The Push by Tommy Caldwell – Book review

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The Dawn Wall – simply put – is the most technically challenging big wall climb ever created. It is the mark of a new era that merges the traditional arduous journey of multi-day big wall climbs, and the advanced technical sports difficulty of today. The physical and mental effort required from such a route could only come from a person like Tommy Caldwell. “The Push” is the Dawn Wall book, a personal journey from the viewpoint of the man himself and does incredibly well in answering the questions we all had about the route and Tommy.

The recent “Dawn Wall” film did a great job of building the back story of Tommy’s life and how he was led to Yosemite and El Capitan. It’s wide appeal and success came from the great story behind the struggle and the dramas that unfolded on the screen. Read our full review of the film or watch for yourself if you haven’t already. Many in the film were honest in their views that the climb was impossible and that the attempts could be seem more as a form of self punishment than of determination. If you’ve ever battled with a route over multiple days or months you’ll have some idea of the torture that seven years on a single route could become.

"The Push" by Tommy Caldwell Book Review

The book “The Push” is much more than just a catalog of attempts and gear info. Think of this as more of an autobiography interspersed with an adventure. We go way back into the history of Tommy Caldwell which begins with a seemingly simple-minded young child and a driven father taking his kids on adventures – the type that might be seen today as grounds for an intervention. Throughout the book the main figure of influence is father Mike Caldwell, a former mountain guide, bodybuilder, and to this day a lover of climbing and the outdoors.

“The Push” could well be the most emotionally open and honest account of any professional climber to date.

For me and others this relationship was incredibly interesting and an absolute center point for where Tommy is today. Undoubtedly the incredible things Tommy has achieved in climbing – and the way that he barrels through punishment in ways that others never could – are all down to Mike Caldwell. It could also well be argued that this same way of dealing with situations stopped him from being able to deal better with his emotions and ways of communicating with others. While battering down the hatches and focusing on moving forward can be perfect for some situations, in others it can only be of harm. The book goes well in to the ways in which this mentality worked for and against him, culminating in the break down of his relationship with Beth and his Father in some heart-breaking moments.

“The Push” could well be the most emotionally open and honest account of any professional climber to date. The details of the relationship with his father and ex-wife Beth Rodden are really fleshed out with some incredibly raw scenes and emotional honesty you wouldn’t expect from a book ostensibly about climbing a wall. It becomes obvious from the contents of the book and other interviews that he doesn’t communicate very well, especially when it comes to his emotions. Caldwell had help from a few people (including climber and writer Kelly Cordes) in the writing of the book and I think this has really helped to bring the stories to life. 

Most famously in the climbing world we revisit the relationship between Tommy and his ex-wife Beth, and get a very open account of the marriage from start to finish. The Kyrgyzstan kidnapping is recounted with a level of detail that is is completely new to anyone already familiar. If you came here to find out exactly how it all went down with everyone involved then this book you need. The details of Beth and Tommy’s relationship at the time of the expedition really illuminates how their relationship started as well. The title of the book may refer to “The Push” as more than one thing, as Tommy explains how he hastened their escape. It also documents the strangely obsessed work of a person who was convinced the kidnapping was fake and went to the ends of the earth to try and prove it. This only added to Beth and Tommy’s stress in dealing with the mental aftermath of such a harrowing incident.

For years Beth and Tommy were the power couple of climbing. Their life after the incident, their move to Yosemite, and everything about the end of the relationship is all well documented. As as an outside observer it is at once hard to through the hurt that was experienced and incredibly interesting to be an inside observer. How they both dealt with the struggles of being professional climbers without the massively lucrative contracts of today, buying and doing up an old house, dealing with their own personal and relationship issues all builds up. The end of this relationship is a hurtful mess in which you feel massive empathy for both sides. Tommy’s life at this point becomes increasingly lonely and drives him to some feats that he himself would now never contemplate. At the same time, this is where the idea of the Dawn Wall begins.

As we move towards the big event the book moves on into the recent life of Tommy. His relationship with his now wife Rebecca and the big changes after his divorce move along into the birth of his first child Fitz – named for the Cerro Fitz Roy skyline famously used as the Patagonia brand logo. As well as seeing how Tommy’s love life changes, we also get to see his climbing career change. Feeling like an extra bonus story – Tommy recounts how he starts climbing in Patagonia, and then the story of the incredible Fitz Roy traverse with Alex Honnold. This adventure in itself could be an entire book. The ascent is an iconic first and could well have been fatal if it were not for another group donating their crampons to Honnold, and weather conditions holding out for certain sections. For climbers this section could be worth the cover price itself.

The Dawn Wall – The Final Push

Throughout the book we are shown snippets of attempts at the Dawn Wall. The final section of the book then starts to focus entirely on the final push and the latest relationships in the story. Kevin Jorgeson was Tommy’s partner for most of the serious attempts at the Dawn Wall, and he becomes solidified as part of the team. Kevin’s personality and climbing style at first seem at odds with Tommy’s, but as the attempts progress it feels more and more like a team effort. By the time of the final push I couldn’t put the book down. On it’s own, this part of the book s an incredible document of the journey, the pitches themselves, and the immense pressure on both of them at every stage.

The day-by-day play and the individual pitch attempts are written really well and in a way I think even a non-climber could be excited to read. Though I don’t need to refrain from spoiling the ending, the final pitches together with Jorgeson are a great read and really convey the excitement for everyone involved in the big top-out.

By way of a review, this is a really good read and a great insight into Tommy Caldwell as a person and the Dawn Wall as a historic event. The writing itself is pretty good and probably due to the help Tommy received in putting the book together. If you are a climber – whether an indoor boulderer who saw the news, or a big wall traditionalist – you’ll get a huge amount out of this book in terms of the mental game and the enjoyment of climbing in itself. I’d really recommend this book for anyone who is vaguely interested, and as a companion piece to the film for anyone who wanted a little more, this is an absolute gem. Buy the book here through Amazon to support us at no cost to you, or watch the Dawn Wall on Amazon.

That being said – I want to point out the following metaphors used in the book as examples of possible literary crimes, “The flappers I’d sustained to my ego were going to heal”, and “zipped up in a bivvy sak of anxiety”. You may have climbed the hardest big wall in history but I can only forgive so much Tommy.