Rock climber Tommy Caldwell knows what death looks like. He doesn't see it in the radical, 5.14 free ascent routes he's bagged in the past 18 months. That stuff, he says, is life-affirming. No, Caldwell looked mortality straight on when he stared down the cold steel business end of a greasy AK-47 automatic machine gun in the nervous hands of a Kyrgyzstan rebel last August.
"It made me think about everything in my life, made me rethink it all. I haven't been really religious, and for the first time in a long time, I prayed," he says. "It was so out there, it almost seems surreal to me at this point."
Caldwell admits to "weaseling" his way on to the North Face-sponsored trip to the former Soviet republic, which included his girlfriend, world-class climber Beth Rodden, and climbers John Dickey and Jason Smith. The day after Caldwell's 21st birthday, the group was taken hostage by a band of Islamic militants battling for control of the remote region where Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. A fifth captive, a government soldier, was executed. Meanwhile, the climbers were hidden during the day, moved at night. For six days they subsisted on energy bars, sticks of butter, and water, and wondered if they'd ever see home again. "It was such a miserable experience, with everything going wrong," Caldwell says.
The group caught a break when they were left in the custody of a single guard. Shoving the guard off a cliff, the climbers fled. Eighteen miles later, they found refuge with government troops. Today, Caldwell still seeks adventure, but the wanderlust is tempered. The Kyrgyzstan skirmish knocked the innocence out of the Colorado resident, arguably the nation's best rock climber.
"That experience made me see things in a whole new light, made me grow tremendously," says Caldwell. "We never could have thought of that outcome, not in our wildest dreams. It really left me a little gun shy about remote areas in central Asia, which is definitely a shame, because it's one of those places that's just so beautiful."
There's not many things Caldwell is gun shy about. He has forged his reputation in the great wide open, conquering climbing problems others can't comprehend. Yet he's right at home curled up in a tiny bivy sack, dangling alongside a sheer rock face 2,000 feet above level ground, or sharing his cozy 600-square-foot Estes Park cabin with Rodden.
"We're right on the Front Range, 8,000 feet up, and you can see the big snowy peaks from our window," says Caldwell, resting up after taking top honors in the Gorge Games bouldering competition in Oregon. "I crave the mountains. When I leave the mountains for a few days, I start to miss them. They've built who I am."
You've seen Caldwell, even if you're not a climbing fan. Given Madison Avenue's current infatuation with adventure sports, it's impossible to pick up a major magazine and not find Caldwell's angular face, callused hands or lean physique gracing the pages. Like a Tiger Woods, the bulk of Caldwell's income comes from sponsorship - PowerBar, Prana, Marmot, BlueWater ropes, 5-10 shoes - though his annual salary pales in comparison. "I make enough money to live and travel where I want to, and not any more," he says, laughing.
That suits Caldwell just fine. "The fact that I can do what I do, and make a living off of it, is totally outrageous to me. I'm totally consumed with what I'm doing right now." Inspired by his parents, Michael and Terry, Caldwell went from the womb to the rock wall in no time. However, he's no Todd Marinovich, programmed to live out a parent's dream. He played other sports, hung out with his friends. The lure of the rock got him anyway.
"I crave the endorphin rush - I'm almost addicted to that. There's so many aspects that go into these big climbs. It's problem-solving, as well as pushing your physical limits as far as you can," he says. "I like to stay super-fit overall. One of the things I pride myself on is being able to do all the aspects of rock climbing - traditional, high-altitude climbing, big wall climbing, sport climbing, and bouldering."
By his own estimate, Caldwell spends roughly half the year traveling. With a passport that's been tagged more often than Mike Tyson's sparring partners, Caldwell has climbed all over the globe, with stops in Europe, Africa, China, Korea and Japan.
An easygoing, "gee-willickers" kind of guy, Caldwell's choirboy demeanor belies the nerve of a safecracker. That nerve, combined with almost unnatural mental and physical gifts, have allowed Caldwell to complete first free ascents of Kryptonite in Colorado's Fortress of Solitude, and the Muir Wall and Lurking Fear on Yosemite National Park's famed El Capitan. Caldwell admits to being surprised by the attention he's received, but doesn't buy into the whole "extreme" label.
"I think that extreme applies to anybody who pushes the limits of what they do. You can be an extreme mathematician. It doesn't have to be death-defying," he says. "I don't free solo - climbing high off the ground without a rope. And I don't do super dangerous climbs that don't protect very well. Life means a lot to me, and I don't want to risk it unnecessarily. But, obviously, to do the things that I want to do, it gets a little dangerous sometimes. I do everything I can to be as safe as I can. That's one of the reasons I don't ice climb, or do huge Himalayan peaks - it's too unpredictable. Rock is much more solid. It doesn't fall apart."
Neither does Tommy Caldwell. Just don't expect to find him in Kyrgyzstan anytime soon.
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