Tommy Caldwell


Tommy Caldwell on What Climbing and Climate Activism Have in Common

Climber Tommy Caldwell on why athletes should be activists, how outdoor recreation helps bridge partisan polarization, and the trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that's stuck with him.

  • March 1st 2023

Tommy Caldwell spoke at Aspen Ideas: Climate 2023.

Beyond the technical skillset needed to climb in Patagonia or Yosemite — you name it — there are all sorts of intangibles that make up a sense of place and what’s needed to climb there. You’ve said that “climbers, in some ways, are like the eyes and ears of the mountains, the hard-to-get-to places, the poles and high-altitude regions where you see the acute effects of it all a bit more.” What changes are you seeing in those places, and how has that changed your relationship to them over the years? 

As adventure climbers, our lives depend on having an intimacy with the landscapes we travel through. We need to acutely understand weather patterns and glacial movement. In places like Patagonia, which is probably my favorite place to climb in the world, mountains that have been historically frozen together are now thawing out, glaciers are breaking up and becoming impassable, mountains are crumbling. 

My main climbing objective for this next summer was on a mountain called Snowpatch Spire in southern British Columbia, but it recently fell down. A 1500-foot shield of rock containing one of the most famous rock climbs in the world just sheered off. 

And even closer to home, in places like Yosemite National Park, massive fires now sweep through most years, driving us from Yosemite for weeks at a time. Over the last decade, the drought has transformed Yosemite valley and the land to the west from a lush pine forest to more of an open oak savanna. The desert is so obviously creeping north. 

My sport is one of overcoming obstacles. Addressing risk and adjusting to an ever-changing landscape, that’s not going to change any time soon. But when something you love is sick — and I believe this planet is — you do what you can to make it better. And working hard toward unlikely outcomes is what brings climbers to life.

As adventure climbers, our lives depend on having an intimacy with the landscapes we travel through.
Tommy Caldwell

What’s striking about the advocacy you do is the storytelling aspect to it — as an athlete who climbs in some of the most incredible places in the world, you’re uniquely positioned to tell stories that connect adventure with impact. Can you share an example of a trip or expedition you’ve done that really resonated with your climate work? 

A particularly memorable trip was to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2019. The Trump administration had recently mandated an oil and gas lease, and the story that was being told by oil companies and politicians like Don Young of Alaska is that the area is a wasteland — might as well drill there because there is nothing to be ruined. The other side of the story is that it’s sacred land for the Gwich’in people, provides their food security, and is some of the most untarnished wilderness left in the United States. 

It’s also home to the spectacular Brooks Range. I had done a trip several years ago to an adjacent national park called the Gates of the Arctic. One night we skied up a broad valley through a herd of a few thousand caribou that were being tracked by two white wolves. The sky was lit by aurora borealis, and we came across the carcass of a caribou that had been completely devoured by the wolves. Over the next week, we climbed Xanadu, a spectacular peak with a 2,000-foot granite wall. That trip opened my eyes to the wonder of northern Alaska, so when I returned in 2019, it was to bring back stories and photos to help the effort to stop the drilling. 

On this second trip, I gathered a team of particularly hardy folk: a few ultra runners, Clare Gallagher and Luke Nelson, along with Austin Siadak, who is one of the few photographers in the world with both the adventure aptitude and the photography skills to document such a trip. On the way in, we stopped in Fort Yukon for the annual Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit. We spent a few days hanging out with folks from several of the tribes of northern Alaska, along with climate scientists, reporters, and other adventurers. We heard presentations from hunters, fisher people, tribal elders, and scientists about the effects of climate change in northern Alaska, where the temperature is rising at three times the speed of most of the planet. 

Then we went into the Refuge and over the next week, traveled nearly 80 miles on foot, climbing the second-highest peak in the Brooks Range, sliding down quickly-receding glaciers, then packrafting out towards the Beauford Sea. Through that land that was about to be put up for oil and gas lease, we encountered wolves, grizzly bears, and countless caribou. The animals in the Refuge have a wildness to their eyes, a fullness to their fur. It’s hard to fully grasp the effects of human industrialization unless you have experienced a place like Refuge. But there was also an obvious juxtaposition — in some places, permafrost was turning from lush, flower-laden tundra to a mud pit that smelled of methane. These polar regions are huge carbon sinks and just a few degrees of warming will completely transform them and release devastating amounts of carbon. 

Just to the west of the Refuge sits Prudhoe Bay, where oil operations have transformed the landscape into a maze of roads, pipelines, and smoke stacks flaring natural gas. Prudhoe has some of the worst air pollution in North America. West of Prudhoe Bay is the Willow Project, another similar landscape that is currently being opened up to drilling. The carbon implications of the Willow Project alone are estimated to be enough to completely counteract the carbon reductions benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Massive drilling projects exist in remote places like Prudhoe Bay because they would not be allowed in places where people could see them. It gives adventurers like myself the opportunity to use our love of traveling to wild places to bring back these stories.

My sport is one of overcoming obstacles. Addressing risk and adjusting to an ever-changing landscape, that’s not going to change any time soon. But when something you love is sick — and I believe this planet is — you do what you can to make it better. And working hard towards unlikely outcomes is what brings climbers to life.
Tommy Caldwell

You’ve said, “I used to think that going climbing was a God-given right. Once you start to realize that public lands are dictated by public policy and the people writing laws, it makes you pay attention.” The outdoor community can be a very self-centered place, dominated by (mostly white) recreationalists who can often be more focused on their own adventures than the history and health of the places they adventure in. What was it that started to shift your perspective?

The threats of climate change and a better understanding of land stewardship. 

I was raised under the western perspective of land ownership, but ownership never felt totally right to me because of the reverence I felt for the places I climb. I got involved in the effort to protect Bears Ears as a national monument and spent some time getting to know the Indigenous groups in that area. I started to better understand the flawed nature of the colonial point of view. How can we claim ownership over something that’s value is so great, so immeasurable? I climb on rocks, and from a geologic perspective, human time on earth is just a blink of the eye. Maybe climbing in these landscapes just makes us feel small.

One of the special things about outdoor recreation is how it can be a great equalizer of differences, a common denominator and shared language between people of all political persuasions who just love going outside. What possibilities do you see within the outdoor community that could help inform the larger climate movement?

It's way more fun for members of Congress and their staffers to chat with adventure athletes than it is to talk to lobbyists. They like accessing our audiences to push the priorities they care about, and for athletes like me, we get direct access to talk about the priorities we care about. Most people’s ability to go on adventures outside is dependent on access to recreation, and recreation is completely bipartisan. 

Much of my climate work seems to be about protecting land. As more and more people get outside, it’s becoming obvious that preserving land for recreation not only protects the land, but oftentimes is financially better for the surrounding communities. And it takes it off the table for extraction which is generally bad for climate. Outdoor companies like Patagonia tell these stories, and organizations like Protect Our Winters rally outdoor-adventure-loving people to get behind other climate-related issues like transitioning to clean energy.

You’ve gone to Capitol Hill many times with the Access Fund and Protect Our Winters (POW). As your POW colleague Jeremy Jones put it, “We don’t go to Capitol Hill with pictures of polar bears.” So what do you go with — what has worked best for reaching across the aisle and getting policy makers on board with climate action?

In short, we show up with stoke and numbers to back up our climate-related priorities. We have examples of climate change affecting the places we live and play. We often come with a combination of athletes, outdoor business leaders, scientists, and policy workers. And we have a bit of star power which seems to really help in DC these days.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas

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