How Problem-Solving On The World’s Toughest Climbing Route Can Make You Better At Anything

Tommy Caldwell might be the world’s best problem-solver. For decades, the climbing world agreed that a free ascent of the Dawn Wall – a near-featureless, 3,000ft slab of granite on the southeast face of Yosemite’s famous El Capitan – was impossible: too hard, too steep, too finger skinningly unrelenting. Then, after seven years of working out and memorising the complex sequence of moves that every part of the wall requires, Caldwell – alongside climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson – sent it. What’s more, he did it with nine fingers – after an accident in his early 20s – and a life with more than its share of hardships, including a harrowing ordeal as a hostage in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. How has that all helped to make him one of the best climbers in history? RISING spoke to him to find out.

RISING Seven years is a huge amount of time to spend on any single project. How do you keep your focus for something like that?

TOMMY CALDWELL ‘I wouldn’t have been able to do it when I was a younger climber. It took this evolution of… I’d call it falling in love with the journey, going out every day and loving that life of pursuit way more than actually finishing the climb itself. The wall was just a focal point, a mechanism to have out there. Challenging myself and wrestling with that; I love that process more than anything.’

RISING So that’s something you’ve developed over time?

TC ‘Well, there was a point where I just suddenly realised that I could view the experience completely differently. One of the reasons I love climbing with Alex Honnold [a noted free-soloist, who’s climbed several of El Cap’s routes without a rope] is because he can go out there and take things that seem arduous and horrible in most ways, and make light work of them and laugh through them. And when I’m in a place that I can do that, that’s hugely empowering. I’m pretty deep into the relationship aspect of things, and I think about that a lot; where one person can view something as terrible and the other can view it as wonderful, even though it’s the exact same experience. It’s a frame of mind.’

‘It’s a matter of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to fail’

RISING So how do you build that mindset?

TC ‘It’s a matter of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to fail. You have to go out there and let yourself be beat down a lot, and realise that it’s not so bad. It’s easier to say that than to do it, but I was actually quite blessed early in life to go through these experiences that were really intense. Once you’ve gone through that and then come out the other side and you can go ‘Wow, I lived,’ then eventually ‘OK, it wasn’t actually that bad.’

RISING So how do you get through an ordeal like being kidnapped by militants for six days? Just focus on getting through it?

TC ‘Yeah, sometimes you have to think about getting through the next few seconds, getting through the next few hours. You couldn’t really think of it any other way. You would find comfort by daydreaming about what you’d do when you got home, what you’d eat. You’d be dreaming of your warm bed. All those methods are ways of getting through the next few minutes, the next few hours.’

RISING Then, not long after that ordeal was over, you lost a finger and doctors told you you’d need to reconsider your career. How did you cope with that?

TC ‘I went pretty immediately to a place of severe determination. When I chopped it off it was panic right away, but when I was in hospital a day later I was like: OK, I’m going to do everything I can to overcome this. It built a discipline in me. And honestly I think if I hadn’t been through the experiences I had in Kyrgyzstan I’m not sure I’d have had that same determination; I might have just given up.

‘There’s an ebb and flow in my life, and probably in everybody’s life, that I find. The good things often come after the low point, and you’ve got to hit rock bottom so you can experience that progression over and over again. Earlier in my life I hit rock bottom through circumstance, but later in life I started to purposefully design my life in that way: coming up with these big climbing goals does that, because you know you’re going to struggle but you’re going to learn.’

‘You have to take each of your problems and analyse them, and treat them differently’

RISING So you need to design your life to include the chance of failure?

TC ‘Absolutely. I think it’s totally worth it. When I was young I couldn’t imagine how people could find contentment in life without climbing [laughs], but now I’ve seen that you can find it anywhere, with the same sort of mindset. It was really cool that post-Dawn Wall, I did all these speaking engagements, so I’d be hanging out with astrophysicists or authors or Olympians or these people from all walks of life who were hugely passionate and fascinating. I think the commonality between all of them is that they were willing to put themselves out there and they failed a lot.’

RISING So what did your failures on the Dawn Wall teach you?

TC ‘I learned that you have to take each of your problems or challenges and analyse them and treat them differently. I’d been climbing El Cap for 15 years before the Dawn Wall and my approach was always pretty similar: I’d start training several months before and build my power base, then add in more stamina based training, bouldering, sport climbing. I’d be doing three to four days a week of 14 hours a day. It always worked for other climbs, but that didn’t work on the Dawn Wall. The Dawn Wall was more about individual moves, climbing these sections of rock that we had to climb so perfectly. I had to cut out all of that volume and just focus specifically on the movements, how to keep my skin healthy and use restraint and climb much more slowly. That’s why the Dawn Wall took 14 days and before that I was climbing El Cap in three and a half hours.

‘It was a totally different puzzle to solve; I had to learn a new skillset to make it happen. Most of El Cap is pretty easy with a couple of hard moves, but on the Dawn Wall the whole thing was hard. It would be so daunting to think of it as one route, so I’d just focus on the difficult sections. I knew I just had to gather these hundreds of pieces, and make them into one whole thing.’

RISING Did it sometimes require you to step back and completely rethink your approach?

TC ‘Yeah – the temperature thing, for instance, was a seven year evolution. We originally were climbing in September, then pushed it back to October and November and finally December, because the rubber on your shoes gets harder and the wall’s cooler and the grip is slightly better. But then you have another problem because ice is sheeting off the wall in winter, so we had to figure out how to negotiate that and continually break it down.’

RISING You talk about building a mindset of invincibility. How do you do that?

TC ‘Well, confidence is pretty necessary on something like the Dawn Wall: if you believe that you’re going to do it, you’re more likely to do it. The mindset is about coming to the challenge and knowing that you’ve worked your hardest to get there: your training was as good as it could be.’

RISING One of the best parts of your book is the point where you drop your phone halfway up the wall, and your immediate reaction is: ‘Oh, yeah! Now I can fully embrace the rest of this experience!’

TC ‘I’ve been climbing since I was three, so we didn’t have smartphones most of my life. I’m used to bonding with a partner, and so the Dawn Wall was frustrating in a way: we’d be doing the same thing but we’d always be on our phones. Kevin brought this storytelling element to the climb, and at first I was a bit of a curmudgeon about it, but eventually I realised that in a way keeping this experience to yourself is a bit selfish too, so I accepted it, like ‘this is a different climb.’ When I dropped my phone it just brought me back, it felt right. It ended up being the best of all worlds.’

‘For the Dawn Wall, I had to get to a point where I didn’t actually care whether I did it or not’

RISING Speaking of the book, did you find that the problem-solving approach you got from climbing helped you with writing?

TC ‘Absolutely. I found that I was able to apply all of those things from climbing and feel the same fulfilment, almost on a molecular level. I approached it just like a climb: I could have found it too daunting because I’m a very slow writer, but I’d go, “Okay, I’m going to take this a step at a time.” So I’m going to assemble the best team, including my co-writer Kelly Cordes; I’m going to get all the information I need; I’m going to approach guys who know what they’re doing, like Jon Krakauer; and I’m going to do it that way.’

RISING What’s your advice for RISING readers who want to apply your approach to the challenges in their own lives?

TC ‘I would go back to that point of having them try not to focus on the end result too much. For the Dawn Wall climb, I had to get to a point where I didn’t actually care whether I did it or not. It was like: “I’m going to go up this season and spend 50 days on the wall, and if I don’t eventually do it in the end that’s okay, because the experience of being there is a prize in itself”. You know you’ve picked the right goal if you enjoy the day-to-day pursuit tremendously.’

WHAT NEXT? Get a sense of just how tiny the Dawn Wall’s handholds are by checking this video of Pitch 15 – one of the route’s toughest – then check out Caldwell’s book, The Push.

Tommy Caldwell is a Patagonia athlete.