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Book review: The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits, by Tommy Caldwell


It was a rare 80-degree day in Acadia National Park. A friend and I ducked out of work early to hike a 6-mile loop: Otter Creek parking lot to Ocean Path, then the Bowl Trail and a fast up and down Gorham Mountain, with pitstops at Thunder Hole and Sand Beach. We figured it would take us three hours maybe, as half of the path is flat and the conditions were optimal. While wrapping up our Gorham Mountain descent and patting ourselves on the back for a hike well done, we somehow took a wrong turn and ended up on an unrecognizable section of the Park Loop Road. With no idea which direction would lead back to our car, we took a guess. A bad guess. Four additional miles and several wrong turns later, we were back in the confines of my Nissan Altima, binging on candy and chips like triumphant adventurers.

Usually motivated by Appalachian Mountain Club guides and hiking blogs, lately I've itched for more than our tiny Maine mountains. Something big. The larger peaks of New Hampshire's White Mountains call to me, but so do more ambitious trails in the Western U.S. And so does a sport completely new to me: rock climbing.

After watching goosebump-inducing documentaries like Meru, rock climbing seems both exhilarating and impossible. My upper body strength is limited, my grip strength is negligible, and I have no gear, no nearby instructor, and no experience. Perennially determined to conquer the impossible, however, I pre-ordered my copy of The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits by Tommy Caldwell as soon as I could, hoping to get a taste of what it takes to scale big rocks. I couldn't put it down.

I feel a hint of pity for those who don't get to experience the crisp air and excitement of mountain climbing. Are they ever really awake?

Tommy Caldwell, one of the best rock climbers in the world, is a loving son, husband, and father of two, and is best known for conquering the impossible: the first free solo send of the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite, widely regarded as the most difficult ascent in rock climbing history. He and his climbing partner, Kevin Jorgenson, made the ascent over 19 excruciating days, but the victory was years in the making: they studied and practiced every pitch on that 3,000-foot vertical for four years. When they finally sent on January 15, 2015, the win was one for the books--and Caldwell decided to write his own.

With encouragement from Jim Collins (bestselling author of Good to Great and other business tomes) and Jon Krakauer (one of the greatest adventure writers of our time and author of Into the Wild, among others), Caldwell documents his journey to the Dawn Wall goal and why he was so compelled to crush this particular climb.

It's the sort of drive that's impossible to explain to those who haven't been engulfed by a singular, unbridled passion.

Two-thirds personal memoir and one-third insider's perspective of the rock climbing world, The Push is a page-turner. Caldwell writes the way he climbs: honestly, laboriously at times (his four years analyzing the pitches of the Dawn Wall particularly so), and soul-baring. Caldwell writes with the conviction of an accomplished athlete and the heart of a puppy, gushing his feelings onto pages. For those of us who relish tough-won team victories, one moment is especially familiar:

I want to reach over and hug them both, but I don't because we're three smelly dudes crammed in a portaledge.

He traces his passion for climbing to his father, a former body-builder and rock climbing aficionado, who took young Caldwell on exploits most adults wouldn't dare alone, much less with a five-year-old in tow. Born into what he dubs "rock-climbing privilege," with the help of his father, Caldwell reached goals common to lifelong climbers before he was driving age. For example, Caldwell writes of his first ascent of "The Diamond," a harrowing 2,000-foot climb at 12,000 feet of elevation:

In August of 1990, when I was twelve, my dad decided I was ready for Colorado's premier alpine wall, almost 2,000 vertical feet of granite...the Diamond by any route is a lifetime climbing achievement for many.

Growing up with near-constant adventure and a healthy dose of peril, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that teenage Caldwell was a better fit for an unconventional path than college. Foregoing further formal education, he made one of the best decisions of his life (and one that makes me greatly jealous):

...I replaced the passenger seat in my car with a piece of plywood for a bed and hit the road...I traveled from one sport climbing area to the next, checking off a few routes I hadn't sent on previous trips. I continued attending competitions, usually placing in the top three, but almost never winning. After entry fees, the prize money typically left me with about a hundred bucks a month, enough to keep climbing and going to comps. I showered maybe twice a month at YMCAs...I shopped at dented can and expired food stores, and even did a bit of Dumpster diving. I always slept in my car. Seeing how little money I could spend became a fun game. I cherished the freedom associated with a lack of material need.

Hiking is meditative for me, zen like yoga but more social when accompanied by friends. Lost in conversation or deep in thought, I've traversed countless miles, bagged many peaks. Caldwell describes climbing as similarly meditative:

As I climb the next one hundred feet I feel I have left my body. The opening sequence flows like nothing, that sequence that for so long seemed impossible...Time slows. The granite passes before my eyes. I float into the middle portion, pausing for no reason other than that it feels right, right now, this place. I chalk up again, blow into my hands.

I won't spoil the entire story for you--it is truly gripping--but two narratives are particularly nail-biting, perhaps even more so than his Dawn Wall ascent:

-Caldwell and three climbing buddies, including his girlfriend at the time and accomplished hiker, Beth Rodden, get kidnapped and held hostage by rebels in Kyrgyzstan. They were just trying to climb things.

-Fingers are important to climbers, so much so that much of their training includes improving their grip strength. Caldwell loses one of his to a table saw. Ouch.

I'm an armchair athlete compared to the ambitious Caldwell. After reading this book, rock climbing seems a natural progression for my adventures. If you appreciate how it feels to stretch your body to its limits, or simply enjoy a good adventure memoir, The Push: A Climber's Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits may be just what you are looking for. Memoirs like this one remind us that we are able, against all odds, to forge our own trails in life and that pushing boundaries is how we become better versions of ourselves.

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