Tommy Caldwell on Protecting Type II Adventures
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You can see the North Face of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park from professional rock climber Tommy Caldwell’s bedroom window. It is a rare occurrence that this face actually fills in with snow, but Tommy’s daily winter routine still involves wishfully glancing up at the peak hoping today will be the day that it’s going to work.
It was late in May, when on the other side of the mountain, Kyle Judson, founder and co-owner of Elevated Independent Energy, received the call. It was time. A late spring storm had blanketed the mountains with just enough snow to attempt a long dreamed about epic mission: ski the three big lines on Longs Peak in one day.
Kyle and Tommy first met through The Conservation Alliance after Elevated became the first solar company to join. They soon bonded over their shared passion for protecting our wild spaces, namely by decentralizing the power grid and utilizing alternative energy sources like solar. Kyle had skied with Tommy a handful of times prior to this invite and knew he was in for some serious endurance if he were to accept.
“Although Tommy is known for his climbing more than anything, what most people don’t know is that he’s also just indefatigable. He never gets tired. He is impossible to wear out,” Kyle noted when recounting the adventure. “I pride myself on being a strong skier, both uphill and downhill, but every time I’ve skied with Tommy, he just smokes me. So, I was a little nervous when he invited me on this journey, but at the same time, you don’t turn down Tommy Caldwell and such a cool objective."
And so, his answer was yes. Tommy, Kyle, and their other buddy Zach readied their gear and let their stoke levels soar. As rad dads juggling work and life, all three men knew how lucky it was that the stars had aligned to create this perfect adventure window.
“One thing I’ve realized that I didn’t expect before having kids is that you’re spoiled,” Tommy reflected when asked about this rad dad trio. “If the conditions aren’t good for climbing, you’re a little whiny and just don’t value the time as much. But once you have kids, you’re like, man I made it out to the crag today. This is an amazing day. You start getting around other dads, and the energy level tends to be off the charts. The stoke is so high. If you’re trying to be an outdoor enthusiast and a working man and a dad at the same time, you just have a slightly adrenalized life. And so, maybe you’re just always stoked because you kind of have to be.”
Before the break of day, these three super amped dads began the hike up towards the North Face of Longs Peak. It was one of those days that if you didn’t know that the high elevation terrain was good, you probably would not even think about gearing up to ski.
The snow did not appear until about 10,000 feet, close to Goblins Forest. As they climbed the rest of the way up to the 14,259 foot summit (ice tools in tow), the sun was rising over the horizon casting that picture-perfect glow over the top of the mountain. The wind was whipping across their faces, and the new snow glistened with enticement.
This is the liminal moment when man and mountain blur. When the struggle of the uphill is about to be worth it. When the beauty of nature overwhelms the human spirit. About 5,000 feet above the Longs Peak parking lot, Tommy, Kyle, and Zach peeled off their skins and let their smiles shine in the nascent sunlight. Despite the shortness of the North Face line, the position is classic. It is only skiable for a few days each year, and it was well worth the wait for these conditions.
“We skied down about 1,000 feet or so, but we knew it was going to be a big day,” Tommy shared. “We could have kept going down further, but we just skied the best part of the North Face then turned around and headed back up to the top of the mountain.”
By “we,” Tommy meant himself and Zach. Kyle waited at the summit knowing all too well what the rest of the day had in store for him.
“I learned this term from Tommy,” Kyle reported. “I had to ‘budget my body’ that day. I couldn’t go all-in the way that Tommy and Zach did. So, when they skied the North Face, I took a little siesta on the summit. I laid there in my puffy, just trying to stay warm and soak up as much sun as I could.”
When it comes to the backcountry (and fatherhood), being a badass means being able to get back to the car. As Tommy and Zach reappeared on the summit, Kyle was rested and ready to tackle the next infamous Longs line, Keplingers Couloir.
A few weeks prior, Kyle had endured a hellish approach (complete with bushwhacking and getting lost) to Keplingers only to arrive with no snow in sight. And, the day before this rad dad trio reached the line, Zach had gone up and tried to ski it, but the snow was rock solid that day. But today, untracked powder caked the couloir. Conditions were perfect, and the stoke levels flew off the charts.
It was the best line of the day. Two thousand vertical feet of untouched snow. Only one other party was seen on the mountain all day. Tommy gave a couple of hoots and hollers as Kyle was dropping knees at 14,000 feet on his teles. Turn after turn in the awe-inspiring powder of which every skier dreams. Until it wasn’t…
Keplingers is a long enough descent that they could watch the snow change drastically, from powder up top to mashed potatoes down low. Mirroring the change in snow quality, things started to take a turn.
At this point, the crew had climbed over 8,000 vertical feet with heavy packs, so they were “feeling it” as Tommy described. But, there was still one more line left to tackle to complete the mission. They hiked back up Keplingers and headed down across the major hiking route that goes up Longs Peak. In the summertime, it’s a pretty flat and unassuming section of the Keyhole Route called the Narrows because it goes through the middle of a cliff. However, at this time of year, the trail was filled in with steep snow.
“It sort of felt like one of those slightly irresponsible things to do as a dad,” Tommy joked. “We could have fallen a long way down off that cliff.”
Dawning crampons, the three men ascended carefully, keenly aware that if they pitched during a cruxy move, they would be tumbling into the abyss. To add to the suspense, the weather had turned. It was snowing again, and conditions were getting bad.
“That's one of the things I love about Colorado actually,” Tommy added. “You can get out and have a pretty traumatizing experience just a few hours from home."
With traumatizing type II fun in full effect, the rad dads arrived at The Trough, the third and final line. By this time, it was dumping. Tommy, Kyle, and Zach stole the last few powder turns of the day in a pure whiteout. As they dropped in elevation, the snow beneath their skis became bulletproof, a variable hard pack that was everything but fun. And then, the rad dads had to muster every ounce of remaining energy for the long ski out.
They were exiting from the Bear Lake Trailhead, a different trailhead than where they had started their approach. The trio entered Glacier Basin and slogged through slush and fallen logs, onto a frozen lake (that turned out not to be fully frozen), across not-so-frozen lake via floating iceberg, and onward for what felt like eternity. But, the end was in sight, and they were all in it for the adventure.
“I kind of like when it turns to type II fun like that at the end of the day,” Kyle admitted. “Where it's like, we can't give up now, we’re still seven miles from the trailhead, post-holing knee-deep in slush. Our feet are soaked, our jackets are soaked, and our hands are freezing. But, there’s a warm truck at the end of it. It was a long day, yet it was so rewarding.”
As second generation Coloradans, both Tommy and Kyle grew up staring at this same mountain. And, like many young guns, they thought their favorite places would remain unchanged forever.
“We don't appreciate what we have when we are younger,” Kyle elaborated. “We just take it for granted, and it's often about ego and achievement, peak bagging or pushing the grade or ski descent or whatever. But you start to realize, if you don't take care of these places, they're not going to last forever; that was a main reason in founding Elevated and dedicating my career to renewable energy solutions like solar. We’re not going to be able to ski powder for the rest of our lives unless we start making some big changes in the way we live.”
It is because of adventures like this Longs Peak epic that people are able to fall in love with the nature that surrounds them. As more people embrace outdoor activities, the more they learn what it is that compels the rest of us to protect these wild places. Beyond just sport, they start to grasp the reason we must keep returning. And, the reason we must do better as stewards of the land.
“In some ways, the people who are out in it every day, we are the eyes and ears of the mountains,” Tommy added. “We understand what sort of hazards could degrade the environment, and we understand and notice the changes happening. At the end of the day, it's really just about creating and driving this culture of respect. With time and more exposure to these areas, people will start to develop that love and that appreciation and that awareness that is essential in making the personal changes it requires to protect these treasured wild spaces.”
Although not everyone may be cut out for 12 hours of epic adventuring for a mere 15 minutes of beautiful powder turns, Tommy Caldwell and Kyle Judson are committed to ensuring that the Colorado they leave for their children will be just as good, if not better, than it was on that day late in May.