Tommy Caldwell understands risk and adventure better than most. Two years ago, he became the first person to free climb the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
The wall is more than half a mile of sheer, vertical granite — and Caldwell made the climb with nothing but a rope tied around his waist.
“It has this incredible and sometimes unnerving feeling of exposure,” Caldwell told KUOW’s Bill Radke. “You’re living in this vertical world. You can’t walk. You’re always either grasping onto these tiny little nubbins on the rock, or you're hanging from your ropes. It’s windy, it’s somethimes cold, it’s a very hostile environment.”
But the Dawn Wall wasn’t the hardest or most emotional challenge Caldwell has faced. When he sat down to write his recently-released book, "The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits,” there was one story he felt compelled to tell — partly so he could fully understand what happened.
It was the story of how he pushed a man over the edge of a mountain in Kyrgyzstan 17 years ago.
Caldwell was climbing with a small group in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 — celebrating his 21st birthday — when they were captured by a group of rebel fighters associated with Al Qaeda.
“We were climbing in this area that was 50 miles from the nearest road,” Caldwell said. “It was very remote. We thought it would be a safe place to go climbing. But in the year of 2000 it became kind of an a opium trade trail.”
Their captors were battling the Kyrgyz military, and they held Caldwell and his companions hostage for six days.
“We were valuable,” Caldwell said. “You know, we’re Americans — they could have ransomed us. We were sort of being used as human shields. We’re in the middle of this war. We were being shot at, they were being shot at. The shooting was less aggressive because they didn’t want to shoot the American captives. We were just very useful in a situation like that.”
During the day, they buried themselves in holes. At night, they traveled.
“It was scary in a sort of way that still seems surreal to me at this point,” Caldwell said. “It was one of these experiences that was just so different than anything else I had experienced. So painful. Honestly I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
“We thought we could be killed at any moment.”
Their captors didn’t speak English, so Caldwell and the other climbers were able to talk with each other, as long as they changed the inflection in their voices. A plan to escape hatched, though Caldwell and his girlfriend were opposed to it at first.
“I was under the impression that we should wait it out,” Caldwell said. “But as the situation got increasingly dire, I started to realize we just couldn’t wait it out. On our sixth night, we were high on this mountainside with just one remaining captor. It seemed like a storm was rolling in. We were already on the verge of hypothermia. We hadn’t eaten in six days. And it was painfully obvious to me that this was going to be our chance to escape.”
Their captor wasn’t a climber. But Caldwell and his companions were comfortable in the mountainous environment.
“The physical act of going up and actually pulling this guy over the edge was actually not that hard,” he said. “It was just sort of the mental battle that went into it ahead of time, like, should we do this?”
He recalled waiting, hoping one or the other captives would make a move. No one did. He asked his girlfriend if he should go ahead with the plan, and she was silent.
“Which to me was her blessing,” Caldwell said.
“I waited until the last moment, then I ended up taking matters into my own hands,” he said. “Which has sort of haunted me in ways ever since. Part of the reason I wrote this book was to sort of grapple with that and understand what it meant.”
He said it happened on a ledge under a full moon.
“I grabbed his gunstrap, and I just pulled him over backwards and watched him fall out of sight. It was incredibly surreal. For a moment I was just kind of numb, I guess. Then I scrambled to the top of the mountain where there was a flatter space and I sat down and I just broke down.”
Caldwell said he wasn’t able to come to terms with what he did for a long time, until he started writing his book.
“When I sat down to write this book, these were the first words I put in there,” he said. “And I talk about, sort of the surreal nature of the moment -- all the emotions came crashing down in an instant.”
Caldwell assumed the man died from the fall, but he was wrong. Three months later, a reporter tracked the man down in a prison in Kyrgyzstan.
Still, what Caldwell did haunts him and in some ways drives him to push himself to take risks. What happened on the ledge in Kyrgyzstan was one reason he chose to free climb the Dawn Wall in Yosemite 15 years later.
“It’s really more the physical side of that, I think,” Caldwell said. “If you change your idea of what you are capable of, if you move that bar ten steps out, life becomes a lot less scary. And so it’s a very empowering thing.”
But he said he’s trying to take fewer risks now that he’s a father.
The Dawn Wall was a perfect balance of challenging and relatively safe, Caldwell said. “The challenge was a big deal, but the danger wasn’t."
“I was relatively certain I was going to live through it,” he said. “It’s not actually that dangerous. There are no big avalanches that can come and wipe you off the mountain. It’s a clean rock face. It feels exciting when you're up there, but you're tied into ropes, and if you fall a long ways, they catch you.”
Caldwell said there are lessons to learn from rock climbing, lessons that don’t involve taking life-threatening risks.
“You can just change the venue,” he said. “You can do it mentally. I mean, writing a book was something that I knew very little about, but I got obsessed by it and I gathered the knowledge. I approached it like I do a big mountain.”