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Home » Transcript: Tommy Caldwell on What Are You Up Against? at TEDxKC

Transcript: Tommy Caldwell on What Are You Up Against? at TEDxKC

Tommy Caldwell

The following is the full transcript of American rock climber Tommy Caldwell’s TEDx Talk titled “What are you up against?” at TEDxKC event.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: What are you up against by Tommy Caldwell at TEDxKC


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.

In the winter of 2001, I chopped off my left index finger with the table saw. While this is a terrible accident for anyone, for a climber, whose strength literally comes in their fingers, this is an almost unthinkable catastrophe. I spent two weeks in the hospital, went through three surgeries, two blood transfusions, and near the end of that time, I was sitting in my hospital bed one day, staring at my black, grotesquely swollen finger, stitches and pins protruding, when my doctor came to the room, and he sat down next to me. He said: “Tommy, your finger’s dead, we’re going to have to remove it, and I think you should start thinking about what else you want to do in your life, because you’re not going to be able to be a professional climber anymore.”

Climbing was my life, my livelihood. “What else was there?” I thought. Part of me felt like a victim, like I should find a way to gracefully accept defeat, and to bow out. But another part of me, maybe my dad’s crazy legacy, knew that hardship is what makes us feel more deeply. And the ability to truly feel creates passion, and passion is what leads us to defy the odds.

So when I walked out of that hospital a few days later, my finger now just a swollen nub, I felt a drive, and that drive became a maniacal focus. I started training 14 hours a day. Over the next years, I analyzed everything about how I lived. I honed new strengths, and made changes. I searched out challenge in the form of big wall free climbing. I learned to thrive on the intensity of the experience, and in a painful and often times terrifying pursuit, I found it taste of Utopia. I mean imagine a world where pain and pleasure merge, where ego disappears, where awareness grows upward, and outward in all directions. This was a powerful epiphany, and out of that grew curiosity. I wondered: “How far can I push this?”

I noticed that when I was lost in pursuit, my world would be filled with wonder, and color. It was only when complacency would encroach, that it would cloud over. So I decided I would have to come up with an elevated dream, something that would completely consume me, and so was born the Dawn Wall project. It started as a spark, an idea. If I would have thought of it as a goal, I surely would have been too overwhelmed, and given up. So instead, it became a question: “Could there be a way?”

El Capitan is the climbing world’s most iconic rock face, and the Dawn Wall is its steepest, sheerest section. I think if you were to ask any climber of today if they thought it would be possible to free climb, they would have told you it was the most ludicrous notion they had ever heard. But I wondered: “Could my perspective and experience bring the seemingly impossible into the world of possibility?”

So I took it on as a research project. I carried thousands of feet of rope to the top of the wall. Started descending top-down, swinging back and forth, analyzing the surface of the rock with magnifying glass detail. I inspected every feature, every dime sized edge, every shift in angle. Nothing went unnoticed, and it was a vast canvas. And my search lasted a year, but I eventually found an improbable passage, an elusive line of holds that lead from the bottom of the wall all the way to the top. But it was so big, that I knew I’d never be able to do it alone.

So I recruited the most promising climber I knew, a next-generation talent named Kevin Jorgenson, and I brought him up on the wall. Together a brotherhood formed, and we started to build a belief. Every morning started the same. We would wake, brew coffee in our little hanging stove. Then we’d sit in awe as the first light graced us. It was an exposed vantage, an awe inspiring vista. A pebble — the wall is so steep, that a pebble dropped from the top would fall 3,000 feet without touching a thing, and for the next 6 years we obsessed. Mostly we talked about body movement, the angle that our foot would contact the tiny ripples we were trying to stand on, how we’d place our fingers on the 3-millimeter-wide edges, in just the right way, and just the right sequence, with just the right amount of balance, body position, and footwork to climb these almost blank sections of rock.

In the evenings we’d stare in wonder at the vast space around us. We’d watch falcons tackle swallows in mid-air. I could feel my capacity growing, pushing back against limits, as if more air could fit in my lungs, more ideas in my head. And each day I could feel the magnitude of the challenge in my buzzing legs, and my restless energy.

To the outside observer, pointless. Seven years of impossible dreaming, I could accept that. This journey was worth taking, no matter the results. Fear, doubt, uncertainty, all those things existed, but when I framed the experience as an opportunity to grow, rather than just a mile marker, it’s as if the pressures to succeed or fail largely fell away. For me, this wasn’t so much of a goal, as a way of becoming.

Then this last autumn, things came together in a way they hadn’t for the previous 7 years. Perseverance became momentum, and we felt something mysterious, a hint at an elevated existence. Suddenly to the rest of world, it didn’t seem so pointless. News trucks, and reporters flooded into Yosemite Valley. A live feed was set up and broadcast on television. The dream, the struggle, the brotherhood, they all connected with people, in a way I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Then on our 19th continuous day on the wall, we awoke a few hundred feet from the summit. The early morning light graced us for the last time, as the rest of the valley still sat silent in the shadows of frost. As we made coffee that morning, we knew that success was virtually inevitable, and our hearts soared, we couldn’t contain our laughter.

Then as we climbed that last day, we could hear the audible buzz of voices above us on the wind. Then we topped out to friends, family, and reporters. Champagne bottles were thrust into our hands. Cameras, microphones, autograph seekers, everyone wanting to connect with this inspiration that all mountain climbing offers, and this event, in particular, seemed to embody.

All I wanted to do was sit silently with my wife. She had done so much through the last years to support me. But this was also the end of a 7-year relationship with the Dawn Wall. So many factors have to come together to pull off the impossible. But yet it keeps happening, the world over. We keep doing it. We are so much more than we so often inherently believe. To be clear, I don’t think there’s a magic recipe for success. But I do know that it doesn’t happen alone, and anything worth having, doesn’t come easy.

So, as I reflect back, I am filled with gratitude for those that made me who I am. I am grateful to my wife, and to my dad. I’m grateful to Su, our captor in Kyrgyzstan, and to El Capitan. I’m even grateful to that damn table saw. But mostly, as I stand here before you today, I’m grateful to my son, Fitz, the high peak of my life. So to him, and for you, I want to say one simple thing: “Hardship is inevitable, so put your goggles on, and face into the wind.”

Thank you so much.

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