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Tommy Caldwell’s account is enough to give vertigo

Book of the week


by Tommy Caldwell (Michael Joseph £20)

One of the chief hazards of mountain climbing is being hit full in the face by a flying turd.

As Tommy Caldwell explains, of these long days on the cliff face, ‘a soiled hole in a plywood platform above a 1,000 ft drop served as a toilet’.

Try balancing on that in high winds, while hanging and swinging from a harness. Teams clambering up from base camp can find themselves under aerial assault, like the East End during the Blitz.

It is a tough life altogether, ascending monolithic slabs. Tommy discusses his habitual sleep deprivation and fatigue, blurred eyesight, buzzing nerves.

Tommy Caldwell has taken part in physical sport since infancy. His new book shares how aspects of mountain climbing mirror religious asceticism

‘I stuff my feet in shoes so tight I sometimes lose toenails,’ he says in a matter-of-fact manner. The razor-sharp rock pinnacles rip his hands. When he splits a finger open, the gaping wound has to be secured with Super Glue.

Extreme cold causes frostbitten extremities, and I don’t mean only fingers and toes. Nevertheless, Tommy Caldwell loves shinning up cliffs. ‘When things go well, we experience magic.’

In this absorbing book, a physical sport takes on aspects of weird religious asceticism: ‘Sleep deprivation and hunger shrouded everything in a dreamlike fog. Sounds became muffled. Only the pain in our worn-out bodies felt sharp and real.’

Monks and saints, mortifying themselves and scourging the flesh, make similar claims, as I recall from my Dan Brown novels.

Tommy Caldwell, born in 1978, was always pushed and shoved by his he-man father, a body builder who won the title of Mr Colorado. With his ‘bulging biceps and bandana wrapped around his head’, Caldwell Senior, on a steep hill, was like ‘King Kong scaling a skyscraper, confident, efficient, graceful and methodical’.

Tommy is more than a chip off the old block — he has emulated his father every step of the way and deferred to him to such an extent that his marriage suffered.

‘We talked about my dad’s overbearing nature… Beth [Caldwell’s first wife] had long felt my dad was such a domineering presence that I lived my life trying to please him more than her.’

There was truth in this charge. During Tommy’s childhood, ‘obsessive tendencies were admired and nurtured’.

He was made to enter wrestling competitions and was taken on dangerous mountain climbs from earliest infancy. He could often be found in the gym five days a week, sometimes for ten hours at a stretch, accomplishing hundreds of barbell squats.

‘Rock climbing is a fine kind of madness’, we are told. Yet there is no room for frenzy or chaos.

Indeed, an extreme kind of clarity is what’s required, and Tommy continuously questions and analyses his own strength and capacity for endurance.

A hobby for most people, Tommy has made mountain-climbing his career by securing corporate sponsorship for his innumerable adventures

A hobby for most people, Tommy has made mountain-climbing his career by securing corporate sponsorship for his innumerable adventures

‘Intensity and focus’ are the key elements — the preparations and precautions, solving the puzzle of what sequence of moves to make, as Tommy clings like an insect to overhanging precipices and sheets of blue ice.

One false move or miscalculation and ‘my body would be bouncing down the wall until it exploded on the boulders far below’. I got vertigo simply by reading this book.

A hobby for most people, Tommy has made mountain-climbing his career by securing corporate sponsorship for his innumerable adventures. He gives illustrated lectures and is available for hire as a guide. He regularly visits Patagonian glaciers, Mont Blanc and other Alpine masses.

When tackling the Pamir-Alay mountain passes in Kyrgyzstan, he and his group, including his wife, Beth Rodden, were taken hostage by militant rebels and spent six days on the run with them being shot at by the pursuing Kyrgyz army.

They escaped only because on the sixth night of captivity they were guarded by just one armed rebel. Tommy bravely pushed the gunman over a precipice: ‘His body arches backward through the blackness, outlined by the moon. He cries out in surprise and fear. His body lands on a ledge with a sickening thud, and then bounces toward oblivion.’

Book of the week THE PUSH by Tommy Caldwell (Michael Joseph £20)

Book of the week THE PUSH by Tommy Caldwell (Michael Joseph £20)

The group scrambled back down the mountain to safety. They assumed the man was dead — later though Tommy discovered he had in fact survived. But when they returned to America, Beth was never the same again — a classic case of post-traumatic stress syndrome: ‘She would be trembling in fear or staring blankly out of the window.’

Adding to the unhappiness, Tommy managed to chop his index finger off in a household accident. We hear rather too much about learning to cling to narrow ledges with ‘a throbbing stump’. His private life a mess, estranged even from Mr Colorado, Tommy feels carefree only when pinioned to a vertical rock face.

In 2014 he decided with his friend Kevin Jorgeson to conquer the Dawn Wall in the Yosemite Valley, California, a ‘featureless and smooth’ tower of granite, once considered an impossible feat.

Should they pull this climb off, ‘I’d validate not only my years of planning, but the entirety of my life’. So, as they say, no pressure.

I don’t know about Tommy, but I lost track of time. They seem to take weeks (actually 19 days), using fingers and toes and contortionist-like body movements, to push and pull themselves agonisingly aloft.

Their ropes and buckles are secured from three-eighth-inch stainless steel bolts, which are drilled into the rock along with masonry rivets, making ‘small but solid, permanent anchor points’. They use lightweight nylon ropes that stretch to absorb the impact from falls. Terrifying. They spend the night hanging in mid-air in a ‘portalodge’ — a tiny tent or box-kite, which is hoisted up from ground-zero and contains basic food rations. The lavatory arrangements we know about, thank you.

Their challenge was not as lonely as you’d expect, however. These days climbers have mobiles, computers and access to the internet. They video themselves, mutter running commentaries and post photographs on social media.

‘In one day, my Instagram following goes from 5,000 to 50,000,’ boasts Tommy, after he’d uploaded a picture of himself stripped to the waist, glistening with sweat.

At last, ‘the smell of pine trees wafts down from the summit, just a few hundred feet above. I crave flat ground’. So did I.

Tommy ought to think about taking a holiday in Norfolk. Very flat, Norfolk.

Tommy Caldwell’s account is enough to give vertigo