EVERY now and then, audacious triumphs in the usually obscure world of rock-climbing break through into mainstream consciousness with a shockwave of disbelief and awe. One such tale of widespread public wonder took place almost two years ago, when the climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, from the United States, successfully made the first “free” (not using equipment to aid the ascent) climb of a route known as the Dawn Wall, on El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley — one of the steepest, blankest big walls in the world.
The story of two men doggedly clinging to razor-thin edges for 19 days, endlessly contorting and pasting feet on to micro-ripples on a nauseatingly exposed granite face, half a mile high, tapped into the imagination like a contemporary moon landing.
The chronicling of this near-impossible climb, and the seven-year journey to discover a plausible route up the wall’s intimidatingly featureless face, forms the main premise for Tommy Caldwell’s 2017 book The Push. But this behind-the-scenes take on a moment in climbing history transports the genre to new levels of emotional insight, honesty, and humanity.
Tommy’s story has all the high drama of multiple Hollywood epics rolled into one: kidnapping, remote mountain adventures, accidental finger loss, plenty of “fighting against the odds”, and a good dose of romance and heartbreak.
And yet the thoughtful, reflective narrative of this book defies the “man v. nature” cliché and meathead fury of a Cliffhanger-style tale. Don’t get me wrong: the book is laced with excitement, but in between the often downplayed accounts of his remarkable accomplishments, Caldwell examines, with impressive perception, the relationships that he makes on the way, and the forces that drive him.
The book soulfully navigates themes of sacrifice, ritual, belief, rest, healing, success, and failure, all with the attention of someone who has spent a great deal of time staring at the subtleties of a granite wall.
His comments on social media, the ability of a phone (the “Wonder Killer”) to separate you from the moment, even when perched on a ledge 1500 feet off the ground, bring the banal challenges of 21st-century life fascinatingly into the arena of the adventurer.
If you can indulge the occasional splurge of California climber slang (“Let’s go send the gnar!”), this book, for the most part, is a graceful, poetic, and page-turningly readable story of perseverance, of loving richly, and of embracing the unknown.
Tom Price is a London-based photographer, writer, and amateur climber, working on assignments worldwide for NGOs and aid agencies.
The Push: A climber’s journey of endurance, risk and going beyond limits
Church Times Bookshop £18