Tommy Caldwell (@tommycaldwell1) has been called “arguably the best all-around rock climber on the planet” by National Geographic, and is the author of The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path.
What We Discuss with Tommy Caldwell:
- How the confidence Tommy gained from climbing since age three transformed him from a shy, scrawny kid into a world-class athlete, author, and someone who can be interviewed on podcasts without fear.
- Tommy’s tried-and-true formula for getting better at coping with scary, potentially life-threatening situations.
- How climbing is part endurance, part puzzle, and part chess strategy.
- The differences between sport climbing, free climbing, and free soloing.
- What it’s like to get kidnapped by rebel extremists in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan when you’re just trying to do a little climbing with your friends.
- And much more…
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On June 6th, 2018, The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path author Tommy Caldwell and his climbing partner Alex Honnold scaled the sheer granite face of Yosemite’s El Capitan in one hour, 58 minutes, and seven seconds. It was a record ascent by way of The Nose, El Capitan’s nearly vertical route of 2,900 feet — once considered an impossible climb, typically taking days for most who have succeeded since it was first conquered in 1958. Tommy also ascended El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in 2015 with Kevin Jorgeson in a then-record 19 days, and has undertaken numerous solo free climbs and other feats of strength over the years — the majority without the use of his left index finger, which was mostly severed in a table saw accident in 2001.
In this episode we talk to Tommy about how an extreme childhood with a father who also climbed mountains prepared him for this life, what happened when he and three other climbers were kidnapped and held for six days in Central Asian Kyrgyzstan in 2000 before making a daring escape, and how an obsession with a craft and pursuing it to mastery makes Tommy world class (if not the best in the world) at what he does. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
Please note that some of the links on this page (books, movies, music, etc.) lead to affiliate programs for which The Jordan Harbinger Show receives compensation. It’s just one of the ways we keep the lights on around here. Thank you for your support!
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THANKS, TOMMY CALDWELL!
If you enjoyed this session with Tommy Caldwell, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
Click here to thank Tommy Caldwell at Twitter!
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Resources from This Episode:
- The Push: A Climber’s Search for the Path by Tommy Caldwell
- The Dawn Wall
- Tommy Caldwell’s Website
- Tommy Caldwell at Instagram
- Tommy Caldwell at Facebook
- Tommy Caldwell at Twitter
- Two Die During Wingsuit Flight In Yosemite, Vocativ
- David Roeske | The View from the Top Is Breathtaking, TJHS 235
- El Capitan, Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau
- El Capitan’s Dawn Wall: Coverage of the Ascent at Yosemite, The New York Times
- The Wright Stuff: Dirtbagging Is Dead, Climbing
- Types of Rock Climbing Explained, REI Co-Op
- More than 100 Skiers Died in the Alps This Winter. Was It Just a Bad Year or Is This the New Norm? Vice
- Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell Set Historic Speed Record on El Capitan, National Geographic
- El Capitan Climbers Who Fell to Their Deaths Were Experienced, Family and Friends Say, ABC News
- Climbers Recount Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, National Geographic
- Rock Climber Tommy Caldwell Recalls Pushing His Gun-Toting Captor off a Cliff, Sports Illustrated
- Over the Edge: The True Story of the Kidnap and Escape of Four Climbers in Central Asia by Greg Child
- Black Diamond Cliff Cabana Double Portaledge
- Campus Board Training: The Complete Beginner’s Guide, 99 Boulders
- Mind Pump Media
Transcript for Tommy Caldwell | The Push for the Path Upwards (Episode 255)
Tommy Caldwell: [00:00:00] So I ran up behind them kind of at the last possible moment and watched him fall about 20 feet, hit this ledge and then bounce off into blackness.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:10] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. As always, I'm here with producer, Jason DeFillippo. Tommy Caldwell is a superstar in the rock climbing community. Since age three, Tommy has been traveling the world, challenging himself on impossible rock faces and climbs that many other people wouldn't even attempt. Most recently, he climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. This is literally, an almost entirely flat rock surface. Watching these guys do this on Netflix, they've got the Dawn Wall...This is like watching Spider-Man scale a skyscraper, except Spider-Man has more handholds than those guys did. It's just unbelievable. Before El Cap, Tommy lived in extreme childhood and early in his career, he was even kidnapped by militants in Kyrgyzstan, sliced off his finger as if free climbing wasn't hard enough already. Today's episode has some great stories and a really in-depth look at someone who is obsessed with a craft and has pursued it to mastery. I really enjoyed this conversation and I know you will as well.
[00:01:09] If you want to know how I managed to get all these amazing folks on the show and maintain relationships with hundreds of people for professional and personal reasons, check out Six-Minute Networking, which is free, jordanharbinger.com/course. The more people that know this stuff, I think, the better off we all are. By the way, most of the guests on the show, they actually subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So come join us and you'll be in great company. In the meantime, here's Tommy Caldwell.
[00:01:37] I know you started climbing at age three and your dad was into it. I'm wondering, your dad was an adventurous guy. He's a big bodybuilder, school teacher guy for the movie, but you being born early, little bit premature. Do you think he did some of what he did to maybe toughen you up a little bit?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:01:53] Yeah, certainly. I mean, I think the fact that he had the scrawny little kid probably for a macho bodybuilder pained him greatly, and so he had figured to combat that. No, I only say that I guess like half tongue in cheek. He was a school teacher as well as a bodybuilder and so he thought a lot about how to take the kind of smaller, self-conscious kids and make them more confident, and rock climbing was his avenue for that. I was just the perfect test subject. I had no confidence. I was really, really naturally shy, really like mentally delayed when I was young. Climbing is what fixed it for me in a lot of ways.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:30] We had a good laugh watching the movie the other day cause my mom was a special ed teacher, and he said something like, "Well I was mentally delayed probably up until now."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:02:39] Still, yes, that never leaves you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:43] Yeah. I'm wondering though like okay, you're maybe not the best student at that age, or at three you're definitely not a student at all, but in early days you're maybe not the best student. So having an outlet like climbing probably is one of the few things at that age that maybe you're really kicking butt.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:03:00] Yeah, I mean it worked for me because I started so young that I became good at it without having any metric to measure how good I was. Then when I had friends that got into it later, I was already the badass. And the fact that my dad was taking me into the mountains and exposing me to physically really hard things from a really young age meant that by the time I got a bit older it was actually really tough. I was small and I wasn't all that intellectual but I could endure.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:29] Do you think that being the smallest stature is advantage in climbing? Because I am never going to climb a mountain, hopefully. I don't think, maybe I'll walk up one. But being small in stature seems like an advantage because you're pulling weight up with one or two arms, if you're lucky maybe some feet, maybe some legs. Like having a small slight build seems like a good advantage.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:03:50] Yeah. For certain types of climbing and specifically climbing that has really small holds. It's good to be small. Like if you think about it like a spider's a way better climber than an elephant, you know.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:00] Generally, yeah.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:00] Yeah. So the smaller the better in a lot of ways, except you can't carry as much stuff--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:08] Oh yeah.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:09] --when you're really small.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:10] You can have a climbing partner that can carry all your stuff.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:13] Right. So I feel like that's where it's going to go in the future. The really small people are going to have the whole team that supports them and does everything else.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:19] Now that you've got a high public profile now, you can have like a climbing intern, right? He just follows you around with your stuff.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:26] I probably could have.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:28] You should leverage that. Look into that.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:30] Yeah totally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:30] The childhood looked pretty extreme. You're camping solo, which is kind of scary even now, but you're doing that. How old were you when you were out in the woods by yourself?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:40] I mean, I went a few miles from my house in Rocky Mountain National Park and camp solo starting at age nine or something. So yeah, I was pretty young.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:49] I just had a kid six weeks ago. I'm trying to think like, okay, what age will I let him walk into a park by himself with a tent and stay overnight?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:04:58] Yeah. It's funny, my dad always, I mean, still to this day, he talks about...He's kind of a curmudgeon. He thinks society is these helicopter parents and he's like the antithesis of that. He really wants you to have this self-reliance and independence. And so that's how I was raised. He encouraged that kind of activity, which gave me a huge sense of responsibility. I mean climbing is all about risk management and I learned that really young.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:21] Was your mom not like, "Hey, maybe don't send him out into the middle of the woods alone to make a fire. Like he can't even microwave macaroni and cheese. Maybe we should leave him in the garage."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:05:32] Yeah, there's definitely moments of that. I mean, so the one example that blows my mind the most is my dad likes to talk about the story of taking me when I was three winter camping. So we skied like a few miles into the mountains and dug a snow cave, apparently I was still in diapers during this raging storm. And my mom does say that on that occasion, during this raging storm, that whole night she was just up pacing around like worried about it. But for the most part she just has full trust. I mean, what do you do if you have a husband and a child who are really into doing risky things? You learn to trust them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:05] I don't know. Jen, what do you do when you have a husband that's into doing risky things? My kid's too young to be into risky things, but it's only a matter of time. Yeah.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:06:14] Yup.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:14] I know that your dad taught you a lot of lessons. Like it's not what happens in your life, but how you react to it. For example, when you did 827 miles for your 100-mile challenge in school and they literally didn't even believe you. That's heartbreaking, right? And did you learn from an early age, not only can you do things other people can't, but then also maybe nobody will ever even believe that you're doing them?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:06:36] Yeah, I mean the fact that I was really shy was an advantage in that way. I learned about personal satisfaction because I really didn't want to deal with other people. I just didn't like being around other people.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:47] Yeah. Has that changed? I mean you seem really social right now. Are you just like, "I can fake it"?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:06:51] It has changed. Largely because of my wife. I'm married to one of the most social people in the world these days. And so yeah, people are lovely and it took me 30 years to figure that out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:02] Yeah, that's all right. Late bloomer. No problem. I'm with you on that. Yeah. It does seem like your dad built grit through like a combination of what most people would consider traumatizing experience and maybe a little encouragement along the way.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:07:14] That's a common question I get, like how do you get better at these kinds of scary things. You just expose yourself to minorly traumatizing experiences on a slightly increased level day after day, and at some point you get better at doing things that most people would consider majorly traumatizing, but to you they only seem minorly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:35] Is there a line where you're like, "Okay, I'm never doing something like this." Because it seems --and we'll get into some of the things that you've done, especially with climbing-- but are there things with climbing or maybe outside of climbing where you're like, "No, I'm never going to do that. That's too ridiculous."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:07:48] Well, both. Yeah. I feel like I risk myself enough climbing that I kind of don't do things that are risky outside of climbing. Like I'm not going to buy a motorcycle. That's kind of the main one that I talk about. Also a bunch of climbers about 10 years ago in Yosemite got into wingsuit BASE jumping.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:06] Oh yeah.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:08:06] And I was spending all my time in Yosemite. It's illegal there, but it's also kind of one of the best places to do it in the world. It's one of the safest places to do it in the world actually. And so it was very tempting to get into it at that time because you see all your friends flying around like birds and it just looks amazing. Plus it's a pretty nice way to get down from the mountain afterwards. You don't wreck your knees as much, but I will say that the community of real core-Yosemite climbers was, there's maybe like 20 of them and maybe 10 of them really got into serious wingsuit BASE jumping and only three are still alive.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:42] Oh, that's really bad.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:08:44] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:44] That's horrible, 70%.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:08:46] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:46] I'm not trying to make light of it, but when 70% of the people into something are expiring doing that thing, that's, there's like a heroin-user control group that is probably doing better than that, you know?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:08:59] Yeah. And then out of the three that are still alive, you know, one is missing a leg.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:05] Ugh.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:09:05] And yeah, I mean, it's just bad.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:06] That's like adrenaline addiction to the point of a sickness instead of actually like, wow, look at what we're pushing the limits of...It's crazy.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:09:15] Yeah, I think of a lot of risky climbing. I wonder, you know, it's admired in a lot of ways, especially big Himalayan Alpine climbing, like in my culture that's really admired. People can go up and do these really hard mountains where you know, you're up on the side of the mountain for like a week and you only have, you know, a small soup packet each day. And you know, like being able to endure that is really admired. But I've started to look at it in ways almost like a drug addiction. Like why is that so admired? Why, you know, most of these, it is really, really dangerous. I think big Himalayan Alpine climbs are kind of like wingsuit BASE jumping, there's just so many unknown variables. And so that is another thing that I basically, at this point in my life say that I won't do.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:56] My buddy David Roeske who's been on the show, I don't know if you know him at all, David Roeske, he summits things like K2 and Everest, but no oxygen. And that's kind of crazy to me as well.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:10:07] Yeah. So I'm talking about big steep Alpine faces, like the typical climbing up the fixtures of Mount Everest or something. I see that as very much less dangerous.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:18] Yeah. He seems more measured. He's like not in a hurry to do things that might get him killed. He just wants it to be just hard enough where he's growing as a person. Which makes sense, right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:10:29] Yeah. That's a good way to be.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:30] Like you don't need to, you don't need to base jump from with the red bull dude who's like jumping from space basically, you know? Have you seen that?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:10:36] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:38] It's like you don't need to do that. No, I'm good. Yeah. I'm just going to go ahead and skydive. I'm fine.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:10:42] But I mean, one really cool thing about climbing those who do take things that seem really dangerous or deadly and you figure out ways to make them safe. And oftentimes there are ways to make them safe and that's kind of an empowering thing. Like if you can do things that seem improbable and impossible and make them doable, in climbing, that kind of opens up the world in so many ways. And you start to wonder how that applies to other places in life.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:05] I can imagine that solving a problem, which is essentially what a really complex climb seems to be like the Dawn Wall, where you're figuring it out like a puzzle. That confidence must translate to other areas of your life.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:11:16] Yeah, I mean, so I was really shy and didn't like to be social. I got good at climbing because I was so deeply into it and it did bring a lot of confidence into my life. And because of that I've been able to sort of like take the opportunities that climbs like the Dawn Wall presented and run with them, like write a book and beyond this podcast right now, like this is never the kind of thing that I would have wanted to do or had the confidence to do if climbing had never been there to sort of like help me get there.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:43] As a teenager, you started climbing in competition on these artificial walls. I think we've all seen those, right? Like in a climbing gym or on a cruise ship. Now they're popular. These little like colored fake stones are screwed into the wall. And you won this adult competition at age 13 was that one of the first times you realized like, "Oh, I'm better at this than I thought." Did you have any measuring stick before then?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:12:04] There wasn't really a measuring stick because kids didn't climb back then. It wasn't, it wasn't a family activity. Most people considered it a sport for either kind of like adrenaline junkies or it was just so countercultural back in that day. So the fact that my parents did it with me was real odd, but it also meant that I gained skill at an age that nobody else did. And then it turns out that that small 18-year-old built actually lends itself really well to climbing. So all those things came together at this competition that I entered, not thinking that I even had a chance and then ended up winning it. And that was like the awakening, that was the moment where I was like, "Wow, I'm a climber now. This is what I want to do with my life."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:46] There's probably no way back then though to make a living as a professional climber. Right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:12:50] I mean, making a living as a climber is kind of a funny thing because living the life of a homeless person in the culture of climbing that I was in was actually very admired. That meant that you were willing to forgo any creature comforts in life to dedicate yourself 100% to climbing. And so you lived in caves and you ate the food off of the people who had left on the tables at the Yosemite cafeteria. That's--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:16] That's, yeah, that's nasty.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:13:16] That's kind of what you did. And so I spent a few years of my life out of high school, like dumpster diving and living on like $50 a month. And the thing about that is it was actually a pretty lovely time. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was, life was simple. All I had to do is think about climbing. In the years since then I have made what is more typically thought of as a proper living off climbing, but I don't think of the money part too much. Like I'm always like, man, life is nice when you don't have that much money because as long as you have enough to give you the basic amenities and be able to buy the things that are actually mandatory for being healthy. You can live cheaply and it's pretty nice.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:58] Yeah. I would imagine though there is a line where you're like, I don't want to eat hot dog bites off of the plate that has flies on it. Or like a squirrel got to it before I did and then chasing him.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:14:09] Yeah I know, these days for sure. Like I think anybody whose lifestyle improves, it's hard to go backwards, especially with a family.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:16] The wife might not be too thrilled if you've got little kids eating off of the cafe, go get it. That's fraud.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:14:24] That's right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:24] Before they throw it away.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:14:26] Although that probably would be a pretty successful technique.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:28] I think that's something your dad would come up with, right? Like yeah, you can eat if you can chase down the person before they get to the garage. Types of climbing. Okay. The sport of climbing. Is that the one with the wall with the fake rock screwed into it? There's different types of climbing that we're not really familiar with.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:14:43] Yeah. So sport climbing is essentially a wall that's usually between like 50 and 150 feet in length. You have pre-placed anchors, so that somebody actually drilled a hole in the rock, and installed bolts that you clip into. So essentially what that does is it makes it so that you get all of the physical difficulty of climbing with none of the danger.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:06] Gotcha. So that might be an actual rock, the climbing wall type. It doesn't matter if it's wood or stone.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:15:11] Right. So sport climbing could be outside or it can be out an artificial wall.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:15] Gotcha. Okay. And then there's the way that you climb, you use regular rocks that are naturally occurring in nature, but there's no assist from the ropes. Right? You're not pulling up on anything.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:15:26] Right. So I'm a free climber, which free climbing is actually a terrible term because everybody, when they hear that word free, they think no ropes--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:34] That's what I thought.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:15:35] ---if you fall, you die. But what it means is that you are climbing the surface in front of you and you have the ropes that are only there in case you fall. Free soloing is when you climb without any ropes and if you fall, you die.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:50] That's like walking around in a mountain and hoping you don't get struck by lightning, but carrying a giant metal flagpole with you the whole time. I feel like--
Tommy Caldwell: [00:15:57] Way more, way more dangerous than that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:00] Statistically much more dangerous, right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:16:02] Yeah. Free soloing is like you have to do everything perfectly or if you die.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:06] I don't need that kind of adrenaline. That's surfing covered in animal parts and blood.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:16:11] Well, adrenaline is another misconceived thing. Like if adrenaline is happening when you're climbing, something is going wrong. So even free soloists don't do it for the adrenaline. They do it for the mastery. They're trying to actually control their body in a way that they can do extremely risky things without having any adrenaline involved.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:30] That's a good point because if you're starting to shake and vibrate and hyperventilate and panic, it's probably a great way you wouldn't have a career very long as somebody you call him to that.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:16:39] Right. If you have that reaction, you're not going to be a free soloist.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:42] That definitely makes sense. I think gently falling or maybe not gently but falling and not dying. That's probably the best way to learn how to climb better each time.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:16:52] Which is why sport climbing is really nice because like there's days when I go to sport climbing where I fall a hundred times in one day and the rope just catches you, and everything's good.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:00] Thank God for that. This dirtbag culture of climbing seems like something that would get old pretty fast and I assume moving to Colorado and trying to get better at this. You start building a lifestyle and you start working on different skills and I know you've done things like going to France and spending time in places where a hundred plus people are dying, just to work on like certain types of skills. You wrote about that and I'm wondering what is that you're like climbing these caves and working on these skills that you can only work on these grottoes, I guess. I'm trying to put a visual to this.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:17:33] Oh, so you're talking about going to France, going to Chamonix.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:17:36] Yeah, that sounds right.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:17:36] Okay. So Chamonix is sort of Europe's center stage for big Alpine style climbing and those mountains like a hundred people a year die. But those are the people that are pursuing a very risky form, those are like the wingsuit BASE jumpers of climbers, or they're just the tourists don't know any better. Because the thing about Chamonix is you can take a lift from the valley floor at 3000 feet. You can be sitting in the cafe drinking cappuccino and 20 minutes later you can be at 14,000 feet in the middle of the most gnarly Alpine terrain, in the Alps. And you can just basically step off the platform and fall to your death in a crevasse. So that's why so many people die. It makes the mountains too accessible. You don't have to get up.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:23] You got to earn your way up there. That way you know you're not supposed to be there after a few steps.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:18:27] So the mountains in the US don't have lift access like that, so you do have to earn your way and a lot less people die. That's very different than the style of climbing that I primarily went to France for. Like I climbed those big mountains, but we were experienced in big mountain terrain, so we weren't doing anything that was particularly risky when I was 14 years old with my dad. But really we went to France because we wanted to go sport climbing because that was the cutting edge of physical innovation. Like people were taking gymnastic skills and applying them to steep rock faces, and that was kind of a new thing and it was exciting to us and that's everywhere.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:19:03] It was all going down. A lot of people think climbing is mostly about strength or endurance, but that doesn't seem to be the case. So like watching the Dawn Wall, there's a lot of maybe not chess, maybe that's kind of a bad analogy, but there's all kinds of fear management and risk management and you're managing your endurance. You're trying to think like, "Okay, there's this thing I either had to jump across," and you tried that for a couple of days, it didn't work and then he found a route underneath it. It's like a whole battle plan is this. There's so much more strategy involved I think, that most people think of.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:19:34] Yeah, I think that's one of the things that really has attracted me to the specific style that I love of big wall free climbing because there's so many elements. You have to figure out how to live on the vertical wall and perform at a really high level. And logistically that's pretty complicated to like fuel yourself and stay out of the sun and deal with storms and then the actual climbing takes rehearsal much of the way, like a gymnastics routine would. And in a very high level, it'd be like an Olympic level gymnastics routine. You have to execute it perfectly and able to be successful. So you do that on pitch after pitch, after pitch of climbing and it's just a tremendous puzzle that I really love, gathering those pieces and figuring out how to put them together.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:20:19] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Tommy Caldwell. We'll be right back.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:51] This episode is also sponsored by FIGS. Now when I got this company as a sponsor, I thought, but scrubs for medical professionals...You know those bedsheet looking things that people wear that make a look like they made it at home? Well, FIGS, this is the awesome version of that. Doctors, nurses, dentists, people who work in medicine, healthcare...You're awesome people. We love you. We would probably have no teeth and or die really young without you. And every one of you has helped us at some point in our life, right? So these amazing people, they dedicate their lives to caring and serving others and then we dress them up and freaking used pillow cases that don't fit. And so FIGS is an amazing company. They make scrubs that are stylish and functional for years. These things are ugly and uncomfortable. FIGS creates high quality medical apparel so that medical professionals look their best. They've got stretched pockets. I had a bunch of these and I thought, okay, I'm going to give them away to the medical professionals that I know and then call them back in a couple of weeks for, I guess, a report. The antimicrobial fabric protects from germs and bacteria, which of course are everywhere in that environment. They're really soft. They moisture wick, they've got this four way stretch so that you can wear them when you're bending over, doing whatever you're doing, or working on a patient, or just carrying a bunch of stuff, they're not going to get all stretchy, pully, heavy saggy and gross. And they've got yoga waistbands, they've got a bunch of different styles. So I recommend trying these out if you are in the medical industry or if you live love work with somebody in the medical industry, they're big on gifting it and I've got a pair here that I wore as pajamas and eventually gifted because they are so good that I felt like they went to waste with just me sleeping in them. That's how good they are. So Jason, tell them where they can get their FIGS.
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Jason DeFillippo: [00:24:09] Thanks for listening and supporting the show and to learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit Jordan harbinger.com/deals. And don't forget we have a worksheet for today's episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from Tommy Caldwell. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you'd like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player, so you don't miss a single thing from the show. And now back to our episode with Tommy Caldwell.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:47] What's like your least favorite part of it? I know that's a dumb potentially dumb question because you probably love everything. But there's got to be something where you go, "You know, I hate pooping in a bag." Like that's the worst, I really wish there was a way around this.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:24:59] I mean, when friends die.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:01] Oh, okay. That got dark. That's, yeah. Jeez. All right, well that makes sense.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:25:05] Which is common, honestly, I mean, I would probably had 40 plus close acquaintances and/or friends that have died in the years that I've been climbing. So that's a big part of it. We're trying not to go that dark.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:18] No, no, that's fine. I was just kind of kidding. Of course. That's the worst part. I mean that should have been a really obvious answer to that question. But if you weren't going with yes, the death of people you know and love. What's the second place?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:25:30] You know, it's really annoying about climbing. I think a lot of adventure sports. You can take a season off like snowboarding for instance, and you still have all those skills and you come back and you can still operate at a relatively high level. In climbing, if you want to climb well you have to just like constantly be at it training three, four, five days a week. And if you take a week off you lose so much.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:54] What are you losing strength or like?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:25:55] Yeah, you're losing strength and coordination and just like the feel of it. You have to just be relentlessly dedicated to do it which...In some ways I love that, but in other ways I hate it. Especially these days in life where I have a lot of other things threatening to get in the way of me training all the time. It would be nice to not suck so bad at climbing in those moments.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:19] It's great to go to Disney World and not have to climb Epcot center to stay in shape.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:26:23] Yeah, totally. So now when I travel around to cities, I look for climbing gyms. I go to a climbing gym every day and I have to stay on it or I just let it go for like six months or a year at a time and I'm just like screw it. I'm not going to be good at climbing right now. And then I'll have to take another four months to build back up.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:37] Jeez. Yeah. When you walk into gyms now people must be like, "Whoa, aren't you that guy from that thing that I that one time?"
Tommy Caldwell: [00:26:43] Yeah. It is somewhat hard to go to climbing gyms in that way. I make sure I go like midday between like 11 and 3:00 PM cause there's not many people in the gym then.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:53] So if you want to catch Tommy, at the climbing gym between 11 and three wherever he's got an event. Here's the story you're probably sick of telling, but I'm going to go for it anyway because it's super interesting. The Kyrgyzstan thing, this incident is a topic that's really familiar to me. Unfortunately getting abducted, not by Islamic militants, but you know, getting kidnapped in general really sucks. I'm with you on that. You're 21 years old. Why are you in Kyrgyzstan? Most people are like, well, that's your problem, idiot went to Kurdistan. Anytime you go to a place that ends in Stan, you're asking for trouble.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:27:23] Yeah. My guess that is part of the problem.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:26] Maybe. Yeah.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:27:26] I mean I was into climbing in Yosemite and I wanted to get a little more exotic and remote. I mean like going on expeditions to exotic places are, it's the fantasy, right? So Kyrgyzstan seemed like the perfect fit. It was in a place that was remote. The weather was good. There was big unclimbed walls there and we wanted to explore and then the North face approached my girlfriend with this opportunity to go and they would pay for the trip. And climbers hadn't been abducted really ever that I know of in this like Himalayan or sub Himalayan regions back then. So it wasn't like we went there, even considering this as a possibility.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:10] Right. Yeah. You're thinking food poisoning or maybe you get injured and you have to go home. Not like--
Tommy Caldwell: [00:28:15] Yeah, we are certain that the dangers that we would encounter on the mountains, we're going to be the only dangers.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:20] Not the Taliban cloned IMU.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:28:25] Right, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:29] So were you on the border of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan then?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:28:31] Yeah, the borders are all really close together there. We're in Kyrgyzstan close to Uzbekistan, also close to Tajikistan.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:40] Did you have any idea of this? I mean, you must have looked on the internet and people are like, "Oh, don't go there." And you're like, "Yeah. It's just the same thing about every country now."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:28:46] Yeah, there was an element of that. So I think the year previous, some Japanese tourists had gotten involved in a little bit of civil unrest and so there was a, there was a slightly elevated warning on the US State Department website. It was actually just classified as a counselor information sheet. And so we saw that and were like, what does this mean? Like how do you read this? And so we started to look around like what other countries in the world have this level of warning. And we came across Australia at the time at the same level of warming because the Olympics and so we're young, little bit naive. We probably should have looked into it more, but we're like, well people are still going to the Olympics.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:20] Yeah. Mexico has like a super high warning half the time and people are like, yeah, $97 a flight. Yeah. See you there.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:29:28] And to be fair, what happened to us was very unique. Like yeah, it was super unlucky. Like people still go climbing there all the time. Even though the dangers are much higher in a lot of ways than they were the year that we went.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:38] So what happened? You're hanging out, sleeping in a cocoon on the side of the mountain. What are those things called?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:29:42] Portaledges.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:43] The portaledge. So is it literally exactly like it sounds like you have a ledge that's portable and you add it to the side of the mountains.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:29:49] Yeah it's like a lawn chair, hanging cot that can hang from the side of the mountain essentially. It's a platform that you erect and you clip in and then--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:57] So you're strapped into that thing. You're not going to like be dreaming and roll off the side of the mountain.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:30:01] Right, yeah, you're tied in generally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:04] That saves me from a lot of future nightmares of being on a portaledge and rolling off the side.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:30:08] Everybody finds that so terrifying, but actually compared to like clinging onto the side of the cliff. It feels real nice to be in a portaledge. It feels super comfortable.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:18] I would say so. Right? Like you're either splayed out like Spider-Man and you're like, finally I can sit down.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:30:23] Totally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:23] It must be awesome at the end of the day to do that. So, okay, so you're on the portaledge. Do you think you're dreaming in the beginning of this? Like how does this even begin?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:30:33] So we were a thousand feet up. This wall called the Yellow Wall camped in these portaledges and at Twilight, so like 6:00 AM, we heard gunfire, which seemed odd being as how we're in the middle of this very peaceful seeming valley. At first we didn't know that we're being shot at, but pretty soon they kept shooting and bullets actually started to ricochet off this ceiling of rock above us. And so that's how we were captured. That came to the base of wall. They shot up at us and we knew that we had to go down. We had a long telephoto camera lens that we could look down and see these guys with big guns, Clayton army fatigues.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:08] Damn I can't even believe they were able to accurately or maybe they were aiming at you and they missed, I don't know.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:31:14] No, they had like sniper style rifles. They knew exactly what they were doing. They were able to be very accurate.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:19] Dang. Well good thing. I suppose that they were able to do that because they could've missed and hit one of you. Jeez. Okay. So then what? I mean, you can't run away. You're on a mountain, you're moving at like, I don't know how many feet per hour or something. If you try to climb up, you have to go down.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:31:32] Right. We have to go down and we sent the oldest member of our expedition down first. We hoped that they were just going to rob us or something, but when he got down they just said that we had it all come down. So yeah, we all went down and they took us back to our base camp that was like a mile away where they'd slashed open our tents.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:49] Do they not know tents have zippers on them?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:31:51] Yeah. They just hadn't bothered. They had rated all of our food and we're like, okay, things are pretty serious. But then as we're kind of surveying the scene, a helicopter flew a valley and the Kyrgyz military was basically coming into the valley at that time to combat the rebels. The rebels of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and we were right there in the mix of it. And so yeah, essentially a small war broke out.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:17] You're in like a battle scene right now. But you want to get captured or you'd love to have the Kyrgyz military run in on you because then you're free, right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:32:25] Yeah. I mean that, that was our hope. But the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had gotten to us first and taken us hostage. And so we were human shields on some level. They had also taken a Kyrgyz soldier hostage. He was the military outpost in that valley. He actually lived in that valley. They'd killed some of his friends, so he had blood on his pants. We didn't know that they'd killed his friends at that moment though. He started looking at us and he's like, we need to find ways to attack these guys and grab the tent pole. And he's like, we need to stab them. He was making all these like motions, like we need to overcome these guys with big guns by attacking them with tent poles.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:02] And you probably thought that was a bad idea and he's like, "You don't understand they're going to kill all of us." But he couldn't really communicate that to you at that time.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:33:08] Yeah. I mean he couldn't communicate it so articulate. But he got the message across.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:12] Oh, so you knew that he...because you could see how scared he was, I guess.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:33:16] Yeah. I mean he was making motions like putting his hand across his neck, which you know, obviously means death. Like somebody's going to die, but we didn't know if he meant..."Sir, what?"
Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:24] Oh man. So then they're taking you around somewhere, right? Like what was their plan? We don't know really what our plan was. We think that they were going to try and take us into Uzbekistan. We probably would have ended up in some camp and held for ransom, but what ended up happening is when the Kyrgyz invaded, we had to abandon everything, all of our food, warm clothing, and just basically run for it. So I had one small bag which had six PowerBars in the rebels, brought their guns, and that's all we had. Pretty soon when that battle broke out, we were on like one hillside behind this boulder and the Kyrgyz military was on the other side and where with that soldier, his name was Turat and they shot him point blank in the head. For about four hours, we had to kind of lay on his body behind this boulder as this battle raged, until it got dark and we were able to escape over this hillside.
[00:34:17] At the point of which they killed him, you must have been...What's going through your mind at that time? Because I guess they got rid of him because he was a soldier and knew the area and was maybe not as valuable as Americans. I mean, what was it?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:34:29] Well, I think once the battle broke out, they had to turn their guns towards the other Kyrgyz soldiers and he was right next to you. He was going to attack. They just knew that he was too much of a liability.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:40] Oh jeez. Laying on a dead body that was just murdered by the people that now have you. What are you thinking at that point?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:34:47] I mean, it's just really intense, like, I mean like even today I look back on it and it seems like I've watched it through a mirror or something. It doesn't feel quite real. But there was this sort of like intense, really quick bonding of the four of us. Like we were all intensely aware of each other and trying to make sure that we were going to do everything we could to live through it. You know, nobody was like freaking out or breaking down. We were just all very on point trying to do whatever we could.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:13] You must've been cold if you don't have your clothes. I mean freezing, hungry.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:35:18] Yeah. I mean at first during that battle you don't notice the coldness because it's very intense. But over the next six-day period, because we're hostages for six days, we were in and out of various stages of hypothermia a lot of that time because we're at 11,000 feet in elevation, we are often wet. It was like there was amount of involved, both physical and mental, that was unlike anything I had experienced before.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:43] Yeah, that makes sense. I would, I would imagine if you weren't a climber used to being already, you know, tossed into the snow by your dad in the middle of winter and whatever the park to camp alone, you would've been even worse off.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:35:55] Yeah. Yeah. No, that was a huge part of it. I think ultimately we survived because we were climbers and we are used to that environment to which degree that even our captors were not like we were used to being on steep terrain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:05] It seems like after a while, I know a couple of the guys left you after a while to go, what to look for food or something like that.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:36:11] Yeah, we don't know. Two of our four captors just disappeared. We don't know what happened to them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:17] Geez. And then how did you end up getting out of that situation? I mean, I know you're at this point starving, you'd been going through rivers and stuff like that and what was your strategy actually to get away?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:36:29] So on our first night, Jason Singer, the guy who put the expedition together, he was actually an employee of the North Face. We're running from that battle scene when we got to this raging river and we didn't know if the Kyrgyz military was pursuing us at this time, and we couldn't figure out how to get across this river. And the rebels are trying to push this big log across the river and they kind of couldn't do it. And he grabbed this log and jumped in the river and we're kind of getting swept away. And I was like, "What is he doing? He's going to get swept up!" And managed to pull this log across the river so then we could all climb across. Once we got to the other side, the soldiers looked at him and they're like, "soldat!" The rebels looked at him and they were like, "You're a soldier." And he had done this very strategically. He's like, "I wanted them to feel like we were helping them, like we're on their side." And then we were really tough. And that set up a huge amount of trust that probably ultimately helped us escape.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:23] So how did you escape? How did you finally get away from these guys?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:37:28] So we spent six days all getting very skinny and suffering a lot. And the two members, Jason and John, were thinking that we needed to find a way to overcome our captors. Like steal their guns, shoot them, bash them over the head with rocks, throw them off a cliff. Something like this. Beth and I and my girlfriend and I, we were the other two climbers, we didn't think that. We thought we should just try and outlast them. But on the sixth night, the head captor, Abdul went back to our base camp to try and get some food and the plan was for us to kind of beeline it straight up this really steep mountain site and he was going to circle around with some food and meet us on top. And so we started climbing up this mountain side in the middle of the night under moonlight that ended up being real steep. And so our captor, our one-remaining captor who is like this 18-year-old hired mercenary, who is super scared, was the only one looking after us. And it became really obvious that this was our chance to escape. The plan, like I said, was for Jason and John, the two other members of our expedition to kind of guide him from below, and then Beth and I would be sort of pioneering the route above and then they were going to look for a chance to push him off the cliff. But they never quite do it, it's just like a hard thing to do I guess. And so when we got right near the top of the cliff, our one-remaining captor kind of got excited about the prospect of being away from the exposure. And so he started to scramble ahead, and there was rain in the air and we're already on the verge of hypothermia. And I was like, if we get wet, we're probably done for it at this point, so I was like, I think, our only chance to escape this. All I did is I turned to my girlfriend and I said, I don't think they're going to be able to do this. Do you think I should do it? And she just didn't say anything. So that signified to me that she'd come around and she agreed with me. So I ran up behind them and kind of at the last possible moment, grabbed him and pulled him off the cliff and watched him fall about 20 feet, hit this ledge and then bounce off into blackness.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:18] At that moment were you relieved? I feel like I'd have some mixture of relief and then also just like, like you said, it was surreal. I'm just wondering if even sunk in right away I guess.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:39:30] Yeah, no, there was no relief. It was like my immediate reaction was like the loudest noise you'd ever, it was intense, just like blah, like what have I just done? I ran up to the top of the mountain where I was no longer exposed and I just curled up in a ball, just like grabbed myself and I was like, what did I just do? And then the other members caught up with me and tried to comfort me as best they could. But we were, it was very urgent because we thought that Abdul was just around the corner.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:58] Oh, the guys who left to get food.
Tommy Caldwell: 00:40:00] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:00] Oh, so you're thinking, what if he just saw that whole thing go down? We need to get out of here.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:40:05] Yeah. So we didn't linger, you know, maybe 30 seconds or something and then we were off down the valley and so it was, it was very intense.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:12] Did you know where to go after that? I mean, how do you even, did you just backtrack?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:40:16] Yeah. Few days into our expedition, Jason and John, had gone on this long hike to try and get to a phone essentially, which they're going to get to this road that we knew was like 30 miles from our camp. And they had never made it to the phone, but what they did do is they came across a small military outpost that was down the valley, that was just like one or two guys. And so they knew that that existed and so our plan was to get to that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:42] Imagine being stationed out there. That's like you just know. Nobody likes you back in your home base if you're the two guys and have to sleep in that shack in the middle nowhere.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:40:50] Yeah. I mean there's a lot of that in those mountains. Like you just have a military presence.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:54] Just looking for what drug smugglers and Taliban like guys?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:40:58] Yeah. I mean ultimately the IMU's mission was to pay off an opium trade trail through those mountains. Politically, it was a little bit more complicated than that, but there's a little bit of that going on.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:08] Yeah. They wanted to fund their uprising, but hey, if they get a bunch of money in the meantime selling drugs, no big deal. Right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:41:14] Right. Yeah. They've got to fund their revolution.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:16] Exactly. Yeah. You're religious now, right? You're Christian.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:41:20] Yeah. I would say loosely.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:22] There's no real like tactful way to say that. I guess like you're a man of faith sounds so ridiculous.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:41:27] I aspire to believe more than I probably do in reality.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:32] I think that's literally every person of faith ever. The Pope probably says the same thing when he goes to bed at night. Does having faith ever give you pause given that you were kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan by people who had blind levels of faith? Do you ever go like, "Oh, I better check myself on what I'm thinking."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:41:51] Yeah, I think faith is a very complicated thing and it's the reasoning behind so much, so many terrible things in this world. There's also a lot of great that can come out of it. So I don't know. It's a super complicated topic and I do know that in Kyrgyzstan when life seems in peril and you start to think these deeper thoughts, faith is where you turn because you need, you need comfort. I mean, I think almost everybody, even if you're not religious, you start to wonder if you should be religious.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:14] Yeah. I think if I was on a mountain with a bunch of my friends and a couple of psychos with guns, I'd be like, "Okay, Jesus, I've been kind of a dick. I haven't paid much attention to you, but yeah, if you're really show up now, this is a good time."
Tommy Caldwell: [00:42:26] And those thoughts can be helpful.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:28] I would imagine you're sitting there freezing and hungry, you know, and there's not, are these mountains, are they like grassy or is it just you're just on rocks?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:42:36] They're like desert mountains. There's grass, there's small shrubs. There's like juniper bushes, but really steep. Like it's all these steep, like V-shaped valleys with these raging rivers down, running down them.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:50] You can't like go pick a bunch of berries. Like there's nothing like that.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:42:55] Yeah. No, there's not. And we didn't down the valley, there was an apricot grove that we pass through very quickly after I had pushed Sharapova off the cliff, but we didn't--
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:05] You're like, "Eh, I don't really have time for this right now." Right. Yeah. Yeah. "We'll hit McDonald's on the way out of this hell hole." Do you think what happened in Kyrgyzstan gave you an idea of what you're really made of in a way that maybe made you a better climber?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:43:18] Oh yeah. Yeah, definitely. Like I was kind of a mildly motivated sort of mediocre climber on that trip to Kyrgyzstan. I was actually just like the hired rigger. I wasn't a professional climber at that point. I was just sort of like the tag-along boyfriend. But that experience reset my bar for things like pain and suffering in a way that's very useful in climbing. Like when I'd go up into the mountains after that trip and things would get scary or painful, I'd always be able to think back to Kyrgyzstan and it'd be like, this is nothing compared to what I experienced in Kyrgyzstan . That gave me this curiosity behind what we can endure as humans. My curiosity to explore that has fueled so much of what I've done since.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:58] I can imagine like you're stuck on something and you tried it 40 times and you're like, well at least sound like getting abducted and sold into slavery, be starved to death.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:44:06] When you see something that dark, the rest of life looks real sunny afterwards. I'm really optimistic, like mostly very happy person after Kyrgyzstan in a way that maybe I wasn't, but it's interesting. Not everybody has that kind of effect. Some people go the other way, they have like serious PTSD problems and they spend their lives in fear after something like that. For some reason I went the other way, a part of that is my nature, but probably part of that is like the way I was raised.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:30] Definitely. I think part of it is the way you were raised, so there's new science now that shows resilience...If you have PTSD, it's not that you're not resilient, but people who are very resilient do have, I guess lower instances --I'd have to recheck these-- but a lower instances of the way that they think about traumatic experiences or the way that they process them. It's not like a matter of toughness, it's just a matter of how you frame the experience. Like you're used to going, "Wow, that was cold, I'm hurting, I'm sore. That was a growth experience." And a lot of people go, "Wow, I'm cold. I'm hurting. I'm sore because this bad thing happened to me." And they don't have the language and they don't have the circuitry to process it in a way that re-framed it as something positive.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:45:08] Right. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. The confusing part is I think a lot of people say, if I want my kids to be resilient, I need to really protect them from trauma as a child. Whereas my dad had the opposite approach. You actually expose me to trauma, but just like the right dose. Right. I think that's key. It's got to be the right dose.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:24] Yeah. Not like wake up at night with nightmares. Go to this psychologist trauma, but just like, yeah, he was cold for a night. He'll be fine.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:45:30] Right. Yeah. Yeah. He didn't beat me with a stick every night to make me tougher.
Jason DeFillippo: [00:45:37] You're listening to the Jordan harbinger show with our guest, Tommy Caldwell. We'll be right back after this.
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[00:49:18] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. And don't forget the worksheet for today's episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast if you're listening to us in the Overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. We really appreciate it. And now for the conclusion of our episode with Tommy Caldwell.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:14] You do have either really bad luck or you're subconsciously seeking out experiences that'll make you tougher because you end up having one of the accidents that as a climber you just kind of can't have and continue. For some reason you decided to do a remodel yourself and you fricking cut your finger off man.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:50:31] Yeah. I mean I think that's probably a big flaw within me is that I expose myself to more risks than I probably should. So I was more careless than I probably should've been without knowing enough about power tools and chopped off my finger.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:48] And not just any finger, like one of the most important fingers that you use in climbing.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:50:52] I would say they're all pretty important.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:54] Okay, well that's...See I'm a novice.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:50:55] Yeah. But the index finger isn't a good one to lose.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:59] So what happens then? You cut this thing off. They can't just sew it back on.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:51:03] They tried. Yeah, they tried. My dad showed up at the hospital with a magazine cover and was like, "Look, he's a good climber. You have to do everything you can." And so they did they. I think usually in my circumstance they would have just been like, well you're going to be fine without a finger and they just would sew up the stump and send you home like a few hours later. For me, they tried to reattach it. I spent two weeks in the hospital, but it didn't work. They kind of did everything they could. And I think I had this hope that they were gonna be able to reattach it, but then at the end of the two weeks they came in and they're like, we've done everything. We can, your fingers dead. We're going to have to remove it for good. And then the doctor told me that he thought I should start thinking about what else I want to do in life.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:46] That's not a comfortable conversation at all.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:51:48] I sometimes wonder if he strategically did that cause that fueled me, honestly.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:53] Did he know?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:51:54] I mean, he was a climber. The doctor who did the surgeries, I had two doctors, I had one that did the surgeries and I had one that was kind of like there for emotional support, who kind of took me under his wing because he was a climber as well. And that was the doctor that told me that I should think about what else I want to do. I mean at first when he said that, I was like, ugh, like bummer. But then he left the room and Beth, my girlfriend, she turned to me and she's like, "Fuck that guy. He has no idea." And so I went after climbing with this sort of passion that I didn't have before.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:29] That makes sense.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:52:29] It was really liberating actually because everybody thought that I would fail. Nobody thought I'd be a good climber anymore. I didn't really think I'd be a good climber anymore. So when I started climbing in it I realized that I actually still could climb pretty well. I've exceeded my own expectations and others, so each time I would get better. It was like, it was very liberating and I could always do more and better than I thought. And it just started this flywheel turning the wind.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:52:53] Got you some new momentum.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:52:55] Yeah. It created this incredible moment. Within I was doing climbs that I hadn't been able to do with my finger really.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:53:02] With your finger. That's amazing. So what do you do? Like cutting off the tip? I would imagine the tip is full of like little, it's callous all up and stuff. Like did you kind of have to rebuild your knob for lack of a better word? Sorry.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:53:16] Well I don't, I don't use that finger for climbing really. It's just too short. But I did have to use other fingers and there was like some small injury stuff that happened because my hand had to just readjust to the imbalances that are created by not having that finger. But mostly I just trained the same way I always did, but with just a little bit more fire and a little bit more strategy too. Like I've worked harder on specific finger strength building techniques. Like I did a lot more like indoor hanging from a hang board during this thing called a campus board doing like weightlifting with my fingers and stuff to try and make my finger strong. And it turns out specific finger strength scientifically is the best metric between like really good climbers and only mediocre climbers like the ones that are really, really good. It's all about the fingers.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:02] Did you try that grip strength thing that the Mind Pump guys were using? The Mind Pump studio is one of my favorite shows. I love these guys. But did you do it, is that why that thing's hanging out because they got--?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:54:11] I showed up and they like to put that thing in my hand and they're all squeezing it and they had me screws on. They're like, Oh that's pretty good. And that's,
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:17] That's all you got. You probably crushed them and they're like we don't want to admit it.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:54:21] Funny thing about climbing is it's all strength to weight ratio. It's actually more effective to be light than it is to just be real strong.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:31] Yeah, that makes sense because you can be pretty strong, but if you're 250 pounds, like you're, unless you're really built in an inhuman Hulk way, you're not going to be able to do like a hundred pull-ups or whatever the equivalent is that you're doing on that mountain.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:54:44] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:44] Do you ever go to like the airport and you're pushing the elevator button? You're like, dang, that finger's gone. Let me switch. I mean you're used to it now, right? But in the beginning it must've been like you hear about people who try to scratch an itch or the part of their body that's missing itches and you can't scratch it.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:55:00] The weird thing for me is I think when I, early on after I lost my finger, I think when I was shaving like the right side of my face, I would feel like there was dirt underneath that fingernail that was no longer, there was like this annoying sensation. So the body had to rewire the nerves a little bit. And so I had a phantom sensation. I never had a lot of phantom pain. Like for some people it can be really painful. I never had that though.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:27] Does it just go away? Because you can't scratch an itch that isn't there, right?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:55:31] I think your brain kind of figures it out in the end it kind of rewires itself. I think I still do have those sensations at times, but now I associate them with being at the end of the knob instead of a finger that's no longer there.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:43] You just have to remap it in your brain.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:55:45] But sometimes if I'm really stressed about something I'll, yeah, like try and press an elevator button or something with that finger that's no longer there.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:51] Autopilot. Yeah. Like dang, I'm late for my, oh, what's the problem here? All right. Yeah, sure. Nothing. No finger. When did you start getting obsessed with the Dawn Wall? The subject of the movie and we'll link to it in the show notes. Really excellent flick. It's on Netflix. When did you start going, I'm going to do this actually previously impossible thing.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:56:10] So I got really excited about El Capitan specifically shortly after Kyrgyzstan and cutting off my finger actually a little bit before then, but I really got into it after those. And I wanted to find that limit of what I was capable of. It was all an exploration of that. I went and I climbed all the existing routes on that wall and then I started putting up new ones and I spent basically 12 or 14 years of my life just like becoming the expert of that wall essentially. I got totally obsessed by it, but none of the climbs ever took me more than a month. They all went down pretty easy. And so I had this burning desire to see how far I could actually take it. And so since I was so experienced on that wall, I knew that the faces that from afar look completely, absurdly blank, might actually be possible if you train for them enough. So I sort of identified this route, which ultimately became the Dawn Wall to take on as a project. Like all the other routes followed these cracks systems. And this wall didn't have any cracks systems, so to me I was like, maybe this is possible. Everybody else was like, that's stupid. Why would you even think about that? Like there's no way that can be climbed, but since I had spent so much time on there, I was like, man, I could do something. I think that's what appealed to other climbers. Once I started to kind of piece it together as a thing, this route actually might exist, it really started to spark the interest of other climbers because sort of blew their expectations out of the water. It's the most famous big wall in the world. This thing that everybody knew would never be free climb. Here's a guy who says that might be possible.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:36] Yeah, it looks easier to climb a freaking skyscraper or a building or a brick wall that looks to someone like me flat than it does this section of rock, the section of rock. When I'm looking at Netflix and I'm looking close-up, there's a little crack in there where I'm thinking, yeah, if I had a business card, maybe I could slide it in there and it would be...But you're grabbing on to things like that or credit card, edge thick and you're holding yourself up on there somehow.
Tommy Caldwell: [00:58:03] Yeah, I mean that's the appeal. Like you have this 3000 foot tall face and the holds are barely there. You wonder if there's enough there. So you spend all this time trying to figure out the path and you know, the difference between what's climbable and what's not climbable as maybe like a piece of rock the size of a pinhead or something like that. And so it's just this incredible puzzle and so you spend all this time trying to piece together that puzzle, and train yourself to be able to grab onto those small holes. And then figure out all the logistics behind, enduring the amount of time that it will take to live up there for 19 days, which ultimately took to climb the route. There's just so many things to get fascinated by. There's a huge element of memory and then there's the whole partnership side of it. I mean, I don't know, it's just a really cool, fascinating pursuit.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:54] So, you're up there for weeks at a time. Are people sending things down or did you have to carry all the water you were going to need the whole way up?
Tommy Caldwell: [00:59:00] We worked on the climb for seven years and usually what we would do is we would go there at the beginning of the season and we would fix a bunch of ropes to the wall. We'd walked to the top actually, and then repelled down and attached these ropes to the wall, which is kind of like an elevator that allowed us to attach these ascenders to the rope and kind of commute around and work on the hardest sections of the climb. And so we were going up and down pretty constantly for like a month and each time we'd go up we'd bring more supplies and we established a camp basically a third of the way up the wall, which became our base camp for the whole siege. And we had pre-stashed it with a lot of equipment and we would have actually had enough for our whole 19-day ascent, but since it became a documentary film project, we had to sort of like share those supplies with the film team because they have to live up there with you. It was actually an advantage in the end. Like they had to hire essentially a porter to recharge the camera batteries and kind of commute up and down these ropes and we could use that porter and be like, "Can you bring some extra, you know, green M&Ms for us?"
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:02] Yeah, no Brown M&M's. Imagine who gets that job? They're like, so what we need is for you to go up and down this insanely difficult mountain, but you have to carry a bunch of our stuff including bags full of poop.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:00:16] Yeah, totally. No, there's actually plenty of takers. There's a lot of people who want the chance to live in Yosemite and make a little money. And once the ropes are there, it doesn't take a whole lot of skill to go up and down. Like the difficulty lies within trying to free climb. If you're just ascending fixed ropes any relatively experienced climber can figure out how to do that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:35] So you're spending years finding the way to go up this initially. How do you remember how to get up later on that to you? Looks like a walk through my neighborhood does to me. Right. Being on that wall. Because to me it looks like a flat rock to you. It looks like it's a very clear map.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:00:51] I mean we spent an insane amount of time memorizing and my partner Kevin Jorgeson actually had an almost photographic memory for climbing movements from year to year. Like we spent our nights talking about the specifics of the moves in a way that would have made anybody who wasn't trying to climb the route with us totally batty. I mean we would spend hours and hours discussing the nuances of body position and we had to memorize literally tens of thousands of maybe hundreds of thousands of small details and then trying to execute them perfectly. So that's one of the reasons it took so long.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:28] I can imagine. I'm surprised that he didn't even take longer than that to go through and memorize and then do the whole thing. And in some places you guys were stuck for like days on the same pitch, the same stretch of rock. Is that basically what a pitch is? Like the same section of rock.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:01:44] Yeah. So ropes can really climb with 3000-foot ropes. So what you have to do is break the big wall into pitches, which are rope lengths. And you know, usually the ropes have 200 feet long. So you try and find stances or small ledges, but on that wall there's not really ledges, so what we're trying to find is places where there's a big enough whole that we can let go with our hands and we call that a no-hand stance. And so you map it out and you break it from one no-hand stance to the next into pitches. There's 32 pitches and the goal is to climb each one of those 32 pitches in order from bottom to top returning to the ground. But if you fall in one of those pitches, you can return back to the beginning of the pitch. That's kind of like a brief overview of the rules of the game.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:27] That makes sense. Right. It's not like you don't have to do the whole thing in one stretch. You don't have to do all like you are able to reset. You just can't use the rope to pull yourself up. That's basically the main rule...I guess, that and don't die, main rules of this. Most people that I know who are obsessed singularly with things like this are often running from something in their life. Like were you kind of like, "I'm going to focus on this mountain because every stuff behind me as kind of messy."
Tommy Caldwell: [01:02:54] Yeah, yeah. I mean there was an element of that for sure. Like the girl that I mentioned in Kyrgyzstan, Beth, who I later married, my relationship with her broke up around the time or at the time that I decided to really take on the Dawn Wall as a project. And so, you know, like so many great endeavors in life, they're fueled by failed relationships.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:13] Yeah, I feel you. I get it.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:03:16] So there was definitely an element of that. So that's how it started actually. I needed a distraction from the pain of that. But after a few years I just got so fascinated in the project. And then, you know, I met my now current wife who is such an amazing human. And so it really turned towards the positive towards the exploring and sort of like that incredible journey that we're on pretty quickly.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:03:39] This whole thing though, turned into like the moon landing. You know, people were watching this all over the place, but you guys were stuck on the side of the mountain. So I remember Barack Obama and like Ellen and celebrities talking about this kind of stuff on Twitter. I think at the time.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:03:55] It blew up in the media, like and went viral in the media strangely like in a way that we absolutely didn't plan. There's no way we could have anticipated it, but the climb just became very dramatic. Like we were using Instagram on our third year and I was pretty against it at first. I was like, man, this needs to be about us and kind of our own journey for thinking about telling this story to other people. It just takes the soul out of it. But then people enjoyed it so much that a few years later I was like, okay, I kind of feel selfish for just wanting to keep this whole experience to myself. So we kept doing that and so there was a way for the story to get out. And so on that seventh year where we ultimately became successful, a reporter from the New York Times named John Branch picked up the story, pitched it to the newspaper. I think it was a super slow news cycle or something. They picked it for the cover and people were really interested. And so they'd first, they just kind of gave an overview of what was going on, but then they did a profile on me another day, a profile on Kevin another day. They ran a huge photo spread another day and then Kevin started to fail. And so then there's this whole conversation about what's more important in climbing, like the brotherhood and the teamwork or personal success. Because I had the opportunity to go to the top and like leave or should I wait for him. And so it just became this very dramatic long sporting event. I think I've realized that, you know, the Olympics is an event, right? It lasts a couple of weeks or something. And so everybody gets involved. That gives a lot of time for people to learn about it. More people get interested in it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:24] Momentum builds up.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:05:25] The fact that the climb took us so freaking long allowed that momentum to build. Yeah. And so by the time we got to the top, like every news source, you know in the world there were worldwide news reporters in Yosemite, there's like 10 news trucks. We've president was tweeting about us.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:42] How aware were you of this happening while you're up there? Because you're not really, I mean you're not checking your email every day.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:05:49] We have a solar panel with us and you get pretty good 4G service room. Ironically, the best cell service in Yosemite Valley is the El Cap. So we saw it blowing up in the media and at first we were like, whoa, this is crazy. And then pretty quickly we were like, this is a bad distraction. And so Kevin and I were like, okay, we will do like our normal Instagram update once a day, but we're not going to like allow, I think right at the beginning we did an interview with the New York times, another one with NPR and then we just cut it off. We're like nothing else. And then I dropped my phone off the wall.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:28] Did you drop it or did you throw it?
Tommy Caldwell: [01:06:30] I dropped it.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:31] Yeah because I feel like, I'd be like, sorry I dropped it.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:06:34] And so I didn't really have to deal with reading any of the articles, which was super nice at that point. So we were aware we could see it going on, but we didn't really have to deal with it per se until we got to the top.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:46] Do you think differently now about death-defying climbs like this now that you're a father? Because I feel like I might take fewer dangerous trips now that I have my own son who's in the room with us right now being really good.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:06:58] So a lot of the climbing that I do is pretty dangerous. And I think very heavily about that stuff as a father. The Dawn Wall was like the perfect place for me because it actually wasn't all that dangerous. The wall is super sheer, the ropes are strong. You can fall a hundred feet and you don't hit anything. It feels exciting. It feels like it should be dangerous. But if you think about it logically, it's not all that dangerous. So the effect is that that fulfills me, that fulfills that adventurous need, that it's very strong within me in a way that I feel like I can do as a father and be responsible. So that's why I love El Cap. That's why I'm going to go there in a few weeks again and spend another season in Yosemite, because it's the one place that is safe but really adventurous.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:40] And has great cell phone service.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:07:43] Yeah. And I can bring my family, they can camp and they'll love it there.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:46] What do you want to pass down that you learned on El Cap? What you want to pass down to your kids aside from technical climbing skills or outdoor skills? What did you learn on that mountain that you want your kids to know?
Tommy Caldwell: [01:07:56] Well, first I'm not certain I want to pass down in climbing.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:58] Oh really?
Tommy Caldwell: [01:07:59] I mean, I don't know. The risky parts of climbing are kind of addicting and I have a lot of friends that have died and I have some friends whose kids have died and so I get to see that firsthand. What's that? What that's like? And so I don't know, but there are a lot of great things about climbing that make this want to dream big and be part of something that feels so grand and the ability to find grit and suffer through experiences and value growth. And you know, there's so many things that can be really, really great for climbers. The climbing does build and if I can keep them interested in the safe disciplines of climbing, like sport climbing and bouldering, that's just going to be all positive. But the problem is since I've been decent at the more dangerous disciplines of climbing, they might see that as an opportunity and they'd have the tools to go there if they wanted.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:08:46] Sure. Yeah. Like, Oh, I want to make my dad proud. I'm going to do something even more ridiculous than trying to climb the Dawn Wall.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:08:51] Yeah. And in a way that the risky elements of climbing for people who know how to assess that risk are an uneasy way out. Like you can go and do something that other people think is really awesome and that gains you a lot of notoriety without having to put in that much work just because you're able to assess the risk. Whereas the real physical elements of climbing, like sport climbing and bouldering, you actually have to train your ass off and get really good. And even then you most likely will never be noticed.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:22] That crying sound you hear means we're running out of time. So what's next for you? Are you going to kill your white whale with the Dawn Wall? I don't know what you're thinking, but if I were in your shoes, I'd be like, I'm good. I'm going to take it a little bit easy now. But maybe that's not in your nature.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:09:37] Yeah, I don't think taking it easy as in my nature. I mean climbing has been great, but relatively self-serving and I feel like I want to pursue things that have a little bit more purpose. So the last few years of my life have been trying to get comfortable with sharing my stories so that people can maybe, you know, hopefully find a little bit of inspiration from it. These days I'm actually getting into activism work and so who knows, who knows that'll take me. But if it does, it feels more purposeful, like trying to figure out a way to make sure that humanity doesn't totally screw themselves up. It feels a little more valiant than climbing big rock faces.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:14] You got to do one to get the profile to do the other one.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:10:16] That's right. Yeah. I have no regrets, that's for sure.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:19] Tommy, thank you very much, man. It's been fascinating.
Tommy Caldwell: [01:10:21] Yeah, thank you.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:25] Thank you to Tommy Caldwell. That was really interesting, man. What a fascinating guy, but the movie is called The Dawn Wall and it's on Netflix and the book is called The Push available where whoever find books are sold. Links to all that will be in the show notes and there's a video of this interview on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. There are also worksheets for each episode as you know, so you can review what you've learned from Tommy Caldwell. Those are at jordanharbinger.com in the show notes.
[01:10:51] And I'm teaching you how to connect with great people such as Tommy and manage relationships using systems, using tiny habits in just a few minutes a day. And I'm teaching you that for free. So go to jordanharbinger.com/course and don't do it later. Do it now because of course you're going to procrastinate, you'll do it later. You got to dig the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships, you are too late. The drills take a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. Ignore it at your own peril. jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course and the newsletter, so come join us. You'll be in smart company. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and or follow me on social. I'm at Jordan Harbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[01:11:31] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and this episode was produced by Jen Harbinger, Jason DeFillippo, and edited by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. And I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions and those of our guests are their own. And yes, I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which should be in every episode. So please share the show with those you love and even those you don't. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:12:13] This episode is sponsored in part by Better Help. Better Help, this stuff, I wish this had existed years ago. They offer licensed professional counselors who are specialized in issues like depression, stress, anxiety, relationships, sleeping, trauma, anger, family stuff, grief, self-esteem. I feel like I could check off at least half of those at some point in my life, and I know many of you are saying go on. So continue please. So you can connect with your professional counselor in a safe and private online environment. Anything you share is obviously confidential. That makes it convenient. You can do it all on your phone, you don't have to drive across town, find parking, schedule something and then wait in a waiting room. Get help at your own time and at your own pace and in your own place. You could do this from your lunch hour in the parking lot of your car. You can schedule a secure video or phone session. There's chat, there's text, and of course you can always switch therapists if you want to. I think this is a great way for people to dip their toes in the therapy water, especially if they're like, "Ah, I don't want to have to go through the whole rigmarole. You don't have to, there is no rigmarole. Just go to betterhelp.com/jordan. You'll get 10% off your first month with discount code, Jordan. better help.com/jordan. You fill out a little questionnaire. It's really easy. You get paired with the counselor and you start protecting your sanity, so give it a shot and let me know what you think.
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