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Finding the Route to Success

January 31, 2024
Tommy Caldwell
Tommy Caldwell

Rock climber Tommy Caldwell was greeted with loud applause as he took the stage at the 2024 January Series. Caldwell is a talented rock climber with numerous accomplishments. The audience, gathered in the Covenant Fine Arts Center at Calvin University, was eager to hear, as Caldwell put it, “the slideshow of a friend’s recent trip.”

Caldwell said he got his start in climbing, thanks to his dad, who taught him what he termed “elective hardship.” And he humorously acknowledged that while, as a kid, he wasn't gifted physically or mentally, he viewed the hardship as “the right kind of trauma” to propel him toward becoming the best version of himself possible.

For nearly 15 years, Caldwell’s primary climbing focus, he said, was a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, known as El Capitan. And he climbed all of the free-climbing routes on its 3,000-foot sheer granite face.

Then a friend challenged him to find something he could be the best at in the world – something that was uniquely suited to him. Faced with that challenge, Caldwell said, he identified an untouched section of El Capitan, the Dawn Wall, as his goal.

What came next was a seven-year journey to accomplish the daunting feat of scaling that wall. Along the way, Caldwell said, he realized that this seemingly impossible task was not just about personal achievement but also about bonds formed during the climb.

Caldwell ended up completing this challenging route alongside Kevin Jorgeson. The difficulties, he recounted, were numerous – grueling physical work as well as the logistical challenges of living on a rock wall for extended periods – but rewarding. The two friends’ climb became a saga, documented by a New York Times reporter, turning their attempt into an unplanned and unexpected sensation that went viral on the internet.

Successfully completing this climb marked a shift in Caldwell’s perspective, he said. He recognized that he had learned lessons that could be applied to other parts of his life – from picking an objective and finding people to help, to choosing the right teammates and creating experiences that foster deep friendships.

This philosophy unfolded in new ways, Caldwell said, as he continued to take on new challenges. He began climbing with another friend, Alex Honnold, famous for his climb in the documentary Free Solo. As they accomplished impressive climbs together, Caldwell said, their combined skills “made mountains seem smaller.”

As the climbing chapter of Caldwell’s adventurous life continued, he said, he recognized that he could use his expeditions to raise awareness about environmental issues. In one example, he set his sights on bringing awareness to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge located in Alaska. To do this, Caldwell talked Honnold into bicycling with him from Colorado to Alaska, blending adventure with a message of environmental consciousness.

The expedition turned into a National Geographic film, documenting their arduous journey through wild terrains, sailing, and biking. After six weeks of traveling, following a Google Maps bike route that included intense bushwacking, the pair reached the Devil's Thumb in Alaska in a moment of triumph.

At the end of his January Series talk, Caldwell asked his listeners to remember one message from the stories he had shared: Challenge yourself, but do it with a focus on people first.