Climbing – Mountain Gazette – June 2008
“Name Droppings” by Chris Kalous
The MYTHOLOGY OF CLIMBING often focuses on a rapacious individual standing alone against the odds and ignoring danger at every turn. In the case of Beth Rodden, one of America’s best all-around climbers, the myth runs headlong into a reality that is more sunny than surly. Yet her fresh face and humble nature belie a driven attitude that is as tough as nails. Case in point: Meltdown (Beth: “5.14c-ish maybe b?”) in Yosemite, a recent first ascent by Rodden, is the hardest-ever traditional lead by a woman. It took months of work through Sierra snowstorms this winter to complete.
At 27, Beth Rodden has been “at it” professionally for 12 full years. Throughout the late- ‘90s, the diminutive Rodden tore up the competition scene in Europe and the US, and her permanently youthful face graced climbing magazines across the world. By 2000, she had made the shift from competitions to outdoor climbing full-time and set the bar for women climbers with free ascents of El Capitan and 5.13 and 5.14 traditional routes including the Optimist (4.14b) in Smith Rocks and Meltdown.
In 2000, a brutal incident thrust Beth and her now husband, professional climber Tommy Caldwell, into the mainstream media. Along with two other companions, the couple was taken prisoner at gunpoint by a rebel group while climbing Kyrgyzstan. Forced to literally take matters into his own hands, Tommy pushed a captor over a cliff, an act that allowed the four to escape and safely return to the US. Author Greg Child recounts the adventure in his book Over the Edge: The True Story of Four American Climbers’ Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia.
My own climbing life has crossed paths with Beth on occasion as I have known Tommy since he was 12. Far from climbing prima donnas, Beth and Tommy, now splitting their time between Estes Park, Colorado, and Yosemite, California, are famously outgoing and encouraging to climbers of all levels at the cliffs and beyond. But after hearing about her ascent of Meltdown and having a small inkling about what it would take to complete such a climb, I decided to ferret out the necessarily anguish-driven thoughts that must lurk behind Rodden’s beautiful perma-smile.
“Tell me about your childhood,” I asked when I emailed. “What was the home life like, are you scared of clowns?”
Unfortunately, at least for any outdoor writer trying to turn achievement-based-angst into a book deal, it turns out that Beth has a great relationship with her parents. It was her dad, after all, who got her into climbing in the gym and beyond while living in Davis, California. Sports in general were a tough go for Beth because she says she was too small, but climbing sometimes favors the featherweight, so she found her calling climbing rocks.
Rodden entered the world of competition climbing so early that I was sure she was driven to win at all costs by her overpowering ego and domineering parents.
Wrong again. She was in high school and found life in Davis a perfect environment for training. “I really learned how to train and push myself for a specific goal, each comp.” She also brought home friendships with her generation of climbers, including the young man who would become her husband. By the end of the ‘90s, however, Beth was ready to move on. “It was hard to transition out of comp climbing into rock climbing full time,” she says. “I think I felt obliged to compete even though my heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
So now I begin to see it. A lonely girl at the top drops everything for a solitary life in the mountains. Excellent.
But no. After becoming the youngest woman ever to climb 5.14 in 1998, a trip to Madagascar in 1999 with the legendary Lynn Hill really opened her eyes to the possibilities of a climbing life. “That was the turning point, when I realized that I could travel the world and do what I loved instead of going to college.” Perfect. Enter a major fallout with the parents. “My parents were fully supportive.”
Damn it, Beth! Give me something tow work with! How about a young woman in a man’s world, fighting as the lone she-wolf to prove herself. And where does this Tommy guy figure in?
“I first met Tommy in 1995 at a Junior Nationals. In 2000, I went to Boulder for a month and we started dating. Then he came out to Yosemite and we started climbing on Lurking Fear (on El Capitan) together and have never been apart since.”
But I am sure that their marriage is rift with competitive angst.
“Tommy and I are very fortunate to be each other’s best friend and also get to spend every day together.”
Beth tells me that mountains are something of an anchor and a rudder. “I definitely need to be in the mountains. When I am in a city I don’t really know what to do, and I’m usually lost. When I am in the mountains, I have more energy, more psyche, and I am healthier. Everything seems to fit.” Well, what about the downtime? Drugs? All night raves? “I like to try and cook and bake,” says Rodden. “I love to hike and ride my bike.”
Well, I suppose people still like that hometown-girl-makes-good story, and the Kyrgyzstan thing adds some serious drama. So let’s wrap the rest of this up and send it to Lifetime.
Rodden says that there is “…maybe a family” in her and Tommy’s future, but they are still psyched for climbing.
The truth is that for Beth and Tommy, their best is yet to come. But watch out, because she’s too good to not be hiding something.