The table saw snatched the piece of wood I was cutting and chucked it like a spear into the hillside behind my house. I turned off the saw before noticing the strange numb tingle. I looked down. My finger, severed at the first joint, was now lying, quite surreally, on the ground.
Over the next few hours, I lost about a third of my body’s blood. Soon I found myself confined to a bed in a sterile, white hospital room where I would spend the next two weeks in a drug-induced haze. Stitches and metal pins protruded menacingly from my grotesque, black knuckle, which had swollen to the size of a golf ball. The doctors had re-attached the finger … sort of.
Three surgeries, two blood transfusions. The doctor removed the fingernail and periodically attached leaches. I drifted in and out, numb on the outside. Deep down, I was freaking out.
Everything in my life was just coming together when this random accident happened. I had dropped out of college to follow my passion for rock climbing. I was certain that this was who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do. I spent the next three years living out of my car, living a life of travel and freedom. On a whim I could pack everything I owned into a few duffle bags, hit the road or board a plane, and be off on some new vertical adventure. I was just beginning to scrap together a meager existence as a professional climber, too. I’d even won a bit of prize money in national competitions. All together, it was just enough to make a down payment on a run-down 600-square-foot cabin in Estes Park. Beyond all expectations, I was beginning believe that this pro climber life might actually be sustainable.
A pale, sad-looking doctor came into my hospital room. He was a hand surgeon; he was also a climber who had been keeping tabs on my progress.
“Tommy, things aren’t look good,” he said. “You’re going to lose your finger. You better start thinking about what else you want to do with your life.”
“OK,” I said numbly. It was all I could think to say. He quietly exited the room and I was now alone. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I yelled. I cried. Tears ran down my cheeks. I had big goals. Flashes of open roads and Western landscapes played through my head. I saw the polished, gleaming granite of Yosemite. I recalled the smell of Fontainebleau’s dank, pungent forest. Would these once inspiring memories now only provide me with grief and pain?
In my life at that point, I’d climbed some scary pitches in the mountains. But this fear that I was now experiencing was nothing like that. I was about to lose not just what I loved, but what had defined and sustained me since I first started climbing at 3 years old. My whole life. I’d scarified everything for climbing, all for what?
At that moment, I’d never been more afraid.
For me El Cap represents the ultimate in climbing. Incomprehensibly tall. As steep as it is blank. Ask any average visitor to Yosemite, wandering around El Cap meadow, what they think about climbing that big 3,000-foot-tall, mile-wide mountain of granite sitting in front of them, and that person will tell you that it’s the most ludicrous thing they’ve ever heard. And you know what? I get that. I’ve climbed El Cap more than 50 times, and even today when I look up at it and become entranced by its steepness and size, there is some rational part of me that still believes climbing El Cap should be totally impossible.
But that’s one of the things I love most about climbing. It has a way of bringing the seemingly impossible into the realm of possibility, therefore making me believe that anything is possible.
In 2001, the Salathé Wall was the easiest free climb on El Cap as well as one of the best big-wall routes in the world. I had first tried to free climb the Salathé when I was just 17 years old. I spent four days hauling heavy bags, climbing with giant racks of gear and getting charred to ash by the sun.
When I topped out unsuccessfully, I felt like I had just gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. But that initial ass-whooping gave me glimpse into myself. There were sublime moments such as stepping off a portaledge with 2,500 feet in the air beneath me and sinking my fingers into the most exposed, perfect pitch of crack climbing on the planet. There were moments excitement battling the unknown, such as when we climbed the last few pitches in a rainstorm. After it was over, I felt a deep ache and tiredness in my bones, but I had forced myself to summon more energy. Being in the presence of something so grand and mighty scared the hell out of me. But it also fascinated me. This was my white whale. I knew I was obsessed, yet back as a teenager, I had no idea how deep that obsession would run or how greatly it would steer the direction of my life over the next 20 years. All I knew back then was, somewhere deep inside me were vast amounts of hidden energy. And the only way to access that energy was through climbing the biggest, hardest, most impossible looking thing I could.
At 18, I returned with more experience, a better plan and cooler conditions and managed to free climb the Salathé over three days. I kept going: Lurking Fear. Muir Wall. Suddenly, El Cap didn’t feel quite so impossible.
But therein lied a problem. I was achieving success through improving efficiency, not through pushing my own preconceived limitations. I was curious to explore that edge of human capability. I knew I could do more. The next step in progression was obvious. I wanted to see if I could free climb El Cap in a day.
To do that, I would need to learn how to become a speed climber first. In the fall of 2001, I asked Hans Florine if he would teach me his secrets. He agreed. We ran up the Nose in 4 hours and 22 minutes. When we got to the top, Hans asked if I wanted to now throw a quick lap on Half Dome, too. I declined, not believing that I had it in me. I was still wrapping my head around the idea that El Cap might be just a crag, not a monster whale. The whole experience blew my mind.
Hans offered to belay me on my first attempt at free climbing the Salathé in a day. We started at dawn. I would lead every pitch and Hans would Jumar behind. I climbed as fast as I knew how. The pitches flew by. We reached the Headwall, 28 pitches up, in just 9 hours. By now, the sun was blasting this iconic shield of granite. I sorted gear, racked up, and started climbing the 5.13b endurance pitch. As I climbed, my forearms swelled and my head starting pounding from dehydration. I had a hard time focusing. Just five feet from the end, I pumped out and fell. I lowered down and joined Hans back at the belay. I pulled the rope.
“Oh, you were so close!” Hans said, trying to be as encouraging as possible. “You can do this next try!”
His words struck dumb ears. I felt brain dead. Nevertheless, I tied back in, racked back up, and started climbing. This time I fell at a boulder problem just 30 feet up. I lowered back down.
“Alright, body,” I said to myself. “Here it is. Time for some of that reserve energy to kick in.” I tried two more times. My forearms gave out completely. I could barely operate a Camalot much less free climb the crux pitch on the Salathé. I threw in the towel. Hans took over the lead, and we French-freed our way to the top. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was very disappointed.
They say you learn more from failure than success, and any climber who has ever tried his or her best in this sport will know that that’s so true. That day with Hans I learned that, more than speed, free climbing El Cap in a day is about conserving energy. I’d been so focused on climbing fast that I hadn’t focused enough on climbing efficiently or well. Not to mention all the little important logistics, like bringing enough water and timing your day so that you’re not trying the hardest pitches in the blazing hot afternoon sun. In my head, I had figured that sheer will power and a big old dose of try-hard at the right moment would be all I’d need to get to the top successfully. But the reality was much more complex. I left Yosemite that season feeling defeated, but I also knew what I would do differently the next time.
Before I even got another shot at the Salathé, I cut off my finger in November.
Lying in that hospital bed, those fateful words spoken by my doctor echoed in my head. “You better start thinking about what else you want to do with your life.” The tears stopped and soon conviction overcame me. I got pissed. How could that doctor have so little faith in me? I was strong. I loved life. I loved living. I decided I wasn’t ever going to give up without a fight.
Two days later, I was released from the hospital. My left pointer finger had been diminished to a short, throbbing stump. The skin was overlapping the bony nub and folded together like the edges of a calzone. Looking at it made me utterly nauseous.
I figured that I probably couldn’t do any more damage to it. Right? I wrapped it up in tape and went straight to the climbing gym.
The physical therapist gave me a set of nerve-retraining and desensitizing exercises and told me to do them for one hour each day. I did three. My dad built me a finger-strengthening machine and I used it tirelessly. I went on runs in the snow figuring increased blood flow would help things heal faster. My strength returned. My energy soared. I felt like Rocky Balboa training in my parent’s dingy garage while the Estes Park winter winds raged outside. I made schedules, charted my training and put everything else in my life aside. Rest when you’re dead was my motto.
Three weeks after amputation, I entered a local bouldering comp. My hand was still pretty weak and I still didn’t know how to climb without my first digit. I grabbed all the holds as if that finger were still there. But I climbed with passion and surprised myself by placing third.
In early spring, I decided I would repeat some of the old sport climbs I had developed to measure my progress. Just five weeks after the amputation I re-climbed Grand Old Opry, a crimpy 5.14b at the Monestary.
I was gaining confidence that I could climb at my old level before the accident. But that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to just return to my old level. I wanted to surpass it. I wanted to improve. I wanted what all climbers—and perhaps all of us in general—want out of life: a sense that we are making progress in the thing we love to do. And there was only way to prove to myself that I had beaten this injury. I would return to Yosemite and free climb the Salathé Wall in a day.
Six months after amputation, in the spring of 2002, I found myself standing beneath the big white whale, ready for another shot. I wasn’t there to put my name in history books, or get a mention in the magazines, or stick it to the doctor who had told me I would never climb again. This was all about proving to myself that losing a finger would not stop me from becoming the climber I wanted to be.
The day I sent the Salathé Wall in a day, we started climbing at 1 a.m. as opposed to dawn, which would get me to the crux Headwall before the afternoon heat set in. Also unlike last fall, I climbed each pitch more slowly. I focused on climbing as relaxed as possible. As we started up the wall, my focus was narrowed to the small ambient circle of light created by my headlamp. My entire world was concentrated with thoughts of making just one move at a time. Never mind the 3,000 feet above me. My breathing was in sync with my pace, too. The first 18 pitches seemed to float by without any distinction, the way trees might pass a trail runner on his morning jog. Now already 1,500 feet up El Cap, I felt like I was just warming up.
The sun was rising when I reached the infamous Monster off-width. I grunted up this pitch, because it’s impossible for anyone to climb this pitch gracefully. But after that, I returned to relaxed, methodical climbing.
Pitch 24, aka “The Sewer,” was dripping wet and covered in green slime after an especially wet winter. I shoved my body into the crack and wiggled my way through the sludge. When I reached the anchor, my clothes were soaked and stained bright green. A couple pitches higher, I reached the ledge called Sous Le Toit, the last place to catch your breath before the Salathé Headwall juts out and shows its teeth. The mid-morning sun was now here, and I rested and dried out in its warming comfort. I took a nap for a couple hours, trying not to get anxious about what was lurking above.
El Cap’s architecture is immaculate in this section, with golden cracks and soaring dihedrals that form aesthetic vertical lead-lines that draw your eyes and heart upward to the summit. The crux Headwall overhangs and sits atop a 30-foot roof. With a position of 2,500 off the ground, the Salathé Headwall is a contender for the most exposed position in the world of climbing. A rounded, flawless crack bisects the pretty orange and white Headwall, becoming progressively thinner the higher it goes.
The experience of climbing this pitch is quite exciting. The climbing begins easily enough, but gets harder and more exposed the higher you go. It gets steeper. More strenuous. More exposed to the whipping wind, and more prone to the forces of gravity. With each move, you feel as if you’re becoming less and less attached to the wall, until you’re just barely holding on. Yet, you’re still fighting to climb. The pitch crescendoes with a few bouldery moves that climax with a dynamic lunge to a perfect pinch. Then, it’s over. Victory is in the bag.
I awoke from my nap to a cool breeze. The Headwall loomed 100 feet above me. I could see a sling flapping in the wind. I was excited. I felt rested and well hydrated. The conditions were perfect. This was my chance.
I reminded myself that I still needed to actually climb the crux before I could get too excited. I knew I could do it, but I still needed to prove it to myself. Knowing is not the same as doing. I suppressed my emotion, knowing that I needed to relax and climb cooly and only let the passion and desire at the very end, when I was desperate and needed to dig deep for that extra bit of energy.
I climbed patiently up the endurance corner and out the Headwall roof to the belay. Here, the wind was cranking. Loops of rope blew over my head and became tangled in knots. I re-stacked the rope in short coils, and tried to calm my nerves. I racked my gear in the order I would need it on my harness. I rehearsed the moves in my head. I started climbing.
I took long, deep breaths and thought about being precise. My focus was so intense that I didn’t even notice the exposure or the whipping wind. The only thing that mattered was making that next move—one at a time. I wiggled my fingers deep in the crack, but tried to stay relaxed. Fifteen feet from the end of the pitch, I rested on two flaring hand jams. At this point last fall, I had reached this spot on my best go but was unable to recover. This time I felt fresh.
Above me the crack pinched down to thin, flaring fingers. I took all the remaining gear on my harness and clipped it to a cam to drop weight. I thought about my previous year, my time in the hospital. I had been so weak but my strength had returned. Now here I was, 15 feet from reaching a goal I had once thought impossible. A goal that I had worked so hard for. A goal that I wanted more than anything else.
We try so hard to avoid fear in our lives. Whether that’s taking the easy way out or just giving up when someone tells you that what you want to do is impossible. But for me, it was the fear of losing what I loved that lit the fire inside me. Maybe a little fear is what we all need.
Shaking out in those hand jams, I allowed all the emotion that I’d been suppressing over the past 28 pitches to come flooding back in. To hell with climbing slowly and steadily. These next 15 feet were all that mattered. I needed raw power to get through. I needed to want it.
I exploded into the finger-locks. I placed no gear and sprinted through the boulder problem, sticking the pinch with a huge scream.
I did it. I couldn’t believe it. As is so often the case, when it all came together, it felt almost easy.
About the Author
Tommy Caldwell needs no introduction. This 35 year-old has been climbing for 33 years, and he is one of the all-time greatest rock climbers and first ascentionists in the sport’s history. More than any place else, Caldwell has indelibly left his signature on El Cap, having authored such 5.14 first free ascents Magic Mushroom, Muir Wall and Dihedral Wall, not to mention repeating nearly all of El Cap’s free climbs. Caldwell cites his “love of suffering” as his greatest asset, yet he consistently performs at a world-class level in every discipline: sport, bouldering, alpine, trad. He recently enchained the entire Fitz Roy skyline in a single push with Alex Honnold, and he continues to work on his all-time mega project on El Cap: a free Dawn Wall, which, when completed, will be the hardest big-wall free route in the world by a long shot.