The following is the full transcript of American rock climber Tommy Caldwell’s TEDx Talk titled “What are you up against?” at TEDxKC event.
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Tommy Caldwell – American rock climber
It had been 6 days since our last meal. What had started out as a climbing trip of a lifetime, had become an entirely different type of adventure, one marked by suffering, and death.
My girlfriend and I with 2 friends had helicoptered into a remote mountain region in southwest Kyrgyzstan 2 weeks before. We spent a week sleeping in hanging tents high on the grand yellow granite walls of the Karasu Valley. On our 8th day, we woke to gunshots — hunters I thought? No. Bullets were ricocheting off the walls around us. We took our long telephoto camera lens, and looked down to see 4 men with machine guns, and rifles waving, making clear their message, descend to the ground, or be shot.
A rebel insurgency called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had moved into the valley on a suspected mission to pave an opium trade trail through the mountains, and a war had erupted. We found ourselves caught at the point of collision, taken as hostage, used as human shields against the Kyrgyz military.
As the battle escalated, we ran. Then numb with terror, we huddled behind a boulder on top of a dead Kyrgyz soldier’s body, as a machine gun, and mortar fire flew overhead. As it got dark, 2 of our captors forced us to drop everything, and run with them. Then for the next 6 days, they pushed us, fleeing.
During the daylight hours we would lie still under boulders, or in damp depressions, covering ourselves with brush. It was clear that if we revealed our location, we would be shot. We had little food, and no water. And starvation is a crazy thing, because at first you feel it in your stomach, but then after a few days, your mind starts to starve, a complacency takes over. At times I stopped caring whether or not we lived.
But then on our 5th night, something changed. I suddenly felt a surging strength, a survival instinct kicked in. I noticed my night vision improving. Lines became crisp. I was aware of every sound, every movement. I felt a lightness of vitality, and my confidence grew. But at the same time, we were fading away. Our bodies had resorted to metabolizing muscle for energy.
On our 6th night as hostages, we found ourselves left with just one remaining captor, Su, as we knew him. Under moonlight, we negotiated our way up a mountain side, steep scrambling around sheer cliff bands. As we got higher it became obvious that Su was nervous, out of his element. He started looking to us for guidance: “Which handhold should I use? Will it keep me safe?” I looked over at Beth, and she shivered uncontrollably.
For days she’d insisted that we should not kill. Better to spend months in captivity. But now the smell of rain hung in the air. I ran my fingers up and down my torso, and they vibrated off my ribs as if it were a washboard. I knew that if it stormed, hypothermia would surely consume us. I looked over at Beth, and she saw intent. For a moment our eyes locked. Her’s then turned towards her feet, and I knew. My heart raced as I scrambled across a series of ledges, careful to keep silent, and in the shadows.
As I drew near, he didn’t see me coming. Then when I was just a few feet away, my foot knocked off a loose piece of rock, and his head started to turn. I reached out, grabbed the gun strap that was still over his shoulder, and I pulled as hard as I could, and he arched backwards, falling freely. A wheezing thud broke the silence from far below.
This experience could have crushed me. Society treats combat soldiers, and the victims of war like wounded animals. But ultimately, after some time, my predominant sense became one of empowerment. You see we are capable of so much more than we could ever imagine. But we only find that capacity when pushed against the limit, the unendurable, an existential threat.
When we think we’re nearing our breaking point, in fact, we’re not even close. Yes, I had traded the life of one for 4 that mattered more to me, but within that, I had gained this deeper knowledge of what our survival instincts can do. But not all of us came out of the experience feeling empowered, and I have to wonder: What makes the difference? Why do some experience post-traumatic stress, while others, post-traumatic growth? Could it be that the seeds of my survival were sown for me, years before?
Today I make my living as a professional athlete. But if you were to meet me as a third-grader, you might have envisioned a different future. I was not only the smallest kid I knew of my age, but I have the added benefit of being both clumsy, and socially awkward. But I did have one distinct advantage in life, and that was a truly extraordinary father.
Physically, my dad was a masculine role model. In that ’80s male beauty pageant kind of way. But the thing that really set him apart was his unwavering optimism, his faith in the potential for mastery. I mean, he could look at this scrawny little kid with big ears and bifocals, and think to himself: “I’m going to make you in to be the toughest man to ever walk the earth.” He understood this idea of raising your children with grit far before it became the parenting buzzword. He believed that you must prepare your children for the path, not the path for your children. And his way of doing this is through what I like to call: “Elective Hardship.” Not what you’re thinking.
In my case, that just meant going into the mountains. One of my earliest memories is of a raging blizzard. My sister was 6, I was two and a half, and still in diapers, and we were sleeping in a snow cave, deep in the Colorado Rockies. Every few hours my dad would unzip himself from his sleeping bag, put on his ski boots, and shovel out the entrance of the cave to make sure we didn’t get trapped. Then as he’d settled back in, he would pull me and my sister into his arms, our heads resting on his shoulders, he’d squeeze us tight — “This is real adventure.” He’d say.
Most of us are taught to avoid hardship, that life should be easy. My dad taught me something else. The first mountain we climbed together was a 14,000-foot mountain called Longs Peak, near our home in Colorado. I was seven years old. As is typical in the Colorado Rockies, in the summer, we encountered an intense afternoon thunderstorm, found ourselves running from the top of the mountain, lightning crashing, thunder booming all around.
What I remember most vividly from this experience is the intense look of love, and joy in my dad’s eyes. His booming energy, and his gregarious laugh. To me, he was a superhero, and I wanted nothing more than to be like him.
I think the greatest gift that he gave me is that he reframed adversity as adventure, and taught me to be bold. He showed me that if we allow ourselves to be exposed to challenge, then that challenge can energize us, and show us who we are. And even if we don’t open ourselves up, conflict is going to find us. It’s the rare, pathetically privilege person that doesn’t get their share of hardship. So we should make an effort to be prepared.