Since January Tommy has been firmly on my radar, reading interviews and watching content including his TEDx talk.
When I heard Tommy was coming to Kendal, I was on the verge of booking a ticket then and there, rather than waiting for a press ticket. This was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.
I’ve always enjoyed the athletic and mental prowess displayed by elite rock climbers, none more so than the big wall senders. Living vertically for weeks at a time has a certain draw for me, the organisation involved, commitment made and sheer challenge it poses. Shame I free 20ft off the deck!
Held in Kendal Leisure Centre, a sold out audience packed in eagerly, for Tommy’s one and only UK talk.
Introduced onto stage by Leo Houlding, a friendship founded on years spent in the Yosemite Valley, a quick volley of routes climbed by Tommy set the scene of what was to come.
Starting at the very beginning, as we witnessed a geeky looking child and bodybuilding father, Tommy immediately relaxed the crowd with his subtle humor and clever use of images. It soon became apparent that he wasn’t the sporting star in school you would expect from someone who has achieved so much in later years.
Climbing in Kyrgyzstan in 2000 was a intense and forming experience, when Tommy and his team were kidnapped by rebel fighters and culminated in Tommy in pushing the last remaining fighter, after the others had all succumbed to opposition fire, off a cliff edge, freeing himself and partner Beth.
For many this would be the story of their life, however this was just the beginning.
Sawing off his index finger was next on his eventful path, and on being told he would never climb again, ignited the fire in this belly to prove medical staff wrong.
Years in the valley prepared the next stage of Tommy’s life. With more routes to his name than you can remember and a couple of months a year, for several, spent experimenting on the Dawn Wall, this wasn’t a simple turn up, follow the guide and collect medals.
The Dawn Wall was and is pioneering, opening up a new route on a face few thought was possible. To add to this, the sheer determination to come back year after year, developing, learning and growing. In many respects, this was a climbing apprenticeship of its own.
Watching footage of dynamic moves Tommy had built on his shed at home, to scale, so that he could practice 6 feet of the ground was an eye opener. This project had an entirely different level of planning, preparation and methodical thinking.
We were treated to a look into the psychology of what it was like to be faced on the route and how the experience altered when the world’s media flooded the valley after a story selling spectacle. They weren’t there to send them off from the valley floor, at that point they didn’t care.
And it is the mass stampede of the media which stood out as something of a bitter pill at the end of a 19 day epic. On topping out, there was jubilation, seeing friends and family for the first time and knowing they were safe. However, the last thing they wanted was to be pointed down the barrel of numerous cameras from agencies that would not understand this.
Above all, we laughed. At no point did Tommy bog the audience with move by move renditions of the wall. When a helium balloon appeared from thin air, looming over the screen, the crowd cheered on as their hero jumped at full stretch to pluck it from the air.
To summarise, Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall talk was everything and more than could be expected. A complex and fascinating character, with a route to the sport which showed you don’t need to be born on a crag. With the right level of determination and willingness to suffer in order to succeed, we can all achieve more than we realise.
If you would like a glimpse of what we saw, here is the link to the TEDx talk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnMs_qLwaes