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Michael Joseph is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com.

First published in the United States of America by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC 2017

First published in Great Britain by Michael Joseph 2017

Copyright © Tommy Caldwell, 2017

Photograph credits

Insert page 1 (here, here), 2 (here), 3: Terry Caldwell

1 (here), 2 (here), 4 (here, here): Mike Caldwell

4 (here): Estes Park Elementary School

5 (here, here): Jim Thornburg

6, 9 (here): Topher Donahue

7, 8 (here), 9 (here), 10 (here, here, here), 11, 14 (here, here), 16 (here, here): Corey Rich Productions/Novus Select

8 (here): Associated Press

9 (here): © Nate Ptacek

10 (here): Tommy Caldwell

12–13: Brett Lowell/Big Up Productions

15: Jimmy Chin

16 (here): Caldwell Family Collection

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Cover design by Reese Spykerman

Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences and the words are the author’s alone.

ISBN: 978-1-405-92475-7

Penguin Books

For Becca, Fitz, and Ingrid


December 30, 2014. Day four, year seven, the Dawn Wall. Twelve hundred vertical feet climbed free, eighteen hundred to go.

We hear the wind racing from a half mile away, a roar in the darkness mixed with the pitch of a scream. The volume rises, drowning out all other sounds. We sit like gargoyles, legs stuffed in sleeping bags, backs against the wall. Kevin, my climbing partner, clutches the straps of our hanging tent and forces a smile. I can read his lips: “Hold on tight.” A deafening whap-a-pap-pap resounds with the cadence of a machine gun. It’s just fabric slapping the granite, but an involuntary shiver rattles inside me, shaking loose a decade-and-a-half-old memory born from the smell of exploding rock and visions of blood pooling onto the alpine tundra.

A sudden updraft swirls beneath the portaledge—our home, roughly the size of a sheet of plywood, with nylon strung between the aluminum frame and draped over its top. The floor begins to lift, and for a moment we hover in space, as if riding a magic carpet. I picture the three-eighths-inch stainless steel bolt from which we and all of our gear hang. Then the wind abruptly stops and the portaledge crashes down, straps snapping tight.

Each morning starts the same. I wake thinking about how to unlock the puzzle above. We brew coffee in our little perch and sit in awe as first light graces us—this part of the monolith of El Capitan, in Yosemite Valley, California, has long been known as the Dawn Wall. I brush my teeth, swish water in my mouth, and poke my head outside. I watch my toothpaste fall as I count one, two, three … at around ten the white blob disappears into the forest below.

I pause and stare at my nine fingertips, cut, raw, but holding together. I often think of how this massive climb hinges on tiny details. Millimeters of skin contact and molecules of healing will make or break our ascent.

I gaze across the glacier-carved valley, and to the peaks unfolding on the horizon. I watch falcons tackle swallows in midair. Each day I feel the magnitude of my excitement in my restless legs. It’s strange. In most ways I’m a pretty normal guy—self-conscious, shy at times, awkward. On the wall it’s like I come alive; this place changes me. It always has. I take a deep breath and turn to the sheer face rising above.

Nobody had ever believed it possible to free climb the Dawn Wall, using only one’s body (primarily fingers and toes) for upward progress, truly climbing, without relying on direct aid from the equipment to hoist oneself up. Legendary figures in the climbing world, some of whom I remember from my childhood, hanging out at our house with my dad, had long wondered if an ascent of El Capitan by any means was even possible. When the first ascent came, in 1958, it was a quantum leap. In subsequent years, countless climbers had made their way to the top following various routes. But freeing the Dawn Wall remained inconceivable. It existed as a kind of “here be dragons” on mental maps of the vertical landscape, virtually featureless and smooth.

Because of my father, I’d fallen for climbing long before I’d fallen for anything or anyone else. For me, free climbing the Dawn Wall is an act of purity. Getting to the top under my own power, unaided, is a way to express myself and my love of climbing and life in the grandest form and on the largest scale possible. If successful, and perhaps even if not, I’d validate not only my years of planning, but the entirety of my life.

When trying the hard pitches—which is pretty much all of them—I notice my mind an instant before my body. If doubt creeps in, even the tiniest bit, I hesitate. Just for a moment. Then my feet start to slip, my core starts to sag. I pull too hard with my hands, eroding precious layers of skin while trying to maintain my body position. To an observer, it happens in minute, imperceptible ways—until that micro shift pulls me from the wall and I soar through the air, racing toward the ground, sometimes falling as far as sixty feet but along a wall so steep that I hit nothing. The rope stretches, absorbing the impact and safely, softly, arresting my fall.

Sometimes, in those seconds after falling, a cascade of emotions flows through me. I drop my head to my chest in frustration and embarrassment. I question my strength, my balance, my willingness to endure. Other times, most times, I’m almost absurdly optimistic. In how many other areas in life do you get to test yourself over and over and over? How many other endeavors give you such immediate feedback? I analyze, regroup, and try again. You’ve got this. You know you do. Fears quiet, thoughts calm, mastery of the body and mind come into focus. Nothing else exists but that hold, that sequence of moves over stone, the information being sent from fingertips to brain. The vast world reduced to the size and span of my body as I force myself to override even the most rational doubts.

Rock climbing is a game of control.

When we aren’t climbing, Kevin and I mostly talk about movement. The nuances of body position, the angle at which our toes contact a nearly invisible ripple of rock, how we place our fingers on a dime-thin edge in just the right way, in just the right sequence, with just the right combination of balance and body tension and footwork. At night I lie awake, visualizing the climbing, willing precision and perfection to wire itself into my body and brain. On the rock we rehearse the movement like gymnasts or ballet dancers, until we can flow from one position to the next. When things go well, we experience magic.

Sometimes, sitting on the portaledge between attempts, legs dangling over the edge, I think back seven years to the beginning of this journey-turned-obsession. To the countless days I’ve spent hauling heavy bags of gear and water up the wall, how I stuff my feet into shoes so tight that I sometimes lose toenails, and how I grab the same razor-sharp flakes over and over and over until my fingertips bleed and my muscles tremble.

In reality it’s been far more than seven years.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of a raging blizzard, the wind roaring like it is now. My sister was six, I three, still in diapers, and we were nuzzled inside a single down sleeping bag beside our father, deep in a snow cave, high in the mountains of Colorado. I shone my little silver flashlight on the ceiling of the cave and watched it turn blue. I listened to the muffled sounds of the wind and my dad’s snoring just inches away. Every few hours he would wake, unzip his sleeping bag, put on his ski boots, and go outside to shovel the newly fallen snow so that we wouldn’t get trapped. Then, as he lay back down, he would wrap us in his arms and squeeze us tight. We would snuggle close and fall back asleep, knowing that everything would be okay.

My first forays onto El Capitan were also with my dad, nineteen years ago, when I was still in high school. I found the exposure nauseating. I would glance down for a spot to place my foot and my focus would shift. Straight below, giant trees that looked like miniature broccoli sprouts would begin to spin, and my concentration would slip.

After all this time, I finally realize that these years of training, rehearsing, memorizing—they’re as much, or maybe more, about building belief as they are about getting stronger.

The storm slows to a momentary lull, and I unzip the portaledge and peer outside, staring at the forest below, barely visible in the moonlight. El Cap meadow is, for once, void of human life. Roads in the park are closed due to the threat of falling trees. I turn my head and iridescent oceans of gold and white granite sparkle under a sea of stars. For the millionth time, a childlike wonder runs through me.

As I look into the night, again my thoughts drift. This time, my heart travels with them. A thousand feet below and less than three miles away, both close and terribly far, is the Upper Pines Campground. It’s where we park our van when I’m climbing. I picture the drawn curtains and candlelight, and a recurring scene described by my wife, Becca. Inside, she tenderly strokes her thumb across the forehead of our one-and-a-half-year-old son, Fitz. Scattered around the bed of the van are books about animals. Tucked tightly in his chubby little hands, nestled under his neck, is a toy cement mixer. Becca sings good-night songs and Fitz’s eyelids fade to slits.

Something triggers his little mind and he sits up, looks around, and asks, “Where’s Daddy?” Becca smiles. She brushes his head with her hand and says, strong but sweet, “He’s climbing El Cap.”

I’ve known this wall longer than I’ve known them.

Despite the discrepancy of time, my love for them far exceeds my love of the wall. It springs from something inside me that I seldom probe and infrequently check or test. I don’t take them for granted; I just know in ways beyond words that the protection they provide me will hold.

Outside, again the wind howls like ghosts, reminding me that our luck can’t last forever. We’ve got a perfect window, unheard-of winter conditions—dry, crisp, safe. Once the snow falls, it melts and then freezes to the rock, then melts again when the sun hits, sending terrifying sheets of ice roaring down—half joking, we call them widowmakers.

Another violent gust blasts us, shaking the portaledge and drowning out the tinny scratch of Bob Marley on our portable speakers.

“Even though New Year’s Eve isn’t until tomorrow, I say we party tonight,” Kevin says.

He turns up the volume and we sing along, swilling whiskey and talking about good things, light things—life, relationships, and exploring places near and far—until our eyelids flutter and we fade. I feel my heart beating slowly, strongly, as if carried by gifts from the people I love.

The wind finally abates, rocking me like a lullaby. The forecast for tomorrow is clear and cool. I drift off to sleep, floating in the breeze midway between earth and the impossible.

Part One

Chapter One

The steady and percussive clink, clink, clink of metal hitting granite echoes off the towering rocks that border my parents’ property. The shovel handle briefly blocks my vision before I bring the tool down again. Its impacts rattle my five-year-old bones. My efforts produce sparks, a handful of fractured rock, and a dulled shovel blade. I scoop the pebbles into a one-gallon bucket then continue to chip away. After an hour the bucket is full. I climb out of the shallow hole and empty the contents onto a growing pile. A slight, satisfied smile flashes across my face. I squint against the bright Colorado sunshine. I slip back into the earth before anyone detects my presence.

I’m determined to make it to China. Sandy, my older sister, had planted the seed a few months earlier. Showing me a globe, she pointed out “here” for Colorado and “there” for China. I’d imagined the quickest route. What would the world look like if the sky was down and the ground was up?

The first few inches of digging went surprisingly fast. Then I hit bedrock. That’s when the soft sibilance of a shovel easing its way through sand and silt turned to metal scraping stone.

I keep at it. I grow to crave the fleeting feeling of satisfaction from my efforts. Progress is slow, not quite a geological-age slow, but nearly. Every day, in some small way, I measure my progress and drink from that well of successes. When the garden spade breaks I rummage through the toolshed and find a trenching shovel. Later, I use a miner’s pick that takes all my strength to lift over my head. When the winter winds rage and snow flurries float off the Continental Divide, I pull on a wool hat and keep going.

For more than two years I dig. The one constant is the sound of the shovel and the chalk scent of the earth. Somehow, someway, I am going to get there.

I barely drew my first breath. My mother, Terry, very nearly died while delivering me into this world. If it’s true, as some say, that how you start is how you finish, then my exit is also going to be fraught with scratching and clawing and near misses. That’s okay. Life is all about risk and reward. Better to have struggled, to have tried, than to not have seized an opportunity at all. Struggle is how I started and struggle is how I will probably finish.

Sometime after my sister Sandy was born in 1975, my mother had the first of three miscarriages. Her doctors told her and my dad, Mike, that there was little chance of having another child. I can’t say that they kept digging but something like that. They assessed the risks and decided they could handle the consequences.

In mid-July of 1978, while carrying me into my third trimester, my mother began hemorrhaging. My dad rushed her to the hospital, where the doctors gave her a medication that could stop the bleeding but carried high risks of complications. Their intervention worked. The bleeding stopped. She returned home but was sick every day.

At thirty weeks she went into labor. The doctors fed an alcohol drip into her veins to stop the contractions; that measure nearly killed her. She rebounded after a few days and was released with instructions to rest as much as possible, and to stay calm—not easy given her past issues with fertility and childbirth and while looking after my three-year-old sister. On August 10, she went into labor again. She was delirious, her blood pressure dangerously high. The next morning they induced her.

At thirty-three weeks I made my entrance into the world, hovering around four and a half pounds, too early for fully developed lungs, but alive. Family lore has it that despite my size and fragility I came out screaming. My parents had no time to celebrate, however, because my mom was hemorrhaging badly. Emergency surgery. She has no memory of my birth. I had no sucking reflex and couldn’t maintain body heat.

Many times, I’m told, the doctors feared I wouldn’t survive. They kept me in the hospital for ten days before sending me home on the promise that my parents bring me in for daily checkups. There, in Loveland, Colorado, under my parents’ nurturing, I thrived. After three months I had tripled my body weight.

As I look back, I wonder if something instinctual, born of my struggles on that hot August day in 1978, always made me try harder. As if from the start, something fierce beat inside my tiny heart. Not giving up seemed to come naturally to me. My parents hadn’t, and their willingness to believe in my existence gave me life.

Leave it to my dad to put his stamp on those events. He referred to me frequently as their “Miracle Baby.” I never asked why they never resorted to the kind of overprotective boy-in-a-bubble treatment you might expect given the tenuous circumstances of my birth.

All I can say is that I’m grateful that in many ways they just let me be. They didn’t want my rough start to cast a shadow on my childhood. From my earliest days they allowed me the kind of independence that many of my peers didn’t have—whether it was my period of digging, or the times in early elementary school when I went solo camping in the mountains several miles above our home. In solitude, I felt more deeply immersed in my surroundings. It felt natural. I don’t remember how my parents reacted to my camping trips, but I went multiple times, with enough PB&J sandwiches to keep me going. It’s easy to imagine my father’s blessing (it was most likely his suggestion in the first place) and my mother’s “oh, well” look of resignation.

My dad grew up in the Bay Area of California. His father worked as an engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. They were solidly middle class and education was important to the family. Even more, it seems, Dad’s parents wanted their kids to be strong and independent. My dad told me stories of the kayak he built for himself and the adventures he had with it. His parents encouraged his curiosity. I don’t know how they felt about the gunpowder bombs he built and the homemade rocket he fired through a neighbor’s garage door, but they did buy him a chemistry set. I guess they figured they’d guide his munitions work in a more productive direction.

On a Boy Scout trip to the Minarets in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they camped near a group of climbers. The scoutmaster recognized that this was a rare species of creatures, which might be of interest to his thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys. He invited the climbers over. Around a campfire, the climbers entertained the kids with their stories. My dad was intrigued, and upon returning home he bought a book called The Freedom of the Hills, a kind of Old Testament work from the early days of climbing. He started experimenting with aid climbing locally on Mount Tam with a bunch of his buddies. It took off from there. He hinted that he did some pretty crazy things, but seldom elaborated. All I knew was that whenever we were outdoors and active, I could see a look in his eye that was a mix of awe and audacity.

Then, for a while, after he married and moved to Colorado, climbing took a backseat to a different obsession. Before I was born, my dad converted our detached garage into a weight lifting gym and took up bodybuilding. He soon started competing on the circuit. Mr. Colorado, 1976. Mr. Mid-America, 1980. He posed against the likes of Lou Ferrigno (the original Incredible Hulk from the TV show) and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He could do ten consecutive one-arm pull-ups, and he applied his training mentality to practically everything. He was a fitness freak with an outsized sense of adventure. As a two-year-old with buck teeth and freckles I would stand in the doorway and watch my dad bust out sets of curls with eighty-pound dumbbells, or hang upside-down, suspended by metal ankle cuffs with inverted hooks over a pull-up bar, letting out guttural growls with each inverted sit-up. Sweat dripped into the vertical fissure that ran from his chest to his navel. Short shorts and high tube socks with horizontal yellow lines encircled his bulging calves.

I was fascinated by it all. I was the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling, except that I wouldn’t achieve that milestone weight until late in high school. Some of my earliest memories are of a variety of squat, bulging men—my dad’s friends—wandering onto our property, walking that stiff monkeylike walk of the overmuscled, heading toward the weight stacks, the benches, and the racks. Grunts, shouts, and the metallic sounds of forty-five-pound plates banging together reverberated off the cement walls. Dumbbells and barbells dropped onto racks my father had fashioned from scrap metal and bonded into place with his buzz box welder.

Roars of human effort resounded over the strains of REO Speedwagon’s “Take It On the Run” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Watching these older men press, squat, and deadlift weights, and then flex, their eyes fixed on whatever muscle or muscle group they hoped to develop, was like having the circus perpetually coming to town. I wanted to do whatever it was that my dad did; I learned to flex and pose before I learned to walk or talk. The laughs and applause I got and the high fives I gave fed my scrawny spirit.

Having a real life comic book character as a father probably warped my view of reality. A page in the family photo album shows a Polaroid of my dad in a red banana hammock, oiled muscles glistening, flashing a huge smile beneath his frizzy, dirty dishwater, beauty-salon-applied perm. He is flexing like a beast. Beside it is a shot of me, age two, knees wrapped just like my dad’s, with a barbell on my back, doing squats.

What kid wouldn’t want to emulate his dad, especially when he saw his father performing heroic deeds in real life? His encouragement—if you call it that—came early and in multiple forms. In my family, gifts were never simply doled out. They had strings attached. As far back as when I was three, when I received a Spider-Man kite for my birthday, it came with the requirement that its inaugural flight occur from the top of a rock spire. Since bodybuilding wasn’t much of a family affair, rock climbing and skiing were regular weekend outings.

A short drive from our home in Loveland, above the east end of Estes Park, rises a series of gray granite domes dotting the skyline, ranging from small boulders to buttresses eight hundred feet high. We hiked uphill for a half hour to the base of a formation called Twin Owls, so named because it resembles a pair of three-hundred-foot granite owls nuzzled together. Dad strapped me into a homemade full body harness—seatbelt webbing wrapped around me in a series of loops and turns. I pulled on my climbing shoes, which my dad had made by ripping the soles off a pair of my little hiking boots and gluing on pieces of sticky climbing rubber. Our route was a dirty, bat-guano-infested chimney called the Bowels of the Owls.

At the start, a deep dark cave disappeared into the depths of the mountain. As if the climbing looming overhead wasn’t exciting enough, my dad told me that mountain lions might live inside, and that I should carry a stick to poke them in the eye if one attacked. I can still hear his booming laugh echoing from the walls as he started up.

He went first, leading the way while dragging a rope behind him. After about one hundred feet he built an anchor and belayed my sister up. I went third, and since the climbing was above my ability level, my dad winched me up—my arms and legs flailed against the rock, scraping the skin off my knees, as my dad cheered me on. My mom went last, and then we repeated the process to the top.

On the summit we were surrounded by sky, with the town and the valley splayed out far below. We launched my kite, cheering in unison as it danced in the wind. It was my first roped climb, and, in my parents’ eyes, that was the moment that I officially became a climber. I didn’t see it that way. All I knew was that I’d done something that was fun and that pleased my parents. That was enough.

On another family outing, when I was maybe four, we took a climbing trip to the Vedauwoo Recreation Area in Wyoming. It’s famous for its rocky bluffs, some of them adjacent to the campsites. We pulled in at night, our car’s headlights slicing into a small bustling group of teenagers moving like wind-blown weeds. Once we got out of the car, we saw them pointing and heard their freaked-out voices. One of their buddies had climbed up a cliff, fallen, and landed on a ledge. He was dazed and bruised, perched some thirty feet from the top.

My dad went into action. Even though we had a bunch of climbing gear with us, he figured that time mattered. He began his free solo—trailing a rope but not bothering to place any protection. He Spider-Manned his way up the formation. I stood in the darkness with Sandy and my mom, craning my neck. I felt my mom’s hand on my shoulder, grabbing tighter as my dad rose in the night sky. It seemed as if only seconds had passed before he was back on the ground with the kid. The trembling teen could barely stand, so my dad held him up. Multiple thank yous, and you’re amazing, and that was so rad, wrapped us all in a kind of group hug. My dad waved it all off and pitched our tent. I went to sleep snuggled in a sleeping bag, encased in the belief that my dad could do no wrong, that he could keep everyone safe.

If my dad was a superhero, outsized in temperament and tenacity, my mom was the classic wallflower. She was petite, nearly frail, with the quiet and sweet demeanor of a saint. My mom looked like a librarian, with large, thick-lensed, gold-rimmed glasses that magnified her kind eyes. Nurturing came naturally to her. When she was only eight years old and living in Pasadena, California, her mother fell terribly ill and was bedridden for years. Since her father spent nearly all of his time working and believed in traditional sixties gender roles, my mom spent her childhood changing diapers and cooking meals for her dad and her three younger brothers. I don’t think she ever learned how to play.

Maybe that’s why she married my dad. Despite being a kind of mismatch, it was clear they loved each other deeply. When my mom was pacing the house stressing about something or other, my dad would walk in, take her in his arms, and start groping and kissing her until she laughed and my sister wailed in protest. It seemed as much about shocking us kids as it was about loving my mom. His mischievous smirk compensated for her furrowed brow. Her selflessness filled the holes left by his pride.

They met in college, at the University of California, Berkeley. When they entered in 1968, the place was a hotbed of antiwar and other antiauthoritarian protests. All peace and love. The flower power hippie stuff was part of their coming of age. It rooted in them a sense that you should do something meaningful with your life. It also fed my father’s optimistic view of human nature. Everything was beautiful in its own way and nature could transform our lives and embolden our spirits. In an interesting bit of irony, despite their both being products of the psychedelic sixties, they never smoked dope. Not then or later. Heck, maybe it helped draw them together—they were probably the only ones left.

Much later in life, I learned that my mother had to nurture my dad early in their marriage. He was ambitious but scattered. He wanted to become a teacher, but he lacked the focus to do a proper job search. According to her, in those days he’d fallen under the spell of the climbing community—a counterculture bunch who rejected materialism and the conventional lives most people lived. Think hippies with a love of rock and testing their limits. They were, like a lot of wild children, into drugs. But my dad’s experiences as an athlete—he was first a gymnast—meant he wanted to keep the temple of his body pure.

My dad usually needed to believe that he made all the choices and decisions, but Mom sensed that if he was going to really make a go of teaching, she’d have to step in. Yet she had to be subtle. So she initiated his job search, nudging him along. A teaching offer in Loveland is how they landed in the Rocky Mountain State.

By the time I came along, it seems, all that planning and trying to control life had worn at my mom. Who can blame her? I shared living quarters for the first years of my life with a dozen wards of the state of Colorado. My mom ran a twenty-four-hour, in-house care center where kids of various ages were temporarily placed with us. I have this lasting impression of her racing around, corralling a dirt-smeared kid while dandling a baby in one hand and tossing a mini soccer ball into a bin with the other. In old photos she looks frazzled, wearing oversized sweatpants with worn-out cuffs that dragged on our green shag carpeting. Though I didn’t know the term, many of the kids were likely to have been diagnosed as “behaviorally disordered.” All I knew was that they were loud and frequently verging on seismic outbursts that shook my internal Richter scale.

Part of the reason I loved digging was probably that it got me out of our chaotic house. Maybe it’s the same reason my dad spent so much time working out.

Over the years, reality would chip away at the heroic image I had of my father. When I see the old photos of him posing and ridiculously jacked, I realize it was before most people understood the detrimental side effects of steroids. Back then, bodybuilders got prescriptions from their family doctors. And I never recall witnessing my father act out in violence or anger. But when I scour my memory banks, I remember a fist-sized hole in a hallway wall. It was like viewing one of those “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzles from Highlights magazine. Maybe the shining image I held of my dad blinded me, because at the time I quickly dismissed this distortion, and a few others. They were so rare.

Looking back, however, I see glimpses of other moments that rattle my perfect perceptions of my childhood. When I was four and Sandy was six, my dad led the four of us on a cross-country skiing excursion. Though the sun was shining, the wind howled and whipped up snow devils that stung our cheeks and noses and watered our eyes. Being out when most remained inside made us special (as my dad reminded us, repeatedly, while exhorting us to press on and share his belief that this adventure was awesome). At one point I was lagging behind, and a ski skated out from beneath me. I slid down a small incline into a narrow ravine with a creek. A crust of ice had formed on each side of the stream. My skis spanned the edges of the crust, and suddenly I flipped upside down, dangling with my head inches above the frigid, rushing water.

I could smell the water and the dirt of the creek’s embankment. Blood rushed to my head, and my vision pulsed with my heartbeat. I was simultaneously scared and ashamed. I wasn’t sure if I should cry out for help. I wondered how long the ice above would hold me.

I have no idea how much time passed before my parents found me. They both wrapped me in their arms in turn. I watched as my father’s pride in seeing me not cry turned into something ugly—anger at my mother. She was the one who should have been bringing up the rear. If she had been where she should have been, the whole thing could have been avoided. Why didn’t she listen to him? Why couldn’t she just do what she was told?

My mother remained silent. We all stood there shrouded in a fog of our own breathing. My dad loaded me on his back and double poled off, becoming a small dot in the flat light and then disappearing into the gloaming. My mother looked at Sandy, then looked longingly back at the trailhead, turned, and nodded in the direction my father and I had gone—away from warmth and rest and safety. They followed his wind-scarred tracks, my mother dutifully trailing behind, watching out for my sister.

In hindsight I know that deep down, my dad was probably terrified by what had happened. He couldn’t unleash his anger at Sandy or me or himself, so he lashed out at my mom. Although he’d put us at some risk by simply being there, he’d also risked something else he deeply valued—the active lifestyle. If things went sideways, as I did in sliding down that hill and nearly drowning, then his whole plan for how he wanted to live his life could have been put in jeopardy. With stakes that high, he needed everyone to fall in line. We all had to pull our weight. I went along willingly, not feeling the weight as a burden, but as a blessing.

Mike Caldwell was a lot of things to a lot of people—teacher, coach, fanatic, and a kind of messiah of vigorous and adventurous pursuits. But how could I feel anything but gratitude for his providing me with a childhood in which I regularly felt like a pirate on the high seas or an explorer of great lands? I was lost in my own world with a perfect companion. I dreamed the sort of dreams that too often fade under the weight of adulthood. My dad’s shoulders were wide enough to support both of us, and if he wanted others to fall under his magnetic spell it was because he wanted to help, not hurt.

For a long time, when I thought of those days I spent digging from 1982 to 1985, I wondered what they said about the man I would eventually become. Why wasn’t I doing the things that my peers were into at that age? Why was I solo camping instead of begging to go to the playground? Why wasn’t I plopped in front of a TV screen watching Sesame Street or Scooby-Doo? Why didn’t I have crayons fisted in my hands instead of a shovel’s handle? Sure, those experiences helped form me, but as Sandy pointed out to me later, why were we left alone so much? I didn’t think of it that way, but she certainly did. And given how, as I got older, it seemed as if the four of us became two teams of two—Mike and Tommy and Terry and Sandy—what set us on somewhat divergent routes?

Like most of us, I am a combination of both my parents. More reserved than my father, I possess a quieter intensity and focus. I was small for my age and painfully shy, though not unhappy. We were churchgoers, and I would spend the hour-long Sunday school class silently facing the corner, speaking to no one. I dwelled in a world of my own, and developed an odd fascination with mundane tasks. In addition to my excavation efforts, I once spent ten hours straight, alone, fixated on the backyard orchard. I filled a miniature wagon with thousands of earthworms, piling them so high that they poured over the side rails. I also liked to take magazines and cut them up one page at a time into one-inch triangles. I would fill entire paper bags full of the confetti. Some probably considered me more than a bit odd.

A random incident in 1982 may have changed the course of my life, ensuring I didn’t become a buffed-out meathead. My dad was spotting one of his gymnastics students on the high bar. The kid came off the apparatus, and in catching him, my dad tore a biceps tendon. The injury ended his bodybuilding career. That’s when he shifted his focus back to his younger-years passion of rock climbing, in which, despite popular misconceptions, success isn’t about big muscles. Finger strength and core tension, balance, mind control, and technique are far more important. True to form, he didn’t dabble. And he was bringing his son along. Climbing and the outdoors became life and religion. We moved to the mountain town of Estes Park and bought a house that had thirty-foot cliffs on the property. My dad took a summer job as a guide with the Colorado Mountain School. He suddenly seemed intent on using mountaineering, rock climbing, and wilderness outings to purge me of my early childhood meekness.

While other kids spent their weekends playing games and going to birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s, being the son of Mike Caldwell meant that T-ball was for pansies, swimming was handy if you were caught in a flood, and adventure wasn’t adventure without an unplanned night out. We didn’t just hike and camp on family outings. We summited mountains and slept in snow caves.

In our household, obsessive tendencies were admired and nurtured. While most kids got money for chores, around the time I was four my dad implemented a physical fitness credit system: one hundred sit-ups, a lap around the block, or thirty push-ups would accrue credits. Aside from their intrinsic value, each credit was worth ten cents. After a while, I could buy a backpack, a BMX bike, climbing shoes. The credit system was interspersed with benchmark bonuses. The first time I did twenty consecutive pull-ups, I got a giant Danish waffle cone ice cream, with whipped cream and a cherry. The first time I ran three continuous miles, I got a ride on the back of my dad’s motorcycle.

More than the money or prizes, I was driven by the desire to impress my dad. I always knew that my mom loved me unconditionally, but something about the way my dad would brag to his friends about my progress made me strive to win a larger portion of his approval. From those earliest days working out, I remember the burning sensation in my legs, and how I would cringe in pain and scratch at them until they turned red. Over time, as my body adjusted, the burning subsided. I didn’t know anything about lactic acid or runner’s high, but, before long, I knew that when I was working out I felt happy.

I am not sure I will ever fully understand my dad’s intentions, whether they were a reflection of his ego, bravado, or need to stick out in the crowd, or if he was striving for something extra for me alone, something born of helping me compensate for my struggles at birth and my tiny size. By the time kindergarten rolled around, I had a physical tenacity that was rare for kids my age. Yet still I was small and, more so, endowed with my mom’s sensitivity.

My mom seemed in favor of my engaging in more typical kid activities. The social nature of team sports seemed like a good approach to get me out of my shell. One afternoon, while we were out on the peewee baseball diamond for the very first time, the coach handed out balls and instructed us to play catch with one another. On the first toss from my teammate, I put my glove up and waved it in front of my face, looking as if I was on a parade float acknowledging the crowd. I could only vaguely make out the ball’s location. My next memory is of lying on an exam room bed, staring into the bright light as a doctor’s face loomed into view, a needle held between the glinting pincers of his forceps. A baseball has stitches, and the twelve bits of thread added to the skin on the orbital bones above my right eye, along with the associated swelling, were a nice approximation of the ball.

Of course, I couldn’t just give up. I continued to play, though I was relegated to the purgatory of right field. There, I could stand and dig my rubber cleats into the earth, hoping that I could excavate a hole large enough to hide me and my embarrassment. The other kids were not overly cruel, but it was obvious by their frustrated outbursts that they pitied my lack of skill.

One benefit of the baseball beaning was that it revealed one of my deficiencies. I had very bad hand-eye coordination. Bad enough that I went to see another doctor. Now I had a pair of thick-lensed glasses that made my already protruding ears stick out even farther, adding to my daily humiliation of being ushered out of class to attend my remedial reading sessions.

I think my parents’ efforts to help me overcome my rough beginnings were, at times, both a coordinated effort and each of them pulling me in opposing directions. I had to submit to the baseball experiment, just as I had to join my dad on outdoor adventures. I guess that wrestling, appropriately enough, put me on a sort of middle ground between the poles of my parents’ influence.

Wrestling was a team sport. Each match contributed to an overall score. But it was also an individual endeavor.

When I entered the junior wrestling league at age five, I could run farther and do more pull-ups and push-ups than the other kids (and even the coaches). Toughness mattered more than technique at that age. In my first match of my first tournament, as I walked onto the mat, my miniature blue singlet flopped from my scrawny frame, and my headgear was too big. Then the whistle blew and I swooped in for a quick takedown, got the other kid in a half nelson, and pinned him within twenty seconds. The official slapped the mat, and my stunned opponent stood up and we shook hands. Then I saw tears running down his face. A lump formed in my stomach. I felt terrible. For the rest of the wrestling season, any time an opponent started crying (which was pretty much always in peewee wrestling) I let him win.

I imagine those losses frustrated my dad, but he knew what was going on. He had to be worried that if I was too soft of heart the world might be too hard on me. I’d also like to think my mother knew why I’d lose, and that my gesture gave her deep satisfaction.

My interests and my dealing with the competing influences of my parents took another form. During the summers off from his teaching job, my dad’s work as a mountain guide frequently meant that he was away for days and sometimes weeks. As a result, Sandy and I were left alone with my mom much of the time. My mother liked to sew. I saw her doing it, so I had her teach me. Eventually, I became pretty good with a needle and thread. I’d make stuffed animals, teddy bears in particular. I’d spend hours cutting out the shapes and filling the carcasses with matting. My mom supervised my activity and praised me for my skills.

When my dad returned from his trips, I’d show him what I made. I could see from his feigned interest and thin smile, spread across his face like barbed wire, that he was disappointed in me. The glance that he gave my mom read like a sad tale of loss. She’d hold his stare for a few seconds, then look away, feigning interest in a magazine or searching for a thimble in her sewing basket. My stomach turned and my mouth dried. I ground my teeth and hunched my shoulders, making myself smaller as I packed my sewing things away. I felt my dad’s glare cutting into me, rendering me into little triangles to be scattered and discarded.

I can see now that my father’s “encouraging” me to become a climber was a gift. Even if it came at a cost to some of my other interests. While any parenting method can backfire, I see things like my dad’s credit system and his dragging me around the mountains as pure genius. He successfully fostered in me a deep appreciation for the activities he loved most, and, in the process and decades before its time, he answered one of today’s trendiest parenting questions: How do we build grit in our children? For my dad and me, it was a combination of bribery and exposure to minor traumatic experiences.

In the summers, our family piled into the car and drove to distant climbing areas. Sandy and I had become fascinated with one spot in particular, familiar from the classic Steven Spielberg film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We hounded my parents incessantly about going there. Little did I know that it was one of the most iconic rock-climbing formations in the United States: Devils Tower.

Above the rolling prairies of northeastern Wyoming, the tower rises like a massive cylinder for twelve hundred feet. We set up camp and Mom pulled out a folding chair and reclined with her James Michener novel. My sister and I shouldered our packs and followed Dad up the trail, winding through ponderosa pines and over rattlesnake-infested boulders. At the bottom of the wall, Dad reviewed our techniques and systems. Although we were heading for the easiest route on the formation, a series of cracks and chimneys that my dad could have climbed without a rope, he made clear that this was serious. When he switched on his teaching voice, we knew it was time to pay attention.

“Remember, always double-check each other’s knots, and stay clipped into two things. Don’t just kick your feet into the cracks. Put them in sideways, then twist them so they don’t get stuck. Put your hands in the crack and cup them like you are trying to hold a handful of peanuts. When it gets wide, look for V-shaped slots and try slotting your fists in. Make long reaches to save energy.”

Early on I was learning that risk and recklessness are two entirely different things. We were never raised to be thrill seekers or adrenaline junkies. Climbing was about taking a stimulating and potentially dangerous environment and then using our heads, our attentiveness, and our skills to make it safe (with careful oversight from Dad).

The climb took us all day. We wiggled up cracks and chimneys, the grainy rock abrading our arms and backs. The pain and exertion were drowned out by the sensory experience of the Wyoming wind whistling past and the excitement of climbing with hundreds of feet of air directly below our feet. On the summit, Dad pulled sandwiches out of his pack, and we had a picnic.

When you are a six-year-old, not many experiences leave you with a lasting sense of accomplishment. After carefully rappelling down the route we had climbed, as we walked the trail back to the car I stood a little taller. I knew that the majority of people who came to the monument would never have the ability to ascend that rock. Our climbing hardware hung from slings over our shoulders and the ropes were strapped to our backs. Near the parking lot, a man stopped us and asked where we had climbed. “To the top,” I confidently replied. He shot me a look that said, “Yeah, right, kid,” and moved on.

Similarly, our first visit to Yosemite, when I was seven years old, left an enduring impression on me. We set out in our green cargo van and drove twenty hours through the sweltering Utah and Nevada deserts to the fabled, glacier-carved valley. The walls towered skyward. It was so much bigger than anything I had seen, so much bigger than even my imagination.

I learned to love everything about Yosemite, from the smoky campgrounds with hordes of kids riding around on bicycles, to the mosquito-infested meadows, to the towering redwood and cedar trees so old and so huge that it seemed as if dinosaurs should be walking among them. Sandy and I spent most of our days floating down the Merced River on our raft, listening to the roaring waterfalls that threw mist a half mile. Then we would watch my dad climb the walls, and afterward stand by his side as he’d tell stories among his friends. The ragtag climbers were my heroes. Their passion and determination were so obvious that even a child could connect with it. By that time my dad, with his bulging biceps and bandana wrapped around his head, was exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.

One summer, Dad introduced me to one of the most exposed climbing games around. Our family loaded packs full of rope and hiked for hours to the top of upper Yosemite Falls. It’s North America’s tallest waterfall, and the water free-falls from the valley rim down toward the valley floor. To the side of the falls, splitting off a vertical rock wall and separated from the rim by a deep notch, rises a granite tower called Lost Arrow Spire. It’s a three-hundred-foot-tall finger of rock with daunting exposure—because it starts near the top of an already sheer wall, its freestanding apex is nearly 3,000 feet above the valley floor. It was one of the last prominent landmarks to be reached in Yosemite, a vertigo-inducing hanging island surrounded by space and air.

My dad’s best friend and main climbing partner, Randy Farris, accompanied us, serving as a safety double-check for me. We tied our ropes together and descended to the notch where the base of the spire splits from the main wall. We then spent several hours climbing the spire to its top.

My sister and mom, now finished with their portering duties, lounged on the rim, relaxing in the Sierra sun and wind and watching us climb.

While we were on the Lost Arrow Spire a helicopter passed below us. We could look straight down to the tops of the rotors. I thought about how rare it must be to see a helicopter from this angle. Once we reached the top of the spire we gathered up the rope that had been trailing behind us, its far end still securely affixed to the rim at our starting point. We pulled it tight, creating a horizontal highline between the top of the spire and our starting point. Dad and his friend finished their rope-rigging wizardry and double-checked our systems, triple-checked me after I secured myself.

I peered across that gap. Nothing but our lines and the ground below us. How cool, I thought. I knew my dad wouldn’t put me in a spot where I could be hurt. I stepped off the rock into open air. A few minutes later, I’d completed a spectacular Tyrolean traverse (picture a crude kind of zip line) and made it back to where we had started. The excitement of it tickled my belly, like cresting a hill at high speed.

I looked across to where my dad was positioned. He smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I felt some of that satisfaction and success that I’d experienced while digging. This time, though, I didn’t feel the need to shrink from sight. I nodded back to my dad and returned his gesture.

I felt that I belonged, that I fit in.