Tommy Caldwell’s story is one of those which you just wouldn’t believe if it were presented to you as a piece of fiction. As a child, he was small and shy. His father, a bodybuilder and expert climber, decided that the best way to deal with this was to toughen him up. In fiction this would be the cue for an abusive childhood over which Tommy would triumph in adulthood, but IRL Caldwell senior took his son out, threw him at various rock faces and helped him to stick. Now we need a montage to Tommy’s teens, by which time he was an experienced climber.
In 1995 when Tommy was 17 he and his father went to Snowbird in Utah to watch an outdoor sports contest, which included an invitation sport climbing contest, a sort of World Championship of climbing in which twelve of the world’s greatest sport climbers would compete. The day before the real competition there was an amateur event. Tommy and his father were there as fans, not competitors, but Tommy entered the amateur competition for fun and won it. The organisers invited him to take part in the real competition next day. He won that too, convincingly. (See what I mean about this being totally unbelievable? If anyone pitched this as fiction you’d laugh them out of the room.)
So there Tommy was, a shy and retiring young man, more at home on a rock wall than on the ground, suddenly catapulted to fame in the world he loved. He found the sudden exposure difficult but adapted, became a professional climber, and then the inevitable happened. He met a girl. He and she became a couple, climbing together. He was happier than he had ever believed he could be. In 2000 he and Beth accepted an invitation to climb in Krygyzstan with two other climbers. And guess what? All four were captured by anti-government rebels and held hostage. Nooo!! But yes. After various travails, in fear for their lives, they were marched into the mountains, where Caldwell had to take the difficult decision to push one of their captors off a cliff to his death. Despite the fact that this saved him and his friends and resulted in their freedom, it left him traumatised (hardly surprising, under the circumstances).
Nevertheless, he and Beth survived the experience and married. They set records climbing together. And then (what now?) Tommy managed to lose the top two joints of the first finger of his left hand whilst renovating the house they had bought in Colorado. In big wall climbing terms this is game over, because where you only have tiny edges in the rock to hang onto, you do so by “crimping”; grabbing onto the rock with fingers bent at the middle knuckle so that your finger tips are in contact with the rock, and wrapping your thumb over the index finger so that you can pull yourself up. The climbing world was agreed – without the first two joints of his index finger, there was no way Tommy would be able to carry out any more serious climbs.
Except, of course, this is nutso reality, not fiction, and so…. he taught himself to climb again, without a finger. Beth supported him the whole time. He became as good as he had ever been, climbing with Beth and living the dream. Until (of course) things went wrong again. His relationship with Beth had survived the kidnapping, their subsequent trauma, the loss of his finger, and his recovery, but sadly, it didn’t stand the test of time. In 2010, they divorced, and Caldwell lost not just his life partner but his climbing partner as well. As he put it, he felt as though the only thing left to him was…..dun dun DUNNNN! (dramatic pause) El Capitan.