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Climbing Legend Tommy Caldwell On Recovery And His Return to Action

Slowing Tommy Caldwell down isn’t easy. 

The man who National Geographic refers to as “arguably the best all-around rock climber on the planet”, continues to be one of the faces of the sport while also advocating for the outdoors and sustainability.

From a successful book to his acclaimed 2017 documentary, The Dawn Wall, Caldwell has built a huge profile in the sport, and by conquering new big wall climbs in places like Yosemite, Caldwell has pushed what was believed to be humanly possible. Over the last two decades, he and fellow climbers like Alex Honnold have helped usher in new attention and interest in rock climbing for outdoors lovers.

Despite Caldwell’s endless pursuit of finding what’s next, his career recently hit its first big roadblock in years. In February 2022, Caldwell ruptured his Achilles while climbing in Yosemite, and he’s spent the last year and a half dealing with the injury and working to get back to the adventures that drive him forward.

“Usually, I stay away from the single pitch stuff, but that’s just because I’m afraid of hitting the ground generally,” says Caldwell with a laugh over a video call from his home in Colorado. The injury happened on a route at Yosemite called Magic Line, a shorter climb, but at the high climbing grade of 5.14, it’s something only tackled by elite climbers. “Sure enough, I fell on the crux and didn’t hit the ground. I kind of swung in really hard. It just started kind of a saga, like, turns out Achilles injuries are not good ones.”

The road back would last over a year, and lead to multiple surgeries, rehabbing work and more. Only recently has Caldwell returned to the climbing wall, sharing his enthusiasm with frequent climbing partner Honnold on his Instagram

Despite essentially being grounded, he says he managed to keep his head up and enjoyed spending extra time with his family and focusing on other projects he’s passionate about.

“It was just really great intentional time with my family. It probably allowed me to focus more on that,” says Caldwell. “So, I mean, honestly, my morale was surprisingly great throughout. I’ve been really, really pleasantly surprised. I thought that I would struggle. I think if I was 22-years-old and this were to happen, it would be way harder on my morale. But these days, I’m a little more patient. “

Caldwell hasn’t spent too much time sidelined throughout his career. The climber believes it’s a combination of genetics and the fact he started climbing so young that, for the most part, he’s remained injury free. Plus, he says he’s never relied too much on his finger strength, which has helped him avoid pulley injuries that often plague climbers.

“I think if I was 22-years-old and this were to happen, it would be way harder on my morale. But these days, I’m a little more patient. “

Tommy Caldwell

However, there is one major exception. Early in Caldwell’s professional career, he cut part of his left index finger during a woodcutting accident. The incident would end the climbing career of many, but Caldwell bounced back.

Image by Corey Rich

To even his own surprise, the Achilles injury presented a different and, at times, longer road back. 

“When I chopped off my finger, it didn’t matter how hard I pushed. It was kind of like the harder, the better. My finger was gone. I wasn’t going to injure it again,” says Caldwell. “I actually even stepped it up because of my finger. With this injury (the Achilles), I kind of had the same mentality. I was like, oh, I’ll just keep climbing, I’ll focus on my finger strength, and this will help my climbing. Whereas in reality, with this injury, it just needed me to be a little bit more chill.”

Just six weeks after the initial surgery repair, Caldwell started climbing in his orthopedic boot, only to partially re-rupture his Achilles. This time he took a break and rested for a full six months, but during a physical therapy session, he once again ruptured his Achilles, and needed another surgery. 

This time around, doctors replaced the tendon with a cadaver part. That’s when surgeons use donated tissue from a deceased person to make the repair. Think of it almost like a transplant. 

Despite some issues, the added tissue has thickened, and Caldwell has slowly begun climbing again and returning to what he loves.

“Right now, it seems like it’s going really good. I feel strong. I can do almost everything,” says Caldwell. “I’ve been running and climbing a lot. I’m avoiding, like, big impact, but it’s just been a saga.”

At 44-years-old, Caldwell is aware that his recovery is a different process than what he would experience 20 years ago. He says he would have been more focused on building up his finger strength and overall power to make him a stronger climber. However, today, it’s more important for Caldwell mentally to spend time in the place he loves, the outdoors.

Caldwell grew up in the Rocky Mountains and started climbing at a young age with his father. He managed to turn his love for being outside into a profession when he started winning rock climbing competitions. This eventually led to endorsement deals with companies like Patagonia. In recent years, the popular clothing brand has positioned him as one of the company’s faces on environmental protection and climate change. 

Caldwell has taken his passions from the backcountry to the steps of Washington, DC. His fight to protect natural spaces and resources is ongoing. While it has been a priority for years, his break from climbing allowed him to spend more time on these efforts.

“I dove pretty deeply into the Oak Flat mining issue during that time,” says Caldwell on the area of Tonto National Forest that is in a legal fight over becoming a copper mine. “Another big Patagonia initiative is Tongass National Forest, and so I’ve kind of dove into that here and there.”

The latter is the inspiration for Caldwell’s next big adventure. 

Image by Corey Rich

Located in Alaska, Tongass National Forest is the center of a logging debate, with advocates fighting for better protections to save this wild place. Caldwell plans on biking this summer from his home in Colorado to Alaska. Of course, there are plenty of climbing stops along the way.

“I mean, the main reason for wanting to do that is just I’m starved for adventure right now, so this will be a pretty mega-adventure,” says Caldwell. “But the sort of side reason, and the reason I thought of it about it originally, is because there’s this big kind of ongoing old growth extraction fight. One thing when I know there are environmental fights out there, I’m like, is there climbing there? And can I use the climbing to help the outdoor world know more about this place and therefore want to protect it?”

The ride is a full plate of climbing for Caldwell, who says the trip is basically multiple summers worth of climbing destinations. The bike journey is a big relief for Caldwell, who first saw his adventures slow down due to pandemic restrictions and was further delayed due to his injury. 

Caldwell has no plans to slow down his climbing efforts now but knows that as he gets older, he may reprioritize, especially when it comes to the environment. 

“I feel like it’s a little bit of a sliding scale. Seventy or 80% of my sort of mental energy is focused on the climbing side, and then the other 30% is the environmental side,” says Caldwell. “I feel those scales will slide as I do get a little bit older, and inevitably I’m not going to be able to rage quite the same way that I could when I was younger. And so I’ll just put more of that energy into the environmental stuff because I’m super passionate about it, and I find it noble.”

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