The Push by Tommy Caldwell review – the hardest rock climb ever

The world-renowned climber who ascended El Capitan’s Dawn Wall has written a memoir as much about relationships as rock faces

n January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgeson completed the first ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite National Park, California, arguably the most difficult rock climb in history. The two attracted global media attention as they reached the summit. Caldwell in particular was already famous among rock climbers, but the Dawn Wall captured imaginations across the world.

The clamor was perhaps unsurprising. The project took seven years of planning, training and strategizing, and the successful attempt required 19 days of living on the wall, sleeping on “portaledges” suspended from the rock face. The climbing was so difficult that most considered the Dawn Wall impossible to ascend “free” (using nothing but hands and feet, with ropes and gear employed only to halt deadly falls). During the building media excitement, it was common to hear that the edges Caldwell and Jorgeson were using in their climb were “no bigger than a dime”. In fact, this was selling them short. Think instead of the blunt edge of a razor blade for fingers and grape-seed-sized bumps for feet.

In the context of Caldwell’s fame, a book deal is no surprise. The result would perhaps be expected to be a collection of the usual platitudes and cliches, the sort of kitsch that characterizes many sporting biographies, but this is not what we get at all. The Push stands out as a genuine achievement in its own right – and is about much more than just climbing.

Presumably Caldwell’s co-writer Kelly Cordes deserves credit for how well written the book is, but even so the authenticity of Caldwell’s voice comes through clearly in passages of well-crafted prose. The Push is also intelligently structured, each chapter interspersed with flashes forward or back, layering the narrative of his life, from awkward childhood to climbing phenomenon. The book is ostensibly divided into four parts, but it is better to see it as a three-part work, capped with a final culminating act – the Dawn Wall ascent – and with each revolving around a significant relationship in Caldwell’s life.

The first concerns his father, a former competitive body-builder who introduced the young Tommy to rock climbing and nurtured his talent. Yet after Caldwell won a competition aged 16 (one he entered at his dad’s insistence), doubts and fears crept in to the father-son relationship. Did his dad love him for who he was, Caldwell wondered, or only for his climbing achievements? Among hyper-masculine sporting men, who can find it difficult to speak about emotions, such questions are liable to fester. Much of the rest of the book is about Caldwell’s working out what kind of son he was, in order to decide what kind of man he wanted to be.

The second part centers on his marriage to his first real girlfriend, Beth Rodden, an elite climber in her own right. A major trauma seems retrospective to have doomed their union from near the start. On a climbing trip to Kyrgyzstan in 2000, Caldwell, Rodden, and two others were taken hostage by Islamist rebels, who murdered a Kyrgyz soldier in front of them, before force-marching the Americans in circles for days. Eventually, they escaped after Caldwell pushed one of their captors into a ravine. The incident left them deeply affected. Rodden in particular – who had tried to break up with Caldwell a few weeks before the trip – fell into depression. She felt smothered by his love and eventually left him for a mutual friend.


The third part of the book is about the relationship Caldwell developed to come to terms with the subsequent divorce, and an estrangement from his father. Here the relationship is not with a person, but a 3,000ft face of sheer granite in central California. It was by taking on the apparently impossible Dawn Wall that he found a way, he writes, to work through his pain. Over the seven years of preparation, he grew and matured, became reconciled with his father, met his second wife and became a father. His wife and son become star players in the story.

View jonhrobinson's Full Portfolio