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Amy Donaldson: Kidnapping traumatizes, then inspires Colorado rock climber to attempt the impossible

FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2015, file photo,climber Tommy Caldwell speaks during a news conference in El Capitan meadow in Yosemite National Park, Calif.
FILE - In this Jan. 15, 2015, file photo,climber Tommy Caldwell speaks during a news conference in El Capitan meadow in Yosemite National Park, Calif.

It may seem audacious, even arrogant, to believe you are capable of doing something that’s never been done.

But for climber Tommy Caldwell, finding a way to climb what everyone said was impossible just felt a lot less terrifying than what he’d already faced in his life.

Caldwell, one of the most successful climbers in the world, and his then girlfriend and fellow climber Beth Rodden had traveled in Kyrgyzstan with two other elite climbers to test their skills on the border of China and the former Soviet Union in August 2000.

About six days into the trip, they were taken hostage by rebels who were warring with the Kyrgyz government. For nearly a week, the group talked about if and how they might escape the rebels, who seemed hapless and unprepared but were also heavily armed.

“We were progressively wasting away,” said Caldwell, who spoke to the Deseret News as a documentary based on his life leading up to successfully climbing the Dawn Wall in 2015 returns to nine Utah theaters for a one-day engagement on Monday, Oct. 8. “We were on the verge of hypothermia for much of the time, and we were getting really skinny. Luckily the weather was pretty good.”

When two of the four captors disappeared, discussions began in earnest about how to escape. One of the men decided to go back to the group’s base camp to search for food, even though they’d already ransacked it.

On the side of a steep mountainside, the four of them had to decide exactly what they were willing to do to escape from the lone captor, who was a 19-year-old mercenary.

The aftermath was significant for all of the climbers.

“I was pretty shocked and traumatized,” Caldwell said. “Going out and climbing something I knew, that’s how I found comfort. That place became El Cap.” Whenever he climbed any section of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, he found himself staring at the Dawn Wall — a sheer slab of rock that had never been scaled by free climbers.

“A wall that is big and scary and intimidating,” he said, “it felt kind of mellow after being kidnapped. I started to think about how I could use (the experience).” Being kidnapped changed a lot for Caldwell, including what he thought of pain.

“It reset my idea of what suffering really is,” he said. “We’d gotten to this point where I didn’t know if we’d live. We’d survived physically what I didn’t think was possible. All of a sudden my perceived limit was in this new place. I was more willing to try big routes. I was more willing to fail.” That doesn’t mean Caldwell was reckless.

He and the man who would eventually attempt to climb the Dawn Wall with him — Kevin Jorgeson — spent years strategizing, planning and then attempting sections of the climb before their 2015 attempt.

In some of these attempts, Caldwell agree to let friend and filmmaker Zachary Barr chronicle his attempts. A longtime friend of Caldwell’s, he knew his unique talent made it an endeavor worth following. He wasn’t, however, convinced it was even possible.

“I think we were like everyone else,” he said of those who directed and produced the film that was based on Caldwell’s book. “We were hoping these guys would climb it. But did we believe they were going to do it? No. There wasn’t a lot of evidence to suggest they were going to succeed.” Still, he knew it would be a great story, either way.

So they watched Caldwell through a camera lens on his own, and then when he was joined by Jorgeson, who was among the best in the world at bouldering.

“I just felt a complete sense of awe for their commitment,” Barr said of what it was like to realize the duo would likely succeed. “I felt a little chagrined for ever doubting them. I didn’t think any human could do it, but I did feel like if anyone could, it would be Tommy.”

The one aspect of the climb that Caldwell couldn’t really understand was the attention it attracted. Climbing wasn’t a mainstream sport, and even the most accomplished climbers rarely achieved any media attention.

But as he and Jorgeson made their way up the Dawn Wall, they attracted thousands of followers and fans who seemed as emotionally invested in their accomplishment as they were.

“This was an anomaly,” Caldwell said. “I still don’t understand that completely. I think there is a lot of reasons it made sense. … But we definitely didn’t plan any of it. It just happened.”

As media attention, including from The New York Times, explained the significance of the challenge, Caldwell believes people felt connected to aspects of it. From the desire to overcome the impossible to facing very real fear of failure, he believes people saw something in their effort that resonated with their own experiences.

“I think the fact that people were able to watch it unfold over 19 days, and just like any sporting event, interest built over time,” he said. “We’d dedicated seven years of our lives to this.”

Caldwell’s journey illustrated to the world so much more than his sport could contain. The film is an opportunity to relive those 19 agonizing and thrilling days, but with the context of why Caldwell might seek the kind of challenge that most of us avoid.

It is a chance to be reminded life is brutal, unfair and terrifying. But it is, at the same time, beautiful, joyous and an invitation to see obstacles as adventures.

“When I saw (the film), it brought me back to those experiences,” Caldwell said. “There were sections that were hard — my awkward childhood, my divorce — that stuff isn’t easy to watch. But there is a lot of it, all the Dawn Wall stuff, that brings me back to this really incredible experience.”

Here are the locations where the movieis playing on Monday, Oct. 8:

  • University Mall, Orem
  • Cinemark 16 Provo, Provo
  • Cinemark 24 W. Jordan, West Jordan
  • Tinseltown Newgate, Ogden
  • Station Park 14, Farmington
  • Sugarhouse Movies 10, Salt Lake City
  • Highbury Center, West Valley City
  • Megaplex Theatres @ The District + IMAX, South Jordan
  • Megaplex Theatres @ Jordan Commons + IMAX, Sandy