My fascination with Tommy Caldwell began in 1989. I was 16 years old and took a climbing lesson from his father, Mike, a guide in Estes Park, CO. During a hailstorm we retreated to his family’s cabin, and he bragged about his 9 year old son Tommy who could do 50 pullups. A few years later I started entering climbing competitions, and 14 year old Tommy won them all.
By 2003 I was making climbing movies, and I filmed Tommy for the first time in Smith Rock, OR. His maniacal passion for climbing, aw-shucks humility, and unflagging optimism were an inspiration to me, so we began filming together year after year. 5 years after I first met Tommy, he told me about The Dawn Wall, a theoretical route up the steepest, most daunting section of the 3,000 foot tall El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. He’d spent years re-defining the limits of big wall free climbing on other El Cap routes, but The Dawn Wall represented a quantum leap forward in difficulty.
Our first foray shooting footage on The Dawn Wall was a revelation. Tommy was in the early phases of exploring the wall, searching for a line that might someday be possible, if not for him, then perhaps for future generations of climbers. He was a thousand feet up, taking huge falls, trying insane moves, like an 8 foot sideways leap through the air from hold to hold. He seemed like a man possessed, on a mission that was obviously impossible and I had the sense that for Tommy, the idea of The Dawn Wall was about much more than the climb itself.
Another 7 years and countless attempts later, Tommy and his climbing partner Kevin pursue on another push on The Dawn Wall. Tommy managed to complete one of the hardest sections of the route, reaching a new high point in his effort to do the whole climb from bottom to top. It was a thrilling moment for those in the climbing world who had been following his journey and for the first time, there was a real chance of success.