On May 17, 2015, Ethan Pringle made the first repeat of Jumbo Love (5.15b) at Clark Mountain, California. Pringle began projecting the route with Chris Sharma and Chris Lindner in 2007. The FA fell to Sharma the next year, only increasing Pringle’s drive to climb the route. After years of physical and mental torment, Pringle finally claimed the second ascent.
Here are Ethan Pringle’s thoughts on projecting and sending the hardest sport climb in North America:
RI: You’ve been projecting Jumbo Love for so many years, how did you stay motivated? What kept you going back?
Climbing JL has been my one big goal in climbing ever since I tried it in '07. It's the most inspiring climb I've seen. It has everything I seek in a sport-climbing project and then some—obvious line, steep, long and engaging, intimidating, and features fun climbing throughout, all at a crag that has very few visitors.
But it always seemed just (or sometimes very far) out of reach. The 5.15b grade is intimidating on its own. I think during those first two short seasons in '07 I was less intimidated than I have been in recent years. Maybe because I felt like I had so little chance of success that there was no pressure, or maybe it's easier to doubt yourself once you get older and you know better what your limits are.
Despite all the doubt and self-criticism I think I always knew deep down that I could do it. I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn't really go for it.
“It was a bitter sweet moment because the wild journey that gave me such purpose and occupied so much of my thoughts was finally over."RI: Were you there every season?
There were three or four, year periods in which I didn't try it. I was on climbing trips to other destinations, trying out other disciplines like traditional climbing and big-wall climbing or going on expeditions—basically just distracting myself from JL. JL wasn't going anywhere and I had plenty of time to go back and try it again. Or I was just scared; I'm not really sure which.
Last spring my girlfriend Georgie and I were climbing a lot in Red Rocks, partly because I was scared of JL and welcomed the distractions and partly because we were just having tons of fun there. I didn't end up making it to Clark very many times. We realized that if I wanted to have a shot at climbing JL that I would need to really focus on it for a whole season.
RI: Was there ever a point when you wanted to throw in the towel and never return?
I felt like giving up more than a few times. In the fall of 2012 when I went down there with the intention of climbing JL and felt really weak compared to how I'd felt the previous spring, I gave up for the season. I could have kept going up there and probably would have built up the necessary fitness and mental fortitude to keep at it and regain my highpoint but I was scared and over it and my partner at the time wasn't getting me all that psyched to try hard. The familiar look of Clark annoyed me that season.
Every time I made reverse progress I got frustrated and felt the yearning to give in to defeat. It was hard for me to keep in mind that making reverse progress, and taking one step back for every two you take forward, is pretty much guaranteed to happen when projecting something that is that hard and intimidating.
There were definitely mornings on which the prospect of hustling to get out the door, packing the car, driving and hour and a half (30 minutes of which are gnarly dirt road), hiking for 50 minutes, doing the same warm-up I'd done a dozen times and then trying a climb miles harder and more intimidating than anything I'd ever done in my life, felt like something I just didn't really want to do that day.
Fortunately, I stuck with it this season.
RI: What initially drew you to the climb?
Sharma drew me to the climb. I had been to the third tier of Clark Mountain many times before, and the bolts on the first half of JL were installed already, but I think 17-year-old me dismissed it as a pipe dream. It looked impossible.
Then in the spring of '07 Sharma left me a voicemail saying he and Chris Lindner were sessioning up at Clark on this super futuristic route and I should come and climb with them. I had nothing else going on at the time so of course I flew down. When I first got to the cliff that spring and saw the draws hanging off Jumbo, it was admiration at first sight. After I tried it and saw how cool and unique the climb was, my admiration turned to love and I knew I wanted to do it someday.
RI: What was it like when you first started working the route with Sharma and Lindner?
It was super fun that spring. I was only there for a short time, maybe ten days, but it was a blast. Sharma was making good links and I remember watching him climb through the first crux from the ground for the first time. It was really inspiring.
I knew the route was possible—Chris was making links and even I was able to do all the moves on it after a try or two, but we speculated that it would be 5.15c because of it's sustained nature. It seemed leagues harder then anything that had been done at the time.
“Wanting to send a rock climb is never a good enough reason to tarnish a friendship."RI: How’d you feel when Sharma asked if he could go for it in 2008?
I can't lie, I was slightly taken aback. I've been asked to stay off projects several times throughout my career. When Chris asked me he was very polite of course, though that hasn't been the case from everyone. Each time it happens I've obliged the request but each time I've felt a little sting.
I do understand why someone would feel like they really want the FA of a project that they bolted (in whole, or in the case of JL, in part) enough to kindly ask someone else to stay off of it for a season or two, but I don't feel like I share that mentality.
Wanting to send a rock climb is never a good enough reason to tarnish a friendship. I learned that the hard way during that first trip down to Clark with Sharma and Lindner when I climbed the first ascent of the extension to the Wall of Glass, a 5.14c at the third tier. At the time Lindner was trying it and while he didn't bolt it, Randy Leavitt had bequeathed the project to Lindner and I think the FA meant more to him than it did to me. To Lindner's credit he was really easy going about it but I could tell that he was hurt by it and I felt pretty terrible. I was young and hungry and I'd like to think I wouldn't do that same thing again.
RI: When he did send, how’d you feel?
I was really psyched for Chris and super inspired by his effort and send. It did motivate me to go back and try again but that winter I injured my left shoulder at ABS nationals, and that spring I had surgery on it instead of going back to Jumbo Love. I thought my climbing career was over. It took a while to rebuild the confidence to go back and try it again.
3 Days With Ethan Pringle from 3 Strings on Vimeo.
RI: When we talked back in March after you sent La Reina Mora (5.14d), you mentioned that you were in a bad headspace but found a new, relaxed attitude on your last attempt which made the difference. Did you go through a similar mental battle with Jumbo Love or were you able to carry that positive energy into the climb this year?
I had a similar battle on JL, though not as intensely as on La Reina Mora. That positive energy I tapped into on the day I did LRM was self-compassion and love. Those sensations and that headspace is fleeting for me. Sometimes I wish I could always live in that space but I cannot, I'm not a monk. Self-compassion and love weren't impossible to conjure at Clark Mountain, though they were hard to.
Fortunately those aren't the only emotions a climber can use to send a route—there's also pure desire and psyche, and confidence. Even frustration and anger can be use as a weapon to get to the top of the climb, though it has to be channeled in the right way.
I think the state of mind of having little to no expectation is useful in sending a project, and that state of mind played a big part in bringing me to the top of JL.
I didn't climb with love or with a totally open heart, but I did climb with less expectation, less fear and maybe a pinch of enthusiasm and curiosity—almost blank slate—and that was good enough to get me to the top.
RI: What was different about you physically this year that allowed you to send?
Before making the drive to Vegas this year I didn't think I had a very good chance of success. I value the philosophy that in order to climb 9a+ [5.15a] or 9b [5.15b], you have to train really hard in the gym for months in advance. I didn't think that I could just show up to Clark, after climbing almost only on rock and no plastic for months, and have a shot at sending. It turned out that climbing on overhanging limestone in Siurana, and on La Reina Mora, for six weeks before hand got me in pretty good shape! Who knew?!
I think Sharma knew. The fitness I lacked was filled by trying JL a lot in those first few weeks of the season. Maybe my low expectations about my chances of success helped me go into it with a more open mind.
RI: What did it feel like the moment after you finally clipped the chains? What was going through your head?
When I topped out I felt happiness, relief, surprise, and some disbelief. I wept some tears of joy for finally completing this goal that meant more to me than any other, and of sadness for all the time I'd spent doubting and convincing myself that I was unworthy.
I'd spent so long doubting myself, my subconscious needed some time to catch up to my consciousness. I was ecstatic but I don't know if I was fully ready to give myself credit for it. It was also a bitter sweet moment because the wild journey that gave me such purpose and occupied so much of my thoughts was finally over.
The top of the cliff was still in the sun when I topped out so I sat there for a minute, soaking it in. We all screamed and shouted a bunch. My buddy Walker Emerson, who had been filming me from a line off to my right, jugged to the top and came over to give me a hug and film a quick interview. Another good friend, Tom Moulin, who had come up for the day to film in Spenser and Vikki's absence (they were coming back from a wedding in the Bay Area) was celebrating with us from his little perch on the other side of the cliff top. Georgie was down in the cave screaming too! It was a pretty magical moment.
There aren't really chains on the route. It's a little ironic that you pass three sets of anchors with a couple links of chains on them on the way to the top—one after the first 12d pitch at the Honnolding ledge, one at the crack rest halfway out the overhang and one at the lip—but there are no actual chains at the very top anchor. You can only use the anchor over the top of the wall to single-line rap down the route—it's just two bolts.
RI: Tell us about the victory whip. Was that a spur-of-the-moment decision? Was your rope long enough to get back to the ground from the anchors?
[WATCH: Ethan Pringle Takes a 100-Footer on Jumbo Love]
To get from the ground to the anchors and back to the ground you'd need a 140-meter rope, since the route is about 70 meters long. I had a 100-meter Trango rope which gets me from the top of the wall (lowering from the last bolt on the headwall) back to the lip, where I have to clip in direct to two draws, untie, pull the rope and re-tie to make it to the ground.
When I was at the lip anchors I came up with the idea to do a victory whip, and Walker was right there to film it. I unclipped the draw at the lip and climbed to the next one, so I was about 20 feet above the last draw I had clipped and I couldn't see it. It was a humongous fall, probably around 90 feet, but just pure fun. As I hit the end of the rope I watched Georgie fly up 20 feet in the air to the first draw, which was a pretty funny sight.
RI: Getting down to the details of the climb, how many bolts does it have?
I think JL has 30 bolts on it, maybe 28 not counting the anchor bolts you pass. I only clip 16, and then it's a 20-foot runout to top out the cliff. When Sharma and I climbed the route, we both bailed out left at the very top of the headwall instead of tackling this weird and scary V4ish boulder problem where the bolts are.
RI: How many bolts did you skip on the send?
On link, I only clipped about a third of the bolts of the steepest part of the route, on the “5.15” section. On the 12d pitch I skipped a few to decrease rope drag and on the upper headwall I clipped all of them because they're really far apart already. I ended up skipping 12 or so.
RI: Overall, how many tries did it take you?
By my best calculations, I tried JL about 80-90 times. Maybe five times in the spring of 2007, 15 times that fall (before Chris came back to finish it off), maybe 20 times in the spring of '12, five more that fall and about 35 times this spring.
In the grand scheme of projecting, 80 tries isn't that many and I probably could have done it in fewer tries if I'd stuck with it from the get go and had a much more condensed focus on it. Then I would have learned what I know now about my ability as a climber years ago! Better late than never though right?!
RI: Last question, who lugged the Champagne all the way up there?
Unbeknownst to me our good buddy, and half of The RV Project, Spenser Tang-Smith hiked Champagne up to the cliff a few weeks before I sent. It was sad that he and Vikki, who had been up there documenting my efforts all season, weren't there to enjoy it with us when we cracked it open, but they were with us in spirit and we picked them up that night and celebrated with Nachos and Margaritas.