Interview with Beth Rodden & Tommy Caldwell
by Adam Riser
Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell are two of the most accomplished all-around rock climbers in the world. Their individual drive and mutual support has resulted in several of the hardest sport climbs and big wall free climbs in the world. Beth and Tommy recently completed the second free ascent of El Cap’s Nose route—done in a single push with each of them freeing every pitch. We tracked down these two after their recent return from Patagonia to learn what it’s like to be a professional climbing couple at the apex of the world scene.
Marmot sponsored athletes Beth Rodden and Tommy Caldwell. Photo by Ace Kvale.
Why do you think it took so long for the free ascent of the Nose to be repeated? Is it more because of the technical difficulty or the mythology surrounding the route?
We think it has more to do with the technical difficulty. It is quite a step above the other El Cap free climbs that get done frequently. For awhile, people probably underestimated its difficulty. Lynn rated it mid 5.13, so people went up there expecting to find something not much harder than the Salathe, when in reality it is more like 5.14.
Beth, you originally tried to free the West Buttress but ended up supporting Tommy by belaying, jugging, and hauling because of time constraints. Tommy, you decided to stop working The Optimist because you were worried about breaking a key hold that Beth needed. Together as a team you freed every pitch of the Nose. Do you discuss which one of your efforts will take precedence on a given project, or does it just work itself out?
Usually, one of us is the driving force behind a certain project. For example, the Optimist was Beth’s idea and she had been thinking about it for many months. So when I [TC] realized that I might break a hold, it was more important to me that Beth be able to accomplish the route than me. We are always more excited about supporting the other person than realizing our own goals, so there is no weird competitiveness between us.
How do you deal when you’re both super psyched on separate projects but they’re in different locations? Do you find it easier to focus on the same project or different projects?
It has never been an issue before. We are good at finding something to keep us motivated and excited even if the other person is projecting a route. We can find a route that will occupy both of us.
Tommy, you grew up in the outdoors, and Beth, you learned to climb on plastic. How have your different backgrounds influenced your approach to climbing? What strengths or weaknesses have they created?
Beth is probably a little more of a hammer-head when it comes to training in the gym, and I [TC] am more likely to want to just go bouldering or climbing outside. They have actually complemented each other really well. Beth has been able to teach me how to train better, and I have helped Beth to appreciate the outdoors more.
Marmot athlete Beth Rodden. Photo by Ace Kvale.
Do you feel you each bring a unique skill set to the stone? Are your styles Yin and Yang?
We both have a good work ethic and are good technical climbers as opposed to pure power. Our skills/weaknesses are pretty similar.
Your all-around abilities on rock amaze people. One month you send the hardest sport routes around and the next month you tick off a 30-pitch big-wall free climb. How do you switch back and forth so seemingly effortlessly between the unique demands of these types of climbing?
The training we do is very similar for each type of climbing. If we have been training for sport climbing, we can usually adjust very quickly to El Cap routes. It doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. We have the knowledge of logistics and how to big wall free climb, so sport climbing training just prepares us for the physical part. We might add some more cardio into our day if we feel it is necessary.
Some climbers see their time on the rock as a break from work or even from their spouses, but you two climb for a living and are literally tied to each other for weeks on end. How do daily stresses affect your climbing time, how do climbing stresses affect your down time, and how do you deal with these stresses on a big wall?
We are both very passionate about climbing and realize that we are able to make a living doing it. The professional aspects of it do add stress, but it is definitely better than a desk job and we make sure to keep that perspective. It is hard for us to think of where to go on a vacation, if we feel like we need one, because we are fortunate to travel to most of the places already to climb.
What do you have to say to people who think their climbing life will be over if they get married?
It will only be over if their spouse will not allow them to climb. We climb all the time together and know many couples who do as well. It can be great because you have a partner. We also know couples where one climbs and the other doesn’t, and that seems to work okay as long as they keep it balanced.
You two basically started dating while working to free Lurking Fear, and there’s not much personal space on a portaledge. How did this unusual approach to dating influence your relationship as it evolved?
From the start we were together 24/7. It made our relationship progress quickly and within a month we knew pretty much everything about each other. For us, it worked great.
Do you ever get tired of people talking about you as a couple instead of your individual accomplishments? Do you ever get tired of the limelight altogether; having to do interviews like this, fulfilling obligations to sponsors, feeling pressured to perform?
There is a big enough balance of separate interviews and interviews together. The limelight has made us pretty anti-social when we don’t have to be [in the public eye]. We enjoy meeting new people, but we also value our time alone and together.
Do either of you have any aspirations to try to free big walls in remote places like Patagonia or the Karakoram?
I [TC] just returned from a trip to Patagonia. Beth and her dad went down for ten days to hike and camp with us. I went down with Topher Donahue, and we managed to free climb a route on Fitz Roy. It was a fun trip, but I do not know if alpine climbing is going to become common for me; it seems a bit dangerous.
What type of climbing are you focusing on right now, and what are your current projects?
We are mainly psyched to climb in Yosemite. Right now we are just relaxing at home in Colorado, which is nice.