Tommy Caldwell saluting his supporters after scaling the Dawn Wall

The Dawn Wall
Directed by Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer. Documentary featuring Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. 2018. Rotten Tomatoes 100%

The Dawn Wall showcases life on El Capitan and the expertise necessary to climb to the summit. But perhaps more interestingly, the film shows how the presence of adversity in your life can drive you to a place you never thought was possible. Caldwell’s obsession with climbing the Dawn Wall was a long time in the making, characterised by obstacles that could have led others to death. Yet for him, those obstacles pushed him towards growth.

As a youngster, Caldwell was clumsy, socially awkward and developmentally delayed (he didn’t crawl until he was two). He attributes overcoming these first obstacles predominantly to his father. Caldwell’s father was a role model in his unwavering optimism and his faith in the potential for mastery. He believed in preparing your children for the path, not the path for your children. He took his son into the mountains as an infant and it was there that climbing consumed Tommy Caldwell, who admits that the greatest gift his father gave him was reframing adversity as adventure; to be bold and open ourselves up to it.

In his early 20s, Tommy Caldwell was taken hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan and faced with a traumatic decision. Years later, he accidentally chopped off his left index finger with a table-saw—an unthinkable catastrophe for a rock-climber who derives all their strength from their fingers. He was told by doctors that he would need to find a new profession outside of professional rock climbing. Simultaneously, his marriage dissolved.

Nevertheless, his drive and passion led him to train 14 hours a day, to analyse himself, and challenge himself through ‘big wall’ free climbing. His world was filled with wonder and colour when he was lost in pursuit. When complacency encroached, it would cloud over. The Dawn Wall project became his life. It was not so much a ‘goal’, as ‘a way of becoming’.

Caldwell’s virtue is highlighted foremost through his selfless comradeship with his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgeson, whom he recruited to help him accomplish the impossible task of climbing the Dawn Wall. A brotherhood formed. When Jorgeson was unable to complete a notoriously difficult section of the wall (a section which Caldwell had already completed), Caldwell realises that reaching the summit alone and leaving his partner behind is not an outcome he is willing to accept. Instead, he climbs back down the cliff face to encourage and support Jorgeson.

The Dawn Wall is a documentary showcasing the beauty of nature, but also the beauty of human nature and our potential for brotherhood and resilience. We are more than we inherently believe. Success doesn’t happen alone. Anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy.

As Tommy Caldwell says in a TedTalk after the climb: ‘Hardship is inevitable. So put your goggles on and face into the wind’. In our own troubling times of the coronavirus lockdown, this inspiring story can encourage us to look beyond our current difficult situation. Instead, look at where you can offer comradeship through whatever talents you have been given, and view it as a path to becoming a stronger, more grateful version of yourself.

Louisa Spiteri writes from Sydney.