Tommy Caldwell talks about how we can help kids protect the planet and how his latest objectives are about more than just climbing.
In Colorado, where climbing is held in the same reverence as football, Tommy Caldwell is a household name. After all, the Centennial State native has elevated the sport to new levels with numerous first and free ascents and the stunning first free ascent of Yosemite’s 32-pitch, 5.14d Dawn Wall with Kevin Jorgeson in 2015, a feat that wowed audiences across the nation in the film of the same name. Caldwell has continued to dream big in his adventures since then, knocking off never-before-dreamed-of objectives with Alex Honnold, including something they dubbed the Continental Divide Ultimate Linkup (CDUL), a 36.5-hour traverse in Rocky Mountain National Park that took in 17 summits and 65 pitches of climbing up to 5.11.
But Caldwell’s influence in the outdoor world and beyond goes far beyond just climbing stuff no one else can. As he has seen the effects of climate change first hand while out in the mountains, his life focus has broadened to encompass environmental advocacy and activism. A Protect Our Winters athlete and vocal spokesperson for conservation legislation, Caldwell leverages his prominence as an athlete to work with lawmakers and the public to try to make a difference as human advancement threatens the natural world. He’s dedicated to working with and for brands with values, including B-Corp Patagonia and mission-focused Clif Bar (back in April, “Earth Month,” the dad of two worked with Clif Kid to talk to and motivate kids to care for the planet). He took the time to talk to Elevation Outdoors about being a dad, Earth advocacy, hope for the future, and his upcoming adventures.
Do you think your kids see the world in a different way than we did growing up?
In some ways, my kids are raised in a very similar way to how I was raised. We’re outside all the time. We’re going to the crags; we’re climbing constantly. We’re skiing. We’re immersed in nature. Therefore, they have a big appreciation for the outdoors and want to take care of it. I felt like I had that when I was young, but I think there is more urgency now with kids because it seems like the Earth needs more care. The future is more in question now. There’s climate anxiety. So at this point, we’re just trying to set an example of caretaking and doing the right things to try and reduce our impact. And I get involved in lobbying work a lot. My kids don’t do that, but they see it.
What can tell them you are doing—or that they can do—that is making a difference in the world?I’m proud of the fact that we are working towards making our house a net-zero house. We also really carefully consider what we consume. We try to travel less. We barely ever eat meat. And those things are good, but, on a day-to-day basis, they probably don’t make a lot of difference. What we really need is policy change. And so working for policy change is what I’m the most proud of.
So is that type of climate awareness affecting the way you are choosing a new project? Are you thinking about it from a much broader standpoint?
Yes. For example, years ago, I would just pick the best climbs in the world that I wanted to go do. I’d want to do a big wall route in Patagonia, so I’d buy a plane ticket. I would focus completely on just the climbing objective. That has changed. This summer, I’m planning a trip to the Tongass National Forest [in Alaska], where I’m going to ride my bike 2,000 miles from Colorado all the way there and climb along the way and have this incredible summer of adventure. I will also do some storytelling around the Tongass because there’s old growth being logged and the place needs to be protected. The Tongass area has 80 to 90 percent Indigenous inhabitants, but there’s no co-management there because it’s just national forest land. There’s no major federal protection, which is what we’re shooting for longterm. Right now it’s only protected through weird little laws like the Roadless Rule. So this trip fulfills my selfish want for adventure, but it also tells a much bigger story and hopefully helps raise awareness for this place and protect it.
What can you tell us about the work you are doing with Clif Bar to help make kids aware of what they can do in the face of climate change?
I’ve been a Clif athlete since 2008 and it’s been an incredible partnership. I try to partner with value-forward brands and Clif has always been the tip of the spear for that. So, for Earth Day, we’re very excited to be launching the first climate-certified, climate-neutral kids’ bar. These certifications are hard to get. You have to invest a lot of money, really vet your supply chain, and figure out how much you are impacting the planet. It’s a big deal. So I’m super proud of Clif for making an effort to do that. And since it’s a kids’ bar and I have kids, I’m helping to spread the word about it.