On 27 December 2014, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson began the first ever free climb of El Capitan’s ‘Dawn Wall’ (Yosemite National Park). As I recently re-watched the documentary covering their amazing feat*, I was struck by the similarities between their challenge and the bid process. The latter with, hopefully, less physical pain and hanging off a wall for days on end.
Tommy has completed more routes on El Capitan than any other climber, including numerous first free climb ascents**. He is its incumbent. Over seven years, he spent months climbing and analysing the Dawn Wall, attempting to map a route through the hardest free climb route in the world. Looking up at the Wall, it seems impossible; and many said it was. A vast expanse of apparently blank rock. But Tommy looked between the “known lines”, the existing climbing routes, finding the path (a series of pitches – told you there are similarities!) through the maze. He knew he couldn’t achieve the climb on his own, hence partnering with Kevin.
Does this remind you of anything?! You know a bid is coming out. Maybe you’re the incumbent, the challenger or, like Tommy and Kevin on the Dawn Wall, it’s a brand new opportunity. You prepare; researching the target, and gathering evidence. You receive the bid papers. You comprehend the requirement. You read, read and read again; looking for every small nuance for how you can wind a path through the submission and win the bid. You have no idea where to start. Just a blank page. You know you can’t meet all the requirements yourself, so you reach out within the business, or team up with a third party. Some stakeholders or contributors might think we can’t do it. But we’re going for it.
Day 1 on the Wall. Tommy and Kevin take in the 3,000 feet of sheer granite ahead of them, adrenaline pumping, can’t wait to get started. Day 1 on the Bid, it’s the kick off workshop – the whole team is enthusiastic, raring to go. Win themes decided, production plan shared. Of their attempt, Kevin said “this was Tommy’s world – he had a clear vision of what it should be…I could never tell if we were wasting our time or in pursuit of something grand.” Of our attempt, it’s the Bid Manager leading the team on the vision, the journey to win.
By Day 3, reality has hit. You’ve been drafting content outlines, holding daily progress calls, issuing plans and answering queries non-stop. It’s all-consuming. Back on the Wall? Tommy says he’s “gonna wake Kevin up with some coffee”. Yep, I hear you. Already, spectators have started to gather, watching their progress. For us? Senior Management and Board members are starting to show interest.
On Day 4, Tommy and Kevin are hit by a 70mph snow and windstorm. The portaledge on which they rest and sleep is repeatedly bounced against the wall. It’s chaos. Yet Tommy, grinning, says “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I love this sh*t”. How many of us feel that way about bids?! They can be stressful, even terrifying at times. Ideas and content flying everywhere. But we keep going. Many of us in this career for the long-haul.
Day 8, and Tommy and Kevin have reached pitch 15, the sideways traverse. A sequence of tiny movements over seemingly smooth rock, each to be completed perfectly to make it across. A few false starts, then for Tommy, “it just came together in this amazing, magical way”.
On the Bid? It’s content deadline day, sections start coming in and you have a jigsaw to fit together. Somehow, the response appears.
Word begins to spread, and on the Wall, Day 9 marks the media phone calls, wanting to chat with Tommy about how it’s going. For us, it’s often our stakeholders, checking in. About a week later, Tommy “accidentally” drops his phone – those around him seem to think it was no accident. I’m guessing a lot of us would share that frustration when we just want to get on with the bid but our stakeholders, partners, Board want updates.
Pitch 16 on the Wall is Tommy’s next big problem. There is nothing to grab onto – the only way across is to leap. But then, staring at the Wall, he sees another way; he can down-climb and go around it. Problem solved. How many times do clarification questions seem like a showstopper? Or a resource/technology issue appears we hadn’t thought about? We work our way around, solving the problems and getting back on track. Or we might have a team member like Kevin, who, having previously been stuck on the traverse pitch for nearly a week, makes the leap. A spark of inspiration.
2,000 feet up the Dawn Wall is a landmark known as “Wino Tower” – a lump of rock, marking the first point you can sit (or lie) on the whole route. For the Bid team, we’re 2.5 weeks through, and most of the hard work is done. The content is in and a full draft written. You might be waiting for the red team review or design work to be complete, but you can sit (or stand, or lie) and breathe. And, maybe take the “Wino” part fairly literally by this point…
Day 19, and Tommy and Kevin are enjoying their last day on the Wall. They pull themselves over the edge to the top of El Cap, crowds watching live and cheering them on. They’ve done it. The team has made it, despite how unlikely that seemed at times. For us, it’s submission day. Your MD is over your shoulder, watching as you upload, then maybe popping the champagne. The Bid team has that feeling of euphoria when you submit. You’ve all worked so hard for it.
But, as Tommy says, it’s almost bittersweet, because the experience is over. Till the next bid, and the next climb. For Tommy and Kevin, they go home, see their loved ones, and get some rest and motivation for the next climb. I think we’d agree.
*The Dawn Wall, 2017, dir: Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?! I also highly recommend the Oscar-winning, equally amazing and somehow more terrifying Free Solo (2018, dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) documenting Alex Honnold (Tommy’s friend and fellow climber) attempting the first free solo, i.e. without ropes, harnesses or safety equipment, of El Capitan.
**https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Caldwell Free climbing is driven by your own body, often just fingertips and toes (and in Tommy’s case, nine fingertips as he’s missing his left index finger!) You secure ropes as anchors along each pitch to hopefully prevent you falling, but they don’t help you climb the pitch.