Tommy Caldwell, Professional Climber
From dodging militant rebel bullets while dangling off a cliff in Kyrgyzstan to walking directly into a stormy mountain pass, mountaineer and climber Tommy Caldwell has known extreme conditions.
But in January 2015, he topped them all (literally) when he free climbed the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson. Over the course of 19 days (and nights), the pair ascended 3,000 feet of menacing granite. Curious how one manages to rest while suspended thousands of feet in the mountain air, we interviewed Tommy about his bedtime routine while on expedition.
Not everyone is familiar with what a climbing expedition entails, namely sleeping on a portaledge. Break it down for us…in beginner’s terms.
When a climber is on a big wall, they often spend multiple consecutive days on a single cliff face. On especially steep and sheer cliffs, this means sleeping in a hanging tent called a portaledge. A portaledge is essentially a piece of nylon stretched taught between a metal frame – much like a lawn chair – with a tent that can be pitched around it. The portaledge creates a horizontal surface to rest on.
How does the anticipation of a new expedition affect your sleep? Do your nerves keep you up?
The anticipation can definitely make it hard to sleep. Usually these big climbs are very exciting, and the logistics are incredibly complicated. The night before starting a big wall climb is often spent virtually sleepless. Once I am on the wall, sleep is usually not a problem. A portaledge is quite comfortable compared to hanging in your harness or clinging onto the side of the wall. And each night you are quite tired because of the amount of physical output during the day.
Describe the first time you slept on a portaledge.
I was seventeen years old and climbing El Capitan with my dad. We slept in an unbelievably exposed location two thousand feet off the ground. Once you get a portaledge set up, and you get settled in – it actually can feel more cozy than sleeping at home. It provides relief from the relentless exposure, and it gives you a horizontal surface to rest on after spending all day climbing or hanging from your harness.
How has your comfort level changed since then? Are certain conditions superior to others? Please explain.
I have now spent several hundred nights sleeping in portaledges. It is my realm; I love the adventure, and I crave time on big walls.
Winding down before falling asleep when you are suspended thousands of feet from the ground seems difficult and unsettling. What are some rituals that help you calm down before ‘bed’?
I really just have to get in my sleeping bag and lie down. Sleep comes fast when you are up on the wall.
Do you dream differently when you are on the portaledge? For example, do you have falling dreams when sleeping on the side of a rock?
I don’t have falling dreams, although I do seem to dream more. I think it has something to do with the fact that the portaledge tends to shift whenever you or your climbing partner stirs during sleep – that wakes me up just enough to remember my dreams.
As someone who is frequently on expedition – and an alpine schedule that requires waking up as early as 2am – your body endures a lot of extreme conditions. How do you recover from these trips and resume a ‘normal’ sleep schedule?
If I have one God-given-gift in this world, it is probably that of sleep. I can fall asleep quickly no matter where I am. I have fallen asleep mid sentence while talking to friends. I have fallen asleep while sitting upright on a small ice ledge, without a sleeping bag, in the midst of teeth chattering shivers. I also have a little problem with getting up in the middle of the night to go out climbing, but resuming a normal sleep schedule doesn’t seem to be much of problem.
You have a home (outfitted with our fog linen bedding) in arguably one of the most picturesque places in the country – Estes Park, Colorado. But where is your favorite place to sleep?
My favorite place to sleep is on the summit of El Capitan. I have spent many nights there. The air smells of pine, the views are incredible and you always end up watching the sun rise and set.
Do you bring a little piece of home, like a photograph or memento, on your climbing expeditions? What can you not sleep without on these excursions?
I do have a plethora of photos of my family on my iPhone. I pull them up often when I am away. As sad as it sounds, my phone is probably the only thing I always have with me.
Climbing El Capitan is a feat requiring years of planning and preparation. When it all came together, what was your most challenging moment during the experience and why? Was it something you anticipated or an obstacle you didn’t foresee?
Before my little boy, Fitz, was born, I worried about whether I would be able make time to pursue my dream of climbing the Dawn Wall. I made what I thought was going to be my last attempt while my wife, Becca, was several months pregnant. I battled for 16 days and ultimately failed. I figured the project was over. Once Fitz was born, I realized that the Dawn Wall embodied many of my most cherished values – so I continued the quest with even more vigor than before.
For those of you who are still curious about what it is like to climb El Capitan, you can now experience The Nose (arguably the most famous route on El Capitan) through Tommy’s perspective via his partnership with Google Maps.