THE CRUX SERIES
LONGS WAY TO THE TOP
The Crux Series is a collection of interviews with mountain experts that have a wealth of knowledge about each of the peaks in our glasses. In celebration of the launch of our Longs Peak Collection in Colorado, we connect with Tommy Caldwell, who's Colorado roots have lead to countless accomplishments that have changed the sport of climbing forever.
Photos Courtesy of Tommy Caldwell
Tommy is truly an icon of modern rock climbing. But deeper than that, he is a someone who finds his peace in the mountains. Tommy is best known for his incredible accomplishments in Yosemite and more specifically his work completing the Dawn Wall in 2015. He's put up first ascents of some of the hardest climbs in the country including Flex Luthor in Colorado that only recently was climbed for a second time by Matty Hong and recommended that the climb be upgraded to 5.15b. He continues to smash records and accomplishments through his adventures with his friend, the climbing phenom Alex Honnold. Together they have set the speed record up the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite, accomplished the first Fitz Traverse in Patagonia and most recently the CDUL in Colorado with their friend Adam Stack.
These amazing accomplishments all over the world started with his beginnings in Estes Park, CO. Longs Peak has been a focus for Tommy and his family since his youngest years. Tommy's work on Longs peak has been incredible with his first ascent of the Full Dunn-Westbay route in 2013 and many other first ascents on The Diamond. We had a great conversation with Tommy about his experience on Longs Peak, his family and his connection to the mountains.
LET'S START WITH YOUR CONNECTION TO LONGS PEAK.
Longs is the central mountain above my house, I can actually look out the window and see it here. This is also where I grew up. I was born in Loveland, Colorado, but moved to Estes Park at age three, which is where Longs is. My first big mountain adventures were on Longs. I'd go up there 10 to 20 times a summer every year. Other than El Cap, if there's one mountain that I feel I'm closest to, it’s Longs for sure.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO CLIMBING?
My dad is a mountain guide and he used to guide the Diamond on Longs constantly. He is still guiding up Longs Peak at age 73 now. I think he's climbed the mountain over 100 times. So family connection to Longs ... I mean, I climbed it for the first time with my dad when I was seven. All I wanted to do for my seventh birthday was climb Longs Peak with my dad. He made me believe that going out in the mountains and suffering hard was a good way to spend your birthday as a seven year old. So we did. We did the north face on that trip, which is like a 5.6, just a little bit of roped climbing, mostly a hike up. And then when I was 12, I climbed the Diamond, which is the first proper rock climbing experience I had up there, which is like a 1500 foot wall, the first big wall I really ever climbed. I mean, it was really about me and my dad back then. That's how we bonded. That's how we did that stuff together, and Longs Peak was a huge part of that.
HOW DID YOUR DAD GET INTO CLIMBING?
He’s from California and was on a Boy Scouts trip to the east side when he was around 14. Hardly anybody was a climber back then. I think they were below some spires near Mammoth, he was camped out with the Boy Scout troop and some climbers wandered through camp. The troop master asked them to come and talk to the kids. They must have said something pretty compelling because it got my dad interested in climbing, and then he picked it up when he was 14 and has been his main passion ever since.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE ROUTES ON LONGS PEAK TODAY?
The first route I climbed was the Casual Route which I still go up to and climb. Now I'm into doing all these linkups in the park where you climb Longs and then a whole bunch of other stuff or just a bunch of mountains linking them up and Longs is usually a part of that. We're trying to speed climb these so once again, the Casual Route is generally the route to climb. It's the most buffed out, it's more or less the easiest route up the Diamond face. I would say I still climb it a couple times a season. Plus it's the easiest one to guide friends. I have so many friends that roll into town and say "I really want to climb the Diamond." Maybe they're not professional climbers or super good climbers, but just going up there is a real deal alpine climbing experience. There's falling ice and the thunderstorms are crazy. It's a really easy place for me to bring people and give them an experience they're never going to forget. I climb D7 fairly often as well, it's probably the most classic mid-range route. But I think the best route, in my kind of biased opinion, is this newer route called the Dunn-Westbay Direct. It's a single crack that splits the entire face from bottom to top. I did the first free ascent of it like five years ago. It's a beautiful line, just to see that crack go straight up is pretty dramatic. It's rare to have a 700 foot long single splitter crack the whole way.
WHAT IS THE CRUX OF LONGS PEAK?
The altitude. It's at 14,000 feet and doing hard rock climbing at 14,000 feet is not easy. A lot of hikers hike to the top of Longs with headaches but you can just go slow and not exert yourself too much, and it all works out. But when you're up there really trying to rock climb, you've got to exert pretty hard just to do the moves. And doing that at 14,000 feet, I think takes a lot of people by surprise. And then you're oftentimes dealing with wet cracks. So much of the year there's snow melting and kind of seeping out of the cracks. And then the thunderstorms. The last few years, I think the thunderstorms have been less of an issue, but when as a child every time I'd go up on Longs, we would top out at noon or 1:00 o'clock. We’d have to get up in the middle of the night to avoid the thunderstorms and then run down as lightning was crashing all around us. It's really a lightning rod up there.
WHAT DOES SPENDING TIME IN THE MOUNTAINS MEAN TO YOU?
Time in the mountains is everything. I like mountain biking, trail running and just being outside. I kind of crave it all the time. It's like my food. Like if I don't get a pretty constant hit, I get kind of grumpy. I need that little adventure hit. Longs is kind of the easiest way for me to get that at my home. And then in terms of bringing that home, I mean, it's our culture. We use sort of the grit that you build in the mountains. Mountain climbers are incredibly life loving. If you're going out and spending time in these beautiful places and climbing these things that look so improbable it creates this really incredible way to live, and so we make that part of our family culture. We bring our kids into the mountains all the time, it's the art on our walls, it's just who we are.
YOU'RE SO WELL KNOWN FOR YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN YOSEMITE. WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PLACES TO GO WHEN YOU ARE IN THE VALLEY?
So many places. The top of El Cap is maybe my favorite place to camp in the world. It's just so beautiful and there's so many people topping out the wall all the time. They have just had some crazy life experience that they're never going to forget. So you end up meeting people in this very vulnerable and super stoked state. Sometimes stoked, sometimes devastated too. It tends to cripple people to get to the top of that mountain. But either way, it's an interesting place to run into people and it's also just incredibly beautiful. So that's one of them. El Cap Meadow on the other side is where we hang out as a family a lot. These days I do a lot of bouldering in the Valley too. So just in the forest. There's zillions of places in the forest that I find really magical. The trees there are almost as magnificent as the rocks.
AFTER ALL THESE YEARS OF ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN THE VALLEY, WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS?
I've spent so much of my life in the Valley, it's hard to pinpoint a few. I could mention one at each time in my life. When I was a little kid, I used to float the Merced daily. We would go there in a little raft with my sister. We'd end in El Cap meadow and watch my dad up there on the wall, because he climbed it a bunch when I was pretty young. So that was a really special time.
Then the first time I climbed the Salathe Wall, it was when the idea of free climbing El Cap first occurred to me. It seemed like such a ludicrous thing. It's just this big, giant ominous wall. To come from that to actually being able to free climb it was pretty magical. I failed on the Salathé Wall the first time I tried it when I was 17. I just failed miserably, got so beat up, and then came back like a couple years later and managed to do it. That route's really amazing because it just gets harder and harder as you go up, and then essentially the last hard climbing pitch is right up at the top. It sort of brings you to this incredible crescendo of the experience. Multiple days of just suffering and then it just gets harder and harder. Then the most beautiful and the hardest pitch, in the most exposed spot, right at the top of the wall. It just formatted for this unbelievable experience. So that's another big one.
Obviously the Dawn Wall, working on that for seven years and then everything that went down with Kevin, and having it seem like the whole route was just never going to happen for him, and then how he pulled it together in the end. That was pretty amazing to be witness to.
AFTER ALL YOU'VE EXPERIENCED IN YOSEMITE, IS THERE MORE FOR YOU TO DO THERE?
Oh yeah, it's endless. The Valley's kind of amazing. I feel like I've done the classic things and I've climbed a lot on El Cap, but I could climb there literally forever. There's still more unclimbed good routes in Yosemite that still need first ascents than anywhere else that I've been in the lower 48 at least. People kind of stick to the most classic stuff. There's so much, it's pretty unbelievable.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOU?
I had a pretty bad injury a few months ago when I tore my Achilles tendon. I'm getting through that right now, but my excitement for getting out there is just peaking. I just haven't had to take time off in decades, so this is my first time where I can't really get my climbing hit. Honestly, I don't know what form it's going to take when I come back. But I'm pretty excited. There's a bunch of other routes I want to do at Yosemite. If I can get my Achilles working well enough, I'm really into these long mountain linkups. I'd love to go back to Patagonia. It's sort of endless. I've sort of written off the larger ranges of the world while I have small kids, but imagine when they're grown up, I'll return to them again. Places like Greenland and Baffin Island are really interesting too. They say it’s like 100 Yosemite's in terms of rock but it's just pretty hard to get to. A lot of it's above the fjords and you have to deal with the ocean breaking up in the middle, you've got to deal with polar bears and all sorts of stuff there. A real adventure.