Why Tommy Caldwell Turned Back

March 25, 2019




   I once quipped to a high school swim teammate, ‘Swimming first, friendships second.’   Yep. that was me.  My teammate, Ron, went on to show me how wrong headed my life mission statement was. He did that without saying a word.  Ron, an average swimmer, showed me that  athletic achievement was not a prerequisite for serenity and security.   His secret was spiritual in nature, though I didn’t know that at the time. 


I recently watched a Netflix documentary called 'The Dawn Wall' (Trailer:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edfw9ip9sCQ)  about world class climber Tommy Caldwell. Among other things, Tommy  spent years planning to climb the Dawn Wall section of El Capitan, which was assumed by all to be impossible to ascend.


Along the way, Tommy  enlisted a less experienced climber, Kevin Jorgeson, as his partner in the venture.  As it turns out, Kevin who could not keep up with the more experienced Tommy.   Two thirds of the way up, Kevin was stuck on what was probably the most difficult section of the climb, trying over and over to traverse it.  Meanwhile, Tommy continued upward, managing to make it past the final real barrier, approximately 100 feet below the top of El Capitan.   


 On the day he was set to complete the historic climb, Tommy woke up in tears, deciding that it would be better not to reach the top at all.....than to reach it without Kevin.  Sos Tommy rappelled down to Kevin and spent 5 or 6 days coaching him, encouraging him, waiting for him, to get across the most difficult element in the most difficult of climbs.



Can you imagine how hard that would be?  Day in and day out….dangling 2000 feet above the forrest below in bad weather, waiting, sitting, sleeping and eating bad food, trying not to signal disapproval, disappointment or impatience which would make it even more difficult for Kevin to be successful?  


I said to my wife  Jane, ‘Wow.  I never would do that. I’d finish the climb and then, maybe, go back and help my friend.’  Tommy was far better than that.  He understood that life is not finally about accomplishments, wonderful though they can be.  Life is about relationships.  Having suffered through the agony of a painful divorce, Tommy seemed to get that more than most.  


Now, I don’t know whether Tommy believes in God and if so, whether his life is conversant with that God.   What I do know is that, whether he realized it or not, Tommy taught us a lot about God without uttering a word.      


I say that because we are told in the bible that at the center of the cosmos is a perfect community that we refer to as God:  Father, Son and Spirit.  It’s in God’s image that we are made.   Since Tommy is made in that God’s image, he derives life’s greatest meaning and highest satisfaction through relationships.  That is why Tommy went back.  


That’s my take.   What’s yours?  


All the best,

Greg Porter



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