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Interview with THE DAWN WALL climbers, Tommy Caldwell & Kevin Jorgeson

September 17, 2018

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After premiering at South by Southwest (SXSW) back in March, the impressive and inspirational documentary, “The Dawn Wall”, is making its way into theaters this week for a one-night theatrical Fathom Event this Wednesday! The film revolves around two climbers, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, who set out to do the impossible in January 2015, when they committed to free-climb a 3,000 foot rock face in Yosemite National Park, California, called The Dawn Wall. Regardless of whether you have any interest in climbing, the documentary from directors Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer (longtime friends of the two climbers), is not to be missed. The way in which it is filmed is as impressive as the featured ascent and the story covered, which goes beyond the actual climb, is inspirational in every way. 

Obviously, Caldwell and Jorgeson completed the climb up the titular location – why else make a film about it? – but their personal stories, which include backstories and side stories told by themselves and their friends and family members, truly make “The Dawn Wall” an absorbing viewing experience.

The free-climbing approach the two take, primarily using fingers, toes and tethers that are fastened to a specific spot on the wall (called a “pitch”),  is both nerve-wracking and mind-boggling. It demands peak physical condition and relies on a certain calm and resilience from within. Caldwell, who started climbing at a very young age, has been preparing all his life for this – in particular the seven years prior to the two weeks he and Jorgeon spent on the wall. Primarily a boulder climber, Jorgeson took the challenge of joining Caldwell on this journey and experienced a mentorship that transformed him into a big wall climber. The physical, mental and emotional toll the two endure, which brings their friendship closer, is exhausting.

Watching what Caldwell and Jorgeson accomplish, one might argue that there’s also a certain degree of crazy needed as well. The film shows the obstacles the two climbers had to overcome in the past and the variety of unexpected challenges they had to endure while on the wall.  Careful decisions had to be made with each progression (some of which are unanticipated), while a formidable fan following builds on the ground below, as well as on social media. Ultimately, the movie becomes a powerfully told story that captures both the epic scope of what Caldwell and Jorgeson accomplished, but also the majesty of the environment in which they did it.

Last week, I had a chance to conduct a brief phone interview with Caldwell and Jorgeson. We talked about how the film was shot, the media coverage surrounding their climb, what each other individual brought to the climb, the difference between dedication and obsession, as well as some tips and advice for climbers.

 

 

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David J. Fowlie: When did the idea for a documentary film that follows your climb up the Dawn Wall come about?

Tommy Caldwell: A documentary film? I think that idea came about after we finished the climb (laughs). Yeah, believe it or not, it was supposed to be a bunch of shorts. We didn’t really know what we were gonna do with the footage. We filmed it for seven years with the idea of possibly doing a bigger piece. But, I think they didn’t  really know what his home was gonna be until after we finished the climb.

DJF: Gotcha. So, you had your own film crew, following you for years during your preparation for the climb and then even during the climb. Did the directors of this film incorporate that footage then?

TC: Yeah, I mean we’ve been working with these filmmakers since we were quite young. Everytime we’d do something exciting in climbing, they’d come – and they’re good friends – it’s not like we had “our own film crew”. We didn’t hire them or anything. They’re just good friends of ours that would show up and wanna film cool stuff. We were doing cool stuff and they’d show up and wanna film it.

DJF: That’s one of the things that always blows my mind when it comes to how documentaries about climbing are shot. I’m always wondering how cameras be so close, when the subjects are hundreds or thousands of feet in the air and at different odd angles. Can you shed any light on how that’s done and if there was anything unique or different about what we see in this documentary?

TC: I think there’s definitely some unique perspectives of El Cap in this film. There’s a network of six ropes all along the route that the photographers were able to hang from and get into some really unique positions. And then we devised this crazy rope system that pulled the photographer away from the wall about fifty feet, to give that drone shot effect. So, there were some innovative rope work going on in order to shoot the climb.

Yeah and there’s not many people in the world who can shoot and live in that kind of environment.  Luckily, they were up there with us. So, it’s pretty complicated. They are right there with us. They’re living with us on the wall, ascending and descending six ropes that were set up at the beginning of the season, so we can see logistically how it works.

 

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DJF: It makes me think that there could be a documentary on these cameramen(women).

TC: Yeah, I think actually the film will have some extras on the DVD or whatever – I don’t think that’s a thing anymore – on the digital version (laughs). It has a whole section of scenes of how its done.

DJF: That’s cool. I’m still all about physical media, so I’ll pick up the blu-ray (all laugh). So, I’m curious…how much input did you guys have in what was going to be put on screen? Is there something that you guys definitely wanted to be included or covered in the film?

TC: Personally, creatively, we didn’t – we were not…I mean, they had the footage and we just trusted them completely to make a good film out of it. I was writing a book at the same time they were editing the film and I kinda knew that if we got in there and messed with them, you know, watched and gave feedback on the different cuts of the film, it would just impede their creativity. That’s how I felt. I didn’t watch the film until it premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) this year. So, I watched it for the first time with an audience of people and I was so pleased.

DJF: So, both of you watched it for the first time at SXSW? What did you guys think?

TC:  I just felt, like, so lucky. I just felt like, “Wow, they really did this story justice.” I mean, it’s so personal and really beautiful. They put a lot into it. So, I felt like the decision to trust them completely was absolutely the right decision. Yeah, it’s a next-level climbing film compared to what we’ve seen in the past. So, it feels cool to be a part of that.

DJF: You know, I totally agree. I feel like with the way it was shot and if it wasn’t for them touching on your different training methods and backstories, this would just be another climbing documentary. So, it’s really cool what Josh and Peter have done with the film. I know you guys come two different training methods and styles – and obviously you’re both aware of that going in – but how did you feel then and now about the way those different methods and styles balanced each other out when you’re up there on the wall for weeks?

TC: I think they balanced amazingly well. I’m a mountain climber and I knew how to live on the wall and move around. There’s individual sections of the climb that were so technically hard that were just beyond me. And Kevin was the one who could work those out and help us to believe that they were possible. So, it took those two different skill sets to kind of mentor each other and come up with something that worked.

Kevin Jorgeson: I was much more the pupil early on than the equal. It took me a long time to get even remotely comfortable up on that terrain. You know? So, yeah, it took a long time.

TC: But when he would like zoom in and focus on just like three or four minutes at a time, he was always so amazing at that. The challenge of the climb is that it has the individual moves that are just so difficult then any other big route like that.

 

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DJF: It seems like Kevin would be the one who’d be weighing out the situation a lot more. So, there was obviously something about Tommy that – correct me if I’m wrong, Kevin – won you over, that you felt like there could be some equal ground and trust. 

KJ: Definitely.

DJF: For viewers who watch climbing documentaries, whether they’re familiar with climbing or if they know nothing about climbing – I think their first response would be “thee guys are nuts!” But the film touches on ‘dedication and obsession’, which can have a lot to do with what you guys have accomplished. What do you think the difference is between the two and what have you guys learned about those two things during your training and the actual climb?

TC: I think it’s a very fine line (laughs). I think that’s a direct quote from the movie…

DJF: Right.

TC: You’re always wondering if you’re dedicated or obsessed. In my mind, dedication has a very positive meaning whereas obsession could be considered quite negative. So, you’re up there, beating your head up against the wall and you’re thinking, “This is insane!” and you’re constantly questioning, “Is it worth it?” and “Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing?” And we were constantly questioning all that, so I don’t think it really helped me clarify really. I guess, completing it in the end – it did justify it and made me feel more sane and maybe it was more dedication than the negative connotation of obsession. But, who knows?

DJF: When you’re up there on the wall and it was actually happening and like seven or ten days have passed – did you have any idea that you’d be interviewing by the likes of NPR and the New York Times while you were up there? 

TC: No. That was a total surprise. We thought it would just be Brett, the cinematographer, who was up there with us with all this gear, with Kevin and myself, and that was really it. You know? We thought we were gonna just pop out the route with that little crew. We did have a little social media following within the climbing community for years before that attempt. There’d be a little buzz every time we’d go to Yosemite, but it was pretty small. We never ever thought that these trucks would show up or that the New York Times would be calling or that the President would tweet about it and all that stuff. That was…that was pretty mind-blowing.

DJF: I’m sure it was. But did it also seem like really weird? I mean, this isn’t something you were doing to get attention or break a record. This was something that was more of a  passion project or a spiritual journey for you guys.

TC: Yeah, It felt bizarre to me and still does, to be honest. Yeah (laughs), I don’t even know how to think about it. It’s really cool in a lot of ways, but that’s not why we were there in the first place. I honestly think that’s some of the power of the movie, that’s what connected with people and that’s what connected with us. It was real spiritual journey. Two guys going out and kinda chasing this dream that meant a lot to them.  The waters weren’t muddied with fame or money, the kinds of things that can kind of get in the way of big high profile sporting these days. We just didn’t even know that could happen.

DJF: It just comes across as this pure thing that you’re both aligned with and pursuing together. There’s no ulterior motives, it’s just this pure thing of, “Can I do this?” and “Will I do this?” and that’s what’s inspiring. 

TC: Yeah, I think it was pretty pure.

 

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DJF: I’m sure you’ve fielded questions about climbing general, but when you’re up there, it seems like you guys have no fear and obviously that’s incorrect. We all have fears. So, that being said, what is it that each of you guys are afraid of? What freaks you out?

KJ: That moment with the ice falling was pretty scary for me. I’m not a mountain man. I haven’t been around falling ice over my head. That was kind of a new experience, being in the line of fire. So, I don’t mind routes that I can manage myself, but its the ones that are out of control that kind of get to me. So, if there was a moment that would be the one.

TC: Yeah, I’ve been basically training myself since age three to sort of be able to access and manage the kind of natural fears of the world – like fear of heights or fear of icefall – and I’ve gotten quite good (laughs) at really taking on all aspects of climbing. For years I’ve spent a lot of time just thinking about and getting used to the idea that I’m, you know, twenty feet above some form of protection that could potentially pull out of the rock. You know, just constantly thinking about that kind of stuff and got pretty good and feeling calm about that. For me, what I’m afraid of now is just, as a parent, my children getting hurt or (laughs) something like that.

DJF: Well, that’s understandable. So, any tips or bits of advice for climbers, whether they be totally new to it or for even experienced climbers, whether it be preparing yourself physically or mentally?

TC: I think it has to be incremental. My first tip would be to find a goal that really lights something inside you, that ignites something inside of you. And then incrementally work your way towards that. Start small.

KJ: Yeah, if this dream is really big and is out of your league, find a good mentor. You know, don’t go at it alone.

DJF: Those are some great tips and bits of advice right there. Again, I appreciate both of you guys making some time to talk to me. I really respect what you guys have done and what you continue to do. I think it’s amazing and crazy and inspiring. 

TC: Thank you!

KJ: I appreciate that!

 

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For ticket info for this week’s screening of  “The Dawn Wall” and other upcoming dates, click here. 

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