12 Inches from Death on El Capitan

by Corey Rich

70-200mm Lens / ISO 200 / f/2.8 / 1/200th second

In cynical times like these, you’d be hard pressed to find a professional athlete who deserves to be called a hero or role model. Guys like Tiger, A-Rod and Lance have made us rather pessimistic that top athletes can be great competitors and great people, too.

But if there is one guy I know who actually deserves to be called a hero, it’s my friend Tommy Caldwell. Tommy isn’t just one of the nicest guys around, he’s arguably the best all-around climber of all time. No one else has excelled in every climbing discipline to the degree that Tommy has—from 5.15 sport climbs, to his visionary big-wall free climbs, to his feats of mind-boggling athleticism—free-climbing El Cap twice in a single day, etc.

Even in the mountains, Tommy excels. Take, for example, his and Alex Honnold’s recent enchainment of the entire Fitz Roy massif over five days. For even the best mountaineers, climbing just one of those rugged and beautiful peaks would be a lifetime achievement; but to do all seven in one push involves a combination of skill, athleticism and risk tolerance that has no other parallel in our society. Yet guys like Tommy do all this without blood doping or multi-million dollar contracts and sponsorship deals. He leads a humble existence and does it for the pure love of the mountains and adventure.

And don’t forget: Tommy is an amputee, having lost his left pointer finger to a table saw a few years back. That he can still climb at the cutting edge is unbelievable.

Aside from his unmatched talent and egoless love for climbing, Tommy is one of the first guys who will give back to the community. When I served on the board of the Access Fund, I can’t tell you how many times Tommy would come to our rescue with a slideshow event to raise money for some cause, never complaining or asking anything in return.

I’ve pitched profiles of Tommy to various magazines over the years. Ironically, few are interested because Tommy isn’t a Tiger, A-Rod or Lance. There isn’t a sordid underbelly to his personality; no skeletons in his closet. He doesn’t cheat. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t talk shit about others. He’s basically just a regular dude. I think that if the heroes we choose are a reflection of our society, then the fact that the best all-around climber to have ever lived might not be considered “profile-worthy” simply because he’s an upstanding guy says a lot about us and our values, don’t you think?

But for me, one of the real reasons I get to call Tommy a hero is that he saved my life. And if that’s not heroic, I don’t know what is.

In 2005, Tommy and his then wife, Beth Rodden, were working toward a second free ascent of the famous Nose route on El Capitan. First free climbed by Lynn Hill in 1990, the Nose is perhaps the most famous big-wall climb in the world: 3,100 vertical feet high, 31 pitches, and difficulties up to 5.14a. In 2005, still no one had been able to repeat Hill’s achievement.

This photo shows Tommy in 2005, climbing on the “Changing Corners” pitch: perhaps the single hardest pitch of the whole route. The Changing Corners comes high up on the wall; you’re about 2,000 feet off the ground at this point. It’s steep, tricky and exposed.

In climbing photography, and really all sports photography, there’s always that balance of whether you get to shoot when the light is right, or do you take pictures when the conditions are prime for the athlete? In this situation, we were shooting early in the morning when the temperatures were cool for Tommy. We were shooting in open shade, with ambient morning light.

A couple hours earlier, we had rappelled down El Cap from the summit, where we were camping. Using 1,000 feet of rope strung from the summit down to the Changing Corners pitch, Tommy and Beth were able to easily rappel down to the Changing Corners, work on it for a few hours, and then jug back up the ropes to gain the summit during the middle of the day when it was too hot to climb.

For me as the photographer, the fixed rope made it easy to always be on a rope, hanging above Tommy or Beth, and create dramatic pictures.

This particular morning, Tommy tied in for his first attempt to climb the Changing Corners. I got into position on the fixed rope. I hung on the 10mm plumb rope, spinning around through the air as the wall in this section is that steep. I wanted to shoot with a wide-angle lens so you could see the entire expanse of El Cap below and really get a sense for the 2,000 feet of palm-sweating exposure in this situation. I snapped a few frames, but realized that my rope was in the frame.

Making sure your rope isn’t in the frame is a perennial issue in climbing photography. Especially when you’re shooting wide-angle, it’s easy to get the rope, or even your foot, in the frame as you struggle to capture action while hanging and spinning on a rope.

The bottom of the rope was tied off to the anchor where Beth was clipped in and belaying Tommy, 100 feet below me. I yelled down to Beth.

“Hey, Beth! Would you please untie the rope? It’s in my frame!”

“Sure thing!” She yelled back. She quickly untied the rope and returned to her main task and focus, which was belaying Tommy.

This morning, Tommy was struggling to do all the moves on this sharp, beautiful dihedral. He was really working for it, giving it 110 percent. And for me, that’s a great situation. I didn’t need to ask Tommy to do anything or strike certain poses. I just got to be there and capture the action of America’s most humble trad climber, battling his way up the dihedral.

I switched to a telephoto lens, and continued to focus on making beautiful, authentic photographs that documented his effort. After all the fuss with the rope and the wide-angle lens, ironically, my favorite shot was this one, which I took using a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8.

Tommy climbed most of the way up the Changing Corners dihedral before his foot slipped and he took a 15-foot fall onto his last piece of gear. When one of your best friends is genuinely frustrated and bummed out, you really know it. But you also know how to try to make that friend feel better. I turned to humor, and started jousting him.

“Hey, Tommy. You need me to put on my climbing shoes and show you how it’s done?”

And of course he retorted with, “Sure thing. Then I can take your camera and make some pictures that are actually sellable and, for once, in focus, too!”

We were both laughing. Tommy lowered down to the belay with Beth. And I decided to rappel down my rope to join Tommy and Beth at the anchor.

As I was lowering myself, I continued joking around with Tommy. Then, sort of out nowhere, Tommy said, “Stop, stop! What are you doing?”

The way he said it, with such firm tenacity, caused me to stop rappelling. I froze. “What are you talking about?” I asked.

But before Tommy could even answer, I looked down and realized that I was about 12 inches away from rappelling off the end of the rope. After asking Beth to untie the rope and get it out of the frame, I had forgotten to pull it up and tie a knot into the rope’s end for my own safety.

Had Tommy not stopped me, I would’ve rappelled right off the end of the rope and fallen 2,000 feet to my death.

At that moment, I will tell you that it was amazing how short those 12 inches felt. I went into a sort of fight-or-flight response. I quickly clipped my ascender to the rope as a back-up and tied a knot in the rope’s end.

My heart was beating so hard that it actually felt like it was coming out of my chest. With each chest thump, the reality of just how close I came to death became more and more impactful.

I got lucky. Lucky that the rope was as long as it was. Lucky that Tommy said what he said, in the way that he said it. But mostly just lucky that Tommy was there at all. Despite being distracted by our joking around, he still had the awareness to check his partner’s safety. Part of being a great climber isn’t just the ability to climb 5.14; it’s the ability to be safe and double-check your partners’ safety, too.

I walked away from that experience shaken—we all did, actually. The next couple of days, I found myself not just double and triple checking myself, but checking everything six or seven times. I was hesitant and slow and everything felt unusually scary.

But eventually, by the end of the trip, I was able to get over it. After all, El Cap is my office, my second home. Being on ropes in big vertical environments isn’t just what I do. It’s what I love.

But you don’t come 12 inches from your own death without taking away a few lessons. For me, the first one was, boy, life sure is fragile. We cannot take that for granted. No photograph is worth getting hurt for or with risking your life for. I really believe that. What’s most valuable to me is consistency—being able to do this kind of fun, exciting stuff day after day over the course of a long and happy life.

To spend time with great friends in wild places and bring back the still and motion content that will inspire others to push themselves in their own ways really is what my life’s work is all about. Of course, I don’t want that cut short.

But of course, it can be cut short—rather easily, too. And the response to that reality is really what makes guys like Tommy Caldwell heroic. The most courageous and impressive thing about being the best all-around climber in the world is inspiring others, like me, to never get too complacent, never get too comfortable, and to always, always, always make every day count.

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Jeff March 5, 2014 - 3:55 pm

Unbelievable story. I do not know how you guys do it. Fantastic pic!

G. Brad Lewis March 5, 2014 - 4:02 pm

Great story, Corey, thanks for sharing. It had my palms sweating. You are both great athletes. Aloha. Brad

Jan March 5, 2014 - 11:33 pm

Great story, had something similar happen to a friend of mine, only not in a spectacular environment like that. Unfortunately it really dampened my enthusiasm for climbing. Here they say »It’s not difficult to become a good mountaineer, but to become an old mountaineer«.

Gilbert Carrillo March 7, 2014 - 7:56 am

I have always admired the work you do up there so high. You have the ability to concentrate on the shot while dangling so dangerously high. I tip my hat to the work you guy do. Great story. Heights, have my full respect and you my admiration.

Gail H Wilson March 7, 2014 - 8:12 am

My heart was beating faster and faster as I read your story. So glad it ended the way it did and you’re still around to share it. Amazing!

Dave Katz March 20, 2014 - 1:31 am

This is one of my favorite posts from your Story Behind the Image, and I’ve been following for over a year now via Twitter. I’ve also been damn close to rappelling off the end of a fixed line, and it scared the crap out of me too. It turns out, its one of the most common ways to end your existence on rope, and yet, it seems to keep happening all the time. A friend on SAR in Yosemite says it happens attest once a year just in the valley. Anyhow, really strong writing here and a excellent photo. I thought this story was going to be about the rope dragging over the corner and getting close to cutting after a lead fall, glad that wasn’t the case. Thanks for sharing, looking forward to seeing your next post. Cheers! Dave

https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.fairy.tales September 27, 2014 - 1:40 am

this is such an amzing ghost story!

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