Sixteen months after injuring his shoulder during the 2009 American Bouldering Series Nationals, Ethan Pringle made his comeback. He did it in fine style last June, when he repeated Dai Koyamada's Wheel of Life (V16/5.14d), a massive 60-plus move roof problem in Australia's Grampians. Since then, Pringle, 24, has been on a tear, sending two more 5.14d routes, winning the UBC Pro Tour at the Nor'easter, and repeating Chris Sharma's Spicy Noodle (5.14c) in Yangshuo, China.
Now in Hueco Tanks, Pringle says he isn't in any rush to return to the competition that took him out of action. He'll be skipping ABS Nationals next month to spend time at home before heading off to Spain on a one-way ticket. I spoke with Pringle about his recovery and his fondness for Chris Sharma's routes.
You've had a really remarkable comeback since injuring your shoulder. How did you manage to return so strong after all that time off?
I guess I just went back to devoting all my time to climbing and tried my hardest not to get injured again. I sort of failed in that regard at the Nor'Easter comp, but besides that I've been pretty much injury-free for the last year or so. When I got injured originally, I had my doubts about whether I would climb anything harder than 5.12 again. So it was to my pleasant surprise that last February, March, April I started to climb well again.
Since then I've just been getting more psyched on climbing and really getting back into the swing of it. Every time I get injured it seems like a more serious injury, and every time I take time off I come back more psyched. I think that's how it works for most climbers.
In December, you put up China's hardest route, Spicy Dumpling. Tell me a little bit about how that effort went. From what I heard, it sounded like you polished it off pretty quickly.
First of all, it's an awesome route, an awesome climb. Chris [Sharma] is the one who put the bolts in it. It branches off of a route he did called Spicy Noodle. You climb up the first 30 feet or so of that route then branch out left onto the face. I was really inspired by the line.
I remember watching the video of Chris on it when it first came out and thinking—because it has this really big, shouldery move for the left arm, which is the shoulder that I injured—that I would never be able to repeat that move that he does.
But I thought the route looked awesome, a really cool line. When I saw it at first I was equally stunned by it. Then I got on it, and the first time I went up it I was pretty beat down by the crux, I couldn't figure it out.
So I was a little bit demoralized by that, and I kind of lost motivation. Unless you live close to something, it's kind of hard to want to do it if it's going to be super-duper hard for you. When it seemed like I wasn't going to be able to do that first crux very easily, I kind of lost the motivation and started focusing on other things.
Eventually I had to come back to it, because I sort of ran out of other things to climb in the area. My second time up it, I figured out beta that made the crux doable. It felt super-hard even when I could do it, but I climbed through the moves two or three times on lead that first day, and I knew it was possible to link it from the ground. I kind of put my nose to the grindstone and spent every single day I had climbing on that route. It came together really fast.
I think the style of climbing on that route suited me really well. There were quite a few options on the route other than what Chris was doing in that video. I think I pretty much did every crux a little bit differently than what he did.
You seem to have a knack for repeating Chris Sharma's harder routes. You've done Necessary Evil, Realization, and Spicy Noodle. You worked on Es Pontas and Jumbo Love. What is it that draws you to these lines? Is it just coincidence?
No, I don't think it's coincidence. I think it's the same thing that draws Chris to these lines. He does have a knack for spotting really gorgeous lines, but I think part of it is he's just out there traveling and looking for them all the time. I mean, now he lives in Spain, he's kind of at the center of sport climbing.
But a lot of these lines he gets shown by friends. Someone will be like, "Aw, Chris, I know this fantastic line, it's at this crag near here," or "Aw, Chris, you should really come check out this area in South America, or in Spain or wherever." I think he's just in this privileged position where his mission in life is to find the hardest, most badass routes, and he's kind of paving the way for everyone.
I definitely want to go discover some cliffs, and I'd be super-psyched to spend a month, or two months, or a year just looking for cliffs to bolt, but there are just so many inspiring lines out there to do. It's like, why travel halfway across the world to some place where I have no idea what's out there when I can drive ten hours from my house and be at Jumbo Love and Clark Mountain? For now, that's good enough for me.
You mentioned Jumbo Love. I remember that right after Chris did that line, a lot of people were speculating that you were going to try for the second ascent. You had said you might go back and try in the spring [of 2009], and then you got injured. Has that been in your mind at all, going back to try Jumbo Love again?
Yeah, that route is always in the back of my mind. Ever since I first climbed on it with Chris, in the spring of 2007 I think it was, I've always wanted to do it. It's an incredible line and it's in California. The wall itself is really cool.
But I don't know, it's been epic. It's like the unattainable or something. It's only a one-hour flight and an hour-and-a-half or two-hour drive from San Francisco, but somehow it's like the hardest route in the world to get to. It's so hard to find partners to go there, it's so hard to find people who are psyched to go there to begin with.
Once you have partners, you need a four-wheel drive vehicle with tons of clearance, and who knows if that will even get you to the parking lot now, because recently there were tons of floods and tons of rainfall around Vegas, so the road could be ultra messed-up.
But yeah, I'm super-psyched to do it. I don't know if I'll get to it this spring. That was my original plan, but I have a one-way ticket to Spain right now for February 17th, and there's so much climbing there I might just get stuck there for the whole spring season. But if I do get stuck there, I'll definitely go back in the fall, because I want to do that route. I know I can do it, it's just a matter of time and putting in the work. It's sort of an epic endeavor.
One time I got all the way to the redpoint crux from the ground. And the next day, I broke this small hold. This was back in the fall of 2007, after I'd come back from Europe, and I felt super-strong. I went to Clark--this was actually before Chris had done it, a year before--and I threw myself at it for a few days. I was making really fast progress. Then I got this huge flapper on my finger and had to leave, and I haven't been back since.
USA Climbing just announced that it's going to be partnering with NE2C, the people who put on the Unified Bouldering Championships. Do you think climbing could be on it's way to becoming a legit spectator sport?
I certainly hope so. I think it certainly has the capability. I think with the live streams on the internet it's going to bring in a hundred times as many people as it would without. I think it's a great tool to have for the competition organizers. Having that is going to garner so much more funding for these comps.
I'm super-psyched to watch them. I think it's heading in the right direction.
A lot of people have complained about the announcing. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it could use some changes. One of the reasons so many people watch sports on television is because the announcers know what they're talking about. They watch the plays, they give inside information to the viewers who might not know the intricacies of the sport. The hardcore fans love it because the announcers are people they've known about and looked up to for years.
I think climbing comps could use that to their advantage as well, if they got older guys who maybe competed in the PCA comps back in the day. Or just whoever, like people who didn't make the finals, who know the competitors really well, who know the field really well, who know the setters really well. I think that would help the watchability.
For instance, I know a lot of the climbers, so if I could help announce...I don't know if I would be a good announcer, but...I think people like to hear the inside story about the climbers. Not just "So-and-so just did V14, or V16, or some 5.hard climb a month ago." You can tell some funny little story about them. Like, every climber has a nickname...
So what's your nickname?
I have a few. Scott Mechler used to call me 'Piledriver'. That's one that stuck.
So how do you get a nickname like 'Piledriver'? What do you have to do?
You have to do quite a bit. Outside the comp scene.
No, I'm just kidding. I don't know how Scott came up with that one. He just came up with it on the fly, I guess. It sort of has a nice ring to it: Ethan 'Piledriver' Pringle. I don't necessarily love it, but...
You're known pretty well as a sport climber, but you've done a good deal of trad climbing--you did Cobra Crack--and in bouldering you've done some pretty heady problems, like The Beautiful and Damned (V13 X). What do you get out of doing more risky stuff like that that you wouldn't get out of sport climbing?
I like longer climbs. Obviously, I'm not a big wall climber or anything, but I like climbing for an extended period of time. Three-move, four-move boulder problems are fun every now and then, but I think I get more satisfaction from doing more moves higher off the ground.
I think those kind of headpoint-style trad climbs and highball boulder problems are sort of the same in that they tend to be these beautiful lines that are really hard to protect. You have to keep going, you have to have that confidence. I really like the mental side of it, just having to have that confidence to keep your head in it. You really get to know your limitations as a climber.