A Mediterranean Adventure with Tommy Caldwell
Words By Sonnie Trotter
Photos by Cory Rich + Rebecca Caldwell
For years, I had an embarrassingly cheesy poster on the back of my door in public school that read “A hero is someone who gets up, even when they can’t.” Two years later I discovered indoor rock climbing, Chris Sharma and Tommy Caldwell. Since then, they have been heroes of mine, not for their obvious natural talent, but for their legendary efforts.
Trapped in a suburban neighborhood climbing on ply-wood walls, I wanted to be out there, outside, doing what they were doing, and seeing the places they were seeing. I wanted to be rad like they were. Later, when I discovered trad climbing, Caldwell became my main inspiration. He was untouchable, fit, fearless and willing to push himself beyond his comfort zone time and time again. Now, here we are together, 17 years later sitting on a man-made ledge of nylon and aluminum, and I still want to be rad like he is.
I watched and took pictures as Caldwell wrapped another pass of climbing tape around his wrist, with his sunglasses on, his hoody pulled up and a full range of cams clipped to his harness, he looked as though he was gearing up for a shot at Cerro Torre in Patagonia, not a single pitch trad climb in the Mediterranean. That’s how it was, cold, brutally windy, and wild. The local climbers apologized for the terrible wind, which kicked up the ocean swell so big it sometimes crashed over the tops of climbs and flooded the streets. In a way, if it were not for the wind, we might not have found one of the most exciting roof cracks we’ve ever seen.
The Maltese Islands are unique in that the tiny amount of land they have is all protected from hundreds of miles of open-ocean by cliffs on all sides. Our plan was to climb on the south side of Gozo and to establish a new route by boat, on the tallest stretch of cliff we could find, water up, gear only, no bolts. That was the vision. Once we got high enough, we’d commit to the wall and eventually top out near a beautiful lookout point and hopefully get a ride back into town. Two things prevented us from this dream. The first was the rock quality was worse than we could have ever expected on the upper bands. The second was the waters were rough and no boat would take us out. This predicament led us to ponder our options in a cafe one evening. I believe to Caldwell’s delight, I ordered a beer and a cappuccino at the very same time. We met a local climber named Xavier, who had seen a particularly steep arête on the North side of the island and suggested we go check it out. When we finally found the top of the cliff the next day, the wind was blowing so hard, we could barely stand in one place. Staying low to the ground was our best defense. We rigged up some ropes and dropped over the edge to inspect this potential new route opportunity, but unfortunately the line proved too hard, and even harder to access. As I looked above me to fasten my ascenders to go back up, I could see a horizontal roof with a dark slash cutting across it. It looked like the Monument in Ontario on steroids hanging 50 metres above the Mediterranean ocean. With only a few days left on our trip, we knew we had to try it immediately.
I’m getting ahead of myself, to discover this crack, meant we first had to discover Malta, and that story begins in February of 2005.
Paul Bride popped the cork to another cheap bottle of red wine, as cold rain rapped on the windows of his basement apartment. Squamish in winter can be stagnate, a time to eat, drink and dream. After the sugar spike from proudly devouring an entire tray of his wife’s freshly baked cookies hit us, we began our internet search for new and enticing places to climb and explore a place far away from the crowds.
We punched the words ‘beautiful rocks’ into a search engine on his desktop computer, while Led Zeppelin rang Dazed and Confused, and hit enter. A tiny image of a place called the Blue Grotto came up and inspired us so much that we booked our fourteen hundred dollar plane tickets on the spot, to a place we had never heard of and could barely find on a globe. We didn’t know if the climbing was decent, or even if it were allowed, and this was scary for me since I was 25 and already living off of credit cards, but how could anyone resist the Blue Grotto?
For better or for worse some of the best climbing areas around the world have been discovered and developed, and are now bombarded with climbing tourism. I’ll use Thailand as an example. I realize how much fun it can be, but personally I have always boycotted the place because I never wanted to fly across the Pacific Ocean, only to see 20 of my closest friends from Canada. I can’t explain why, but being one of the first to climb a new route, or at least in a new area has always intrigued me the most; I suppose it’s simply the sense of wonder.
The idea for our trip was to climb, paddle and camp along the countries famous sea cliffs and aside from a few nights in a hotel, and a couple of boat tours, that’s exactly what we did, for three weeks. That first trip with Paul and friends, during the summer of 2005, changed my idea of what adventure meant to me. We didn’t climb fast and light up an icy north facing gully in Alaska. Nor did we haul giant pigs to the top of a remote wall in Baffin Island, and we certainly didn’t get lost in the jungle, but we did have an adventure nonetheless. Instead of cold peaks and pinnacles, I joined five friends on a kayaking mission around the tiny Islands of Gozo and Comino searching for rocks solid enough to climb, water deep enough to jump in, and land flat enough to sleep on.
Not far from where the worlds largest great white shark was caught, we deep water soloed from 5.9 to 5.13. We slowly picked our way through sections of loose, steep rocks over crashing waves and water so dark at times it was black. It was an intimidating place, but our team of friends in kayaks was never far from picking up an unexpected plunger. Over the course of three weeks, we established some of the countries now popular climbing areas and coveted climbs.
When I left, I didn’t think I would ever be back, we had done enough and there are many places to go, and many things to do, I was wrong again. Malta is a small island, full of big adventures. Less than a decade later, I returned, with Caldwell as thrilled about looking for those big adventures.
Back to the great roof, the first thing Caldwell and I had to do was get to the crack, which was harder than it looked. At first inspection, the rock appeared good quality on the outside, but underneath a thin layer of crust was a different story, in fact, the consistency wasn’t much better than compact sand, or as Caldwell put it, “dried peanut butter.” We practiced putting in bolts on nearby rocks on top, and after placing a 3/8-inch bolt, in a 3/8-inch hole we were able to twist, bend and pry the bolt free with our bare hands. So, when I cast out over shark infested waters and crashing waves, I didn’t exactly have a lot of confidence. Luckily, I drilled on a downward angle to increase the leverage and everything worked out, Caldwell and I had an anchor established at the foot of the great roof, and we got to use our port-a-ledge that we brought from Colorado.
Two days later, our hands were bruised, battered and bleeding. Wrestling with a 20 metre roof-crack made my back ache to the point where bending over became a motion only Advil could assist with. Feeling the end of our trip closing in, we traded desperate burns late into the evenings. Suddenly we found ourselves at sunset, on our last day of attempts before returning home without any major linkage. We could do all the moves, but failed to connect all of them to complete the climb.
The sun was getting low on the horizon, and Caldwell had just finished an epic attempt, a one hang ascent, and a new highpoint. We were stoked, because we knew it was possible, but time was running out. It was my turn again. I had a fresh tape glove on with two extra layers than normal to protect the bruising; I slipped my hands into the fissure and flexed my thumbs for purchase. I slipped one foot into the crack before committing to the roof and stopped to look behind me, I could see the tiny cams swinging from gusts of wind. I pulled my other foot into the crack and grunted as I jammed my hand into a flare three feet away. I grimaced and cut my feet, trying to swing them around into a pod shaped perfect for a climbing shoe, but I missed and slumped onto the rope. It was my worst effort yet. A wave broke beneath my feet and I yelled back towards Caldwell that I had nothing left, “What?” he said as another wave crashed into the cliff. The hissing and smashing sounded like a hungry dragon.
“I said, I’m Done!” and laughed as I swung back onto the ledge. I had reached a rare point when I was physically exhausted, but more importantly my arms and hands could take no more abuse. The bruising beneath the tape throbbed like an abscessed tooth, I needed rest and alcohol. It was disappointing, but I had more fun on that climb over the last three days than on any other the previous three months. I was satisfied with our rare discovery and our honest efforts. I was content.
I unroped, thinking it was time to pack up our sea cliff base camp in the sky. But then Caldwell asked me if he could give it one more burn. I was hoping he would ask me that. “Absolutely,” I replied as I readied my belay. We had headlamps and fixed ropes, so we weren’t worried about nightfall.
Caldwell was probably hurting, but he didn’t show it like I had. When I’m hurt, or scared, I talk about it. I admit it. That’s what I do. Either Caldwell doesn’t get scared or hurt, or he just never talks about it, because I watched him commit to the crack like it was his first time. With quick, explosive movements he moved through the first crux with optimism. Breathing heavily, he was past his highpoint, and looking strong. He battled hard for purchase, stuffing his feet into the crack as deeply as he could. The climbing began to take its toll on Caldwell. It’s steep for so long that even a climber as strong and as experienced as Caldwell was feeling the effects. Just before the anchor, he started to shake, his jams weren’t secure, but he kept on fighting. And just as he made it within a metre of the anchor, just when we both thought he had it, he slipped from his jams with an ‘awe shucks’ sort of sigh. It was something I have come to expect from Caldwell, the eternal optimist. He gives it 110 per cent every time, but is never too disappointed when things don’t work the way he expects them. Caldwell is a calm, grateful, level headed climber who lives in the present. He never dwells on the past, whether it’s 20 years, 20 minutes or 20 seconds ago. He fights until he can’t fight anymore, then goes home with a smile on his face and looks forward to the future.
In the car back to the hotel, I watched him unravel his tape gloves behind the wheel, only to reveal skin that looked just as bad as or worse than mine. We took the same abuse, the same hits and punches, but Caldwell found the nerve to go out there just one more time and that’s why he’ll always be my hero. Some guys have Mike Tyson or Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzki or Barry Sanders, I have Tommy Caldwell. A hero gets up, even when they can’t.
At the airport the next day, we packed our bags and said our goodbyes. I asked him if he wanted to go back and finish it off, the crack suspended over the ocean we had fought so hard to climb, “Probably not,” he said. Just as I had said on my first visit to Malta, Caldwell finished with, “There’s so many places to go, and so many things to do.”