). First free ascent with Beth Rodden.
  • Flex Luthor (5.15b), Fortress of Solitude, Colorado (2003).
  • western buttress (VI 5.13c), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2003). First free ascent.
  • Dihedral wall (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2004). First free ascent.
  • Nose (VI 5.14a) El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2005). Third/fourth free ascent with Beth Rodden
  • Magic Mushroom (VI 5.14a), El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, California (2008). First free ascent with Justen Sjong.
  • Yosemite Triple Crown (5.13a), Yosemite National Park, CA (2012). First free ascent with Alex Honnold.
  • Dunn Westbay (5.14a), Long Peak, Colorado (2013). First free ascent with Joe Mills.
  • Fitz Crossing (VI 5.11d C1), Patagonia (2014). First ascent with Alex Honnold.
  • dawn wall (VI 5.14d) Yosemite National Park, California (2015). First free ascent with Kevin Jorgeson.
  • autobiography author The Push: the journey of a climber of endurance, risk and going beyond limits (2017).
  • Speed ​​record of 1:58:07 with Alex Honnold on the Nose (VI 5.8 A2 3,000 feet), Yosemite National Park, CA (2018).