#whatsyourdawnwall: climbing out of depression in a creative way

 

Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015 was a milestone in the history of rock climbing. Behind the pure athletic accomplishment there is a life lesson worth uncovering. Because we all have our own “Dawn Wall”.

6 min read


 
 

Back in September 2018, The Dawn Wall movie made it to cinemas all around the world. Not only targeted to climbers but to the general public as well, it reveals the story of how Tommy Caldwell relentlessly pursued and conquered (together with Kevin Jorgeson) this multi-year long project. The documentary not only follows the climbers’ progress during the ascent but also explores the lives and backgrounds of everyone involved. It’s an amazing effort gathering the facts leading towards the final act: the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall in El Capitan and the hardest multi-pitch in the world.

The achievement took several days and became a viral phenomenon. It massively attracted the world’s attention to this corner of Yosemite Valley, especially the US media who followed and broadcasted their progress almost on an hourly basis. Even Barack Obama himself, president at the time, sent a public message congratulating the climbers.

What stayed with me is Tommy’s creativity, commitment and perseverance towards completing this epic project. It took more than 7 years to find the right sections of this almost blank face of El Capitan (2300 metres high), connect these into a continuous route climbable from the ground, clean the loose rocks and finally train and practice to ascend them freely. Many of us would agree with Kelly Cordes’ thoughts about his friend Tommy:

I think we all admire people who are dedicated, but at some point you start to wonder where the line is between dedication and obsession.
— Kelly Cordes on The Dawn Wall

Through The Dawn Wall we can understand Tommy’s personal journey leading towards the ascent. This project appears as his response to dealing with a combination of events including the Kyrgyzstan kidnap, losing a finger (an essential tool for a professional rock climber indeed) and ultimately the divorce to his wife and longtime climbing partner. The process and final ascent was a sort of victory against his own fears, inner ghosts and stories from the past.

This journey became a way of finding a new connection with himself, providing sometimes a practical way of getting away from negative thinking patterns and sometimes space to digest and look into the future. The final ascent itself would be the proof of battle against adversity, not only in the wall but also in everyday life.

The Dawn Wall is not just a story about the hardest multi-pitch climb in the world but a story on overcoming trauma in a creative, proactive way. Tommy built this project as a way out of the pain. Taking this hands-on approach and embracing this level of determination is not easy for anybody in a dark place. Even Tommy himself had difficulties keeping his mind afloat at the lowest times, daring with death as a way of ending the pain:

If I took away the rope [when climbing the Dawn Wall], the experience would be that much stronger. That much more real… And if I fell to my death, at least the pain would be gone, too.
— Tommy Caldwell on The Push

Travelling through any traumatic experience, lighter or heavier, can seem devastating and sometimes overwhelming. But with the right approach and guidance it is possible to move on and recover the motivation and joy for life. For us, climbers (and others hooked to high-intensity sports like surfing, paragliding, biking, etc.), it can seem pretty natural to retreat in our activities as a way of dealing with unpleasant parts of our life. How many of us can’t just wait for the weekend to drain all the stress of a busy life by climbing our project or catching a few waves?

I sometimes wonder if Tommy would have been drawn to the Dawn Wall project if he had never been kidnapped, severely injured and divorced all at once. I feel that sometimes is dealing with the biggest monsters and fears what forces us to jump into a different mindset, a headspace that we would never experience in the comfort of a quiet, safe life. I see this as the most positive outcome (if not the only one) of having to experience serious life traumas. The connection with a new self that is able to navigate through the world with a more powerful, obscure force that only comes from experiencing the pain.

Would we push ourselves out of our comfort zone if we felt totally content with our world? What makes us seek different experiences and feelings out there? And why pushing ourselves and fighting for a goal makes us feel grounded and sane?

Tommy made of the Dawn Wall a driver towards sanity. In radical acts like this we all find our own personal space for mindfulness, self-expression, purpose, accomplishment, recognition, inner peace… I am not the first one to use the word “therapy” to describe what practising these sports means for us.

For me, Tommy’s process of visualising, creating, working and finally ascending the Dawn Wall is a creative effort comparable to the globally acclaimed paintings of Munch or Van Gogh or the music pieces of Tchaikovsky. Their powerful talent came from dealing with darker sides of life and the complexities of milder or severe mental struggles. Their art is a tangible product of overcoming difficulties and seeing life through a different prism. Would they be who they are today if their life path had been safe and smooth?

Van Gogh, Tommy, me and possibly you have gone through ugly moments at some point of our lives, and we will likely do it again in the future. The key is how we choose to face them and what we make out of those situations. As the thread goes by, #whatsyourdawnwall and what will you make of it?


 

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