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Jon Cardwell: Full of Surprises

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LA RAMBLA. THE WORLD’S FIRST 5.15, depending on who you ask. Either way, it was one of the most impressive climbs of an era when established in 1994 by the German climber Alexander Huber. As of this past spring, only 20 climbers had dropped a rope through its anchors.

Jon Cardwell first stared up at La Rambla in 2009, at age 20. “I didn’t try it, but I remember feeling intimidated by its height and reputation,” he says. Only seven climbers, the very best, had then redpointed the faint line up the grey-and-rust limestone El Pati sector at the sport crucible of Siurana, Spain. Featured in the classic Masters of Stone series, it had been one of the first climbs he’d ever watched on film, as a child. “It looked amazing, unlike anything I’d ever seen as an 11-year-old beginner in Albuquerque.”

Ascentionists include such names as Ramon Julian Puigblanque (who moved the ending chains up 20 feet, making the route higher though not harder) in 2003; Chris Sharma in 2006; and Alex Megos in 2013. In February 2017, La Rambla blew up across web pages again when Margo Hayes, trading catches with Matty Hong and Cardwell, become the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15.

Hong had completed the route the day before. Cardwell, third in their team, tried for weeks as well, finding it even “more technical and complicated than I imagined.” The crux section, around V10, follows about 115 feet of 5.14b/c climbing: “You need to arrive to this point basically fresh, or have incredible recovery ability. That first string of attempts, I didn’t really have either.” He struggled on a long move that opens into the crux, and “never really made it past that point after around 20 attempts,” he says. “Mentally, this was tough.”

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How did you get into climbing?

When I was young, I always showed an interest in the outdoors. It wasn’t until after a canyoneering trip in Arizona that my parents saw that I enjoyed climbing around on things. Shortly after that, they got me a membership to the local climbing gym in Albuquerque, Stone Age. From there, I quickly started on the youth climbing team and was mentored by Lance Hadfield and a few other local climbers.

Have you ever put a considerable amount of work into cleaning and trying a climb that didn’t end up being what you hoped?

I once took a trip to Argentina with a group from Petzl. We developed many great routes in the areas around Piedra Perada, however not everything was world class, and much of the lines too many days of cleaning just to be barely climbable. Nonetheless, it was a great learning experience and really taught me what to look for in new climbing. I really enjoyed that trip.

You climb at Rifle a lot. How do you deal with the polish? Any tips for aspiring Rifle climbers?

I actually embrace the polish, and it’s actually never really bothered me. Since my first days in the canyon, around 10 years ago, I just figured that was normal. Now, after traveling all over the world, Rifle is still one of my favorite areas, polished rock included.

Tips for the new squad? Expect difficult and often strange climbing, but don’t get discouraged, beta goes a long way and eventually the cryptic becomes straightforward. A pair of kneepads and duct tape is also useful; don’t opt out.

Any beta on keeping your skin in good shape during long climbing trips?

That’s always a difficult issue. It kind of varies on a few things, like climate and type of rock. However, typically for me I hydrate my creases quite a lot on climbing trips. I get awful dry splits and if they’re bad it can take months to recover. I usually try and prevent that by wrapping the first crease with moisturizer with a band aide at night. Other skin techniques included, using a sander when skin is too thick and dry, or if there’s a tear, using a clipper before sanding to remove the excess skin.

What’s the hardest thing about long climbing trips? It can’t always be fun.

True, it’s not always fun. I would say the biggest buzz kill is dealing with poor weather. This last season in Spain we experienced some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen; weeks of rain and even snow. The crag was wet more days than dry it seemed – so we were forced to rest much more than planned, or not much better, climb in the gym. I even had some gym projects! Other than that, I would say injury is obviously never fun while you’re on a climbing trip. And, yes, eventually you get tired and a little bit sick of where you’re at – even if its one of the best crags in the world. Motivation only lasts so long and there’s nothing better than coming home and recovering from a long trip.

What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen in a climbing gym?

The list is too long! But, it includes trad racks, 4 plus belay devices on the harness, rope on the back while climbing, climbing shoes clipped to harness while climbing, multiple chalk bags, etc…good times.

When was the last time you fell on a 5.10 climb?

Honestly, I can’t remember…I must not be trying the good 5.10’s! I’ve wanted to take on numerous 5.10’s though.

What would you want to do if you weren’t a climber?

I’ve always been interested in photography and graphic design, so potentially pursing that further. Athletically, I’d likely still be skiing. When I was younger, I was obsessed with skiing.

What’s your go-to rest day activity?

It depends on where I’m at. I’ll use the most recent trip to Spain as an example. It was karting! Up the street about 15 minutes from our apartment was a karting track, we shredded the course many times and it was never disappointing. It was amazing, pretty decent carts, not too expensive and almost no rules! That was the best. After while though, we realized it was actually pretty exhausting and left us sore the next day. So, many rest days we would just lounge, work on video stuff, and usually go grocery shopping, boring like no other. I dreaded those rest days!

What climb was the hardest mentally for you and how did you overcome it?

That would have to be Biographie in Ceuse, France. The challenge was just as much mental as it was physical. I think this was for many reasons, the route meant a lot to me, historically it’s one of the most recognized climbs in the world, and also it would be a breakthrough to a new grade for me. It was one of the first climbs I remember reading about when I first started, and to climb it would be a dream come true. In the end, the key was arriving to Ceuse with the right mindset. Luckily, this wasn’t anything I had to consciously work on, I arrived completely motivated – I even had trouble sleeping at night because I couldn’t wait to climb the next day. I had momentum and I enjoyed every moment that final trip, (the hike, the wine, the cheese, our apartment, rest days at the lake). When I sent, it was actually unexpected; I was tired but really happy with my first try of the day. I figured, I would take a rest day and then I could do it. Still, I told myself why not try again, and it just kind of happened. Overcoming that obstacle is still one of my best achievements in climbing. Mostly because it was the route I cared the most about.

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“In the last couple of years I’ve only used two shoes, Five Ten’s HiAngle and Quantum. The HiAngle is super versatile on steeper climbing, like Rifle, quite downturned with plenty of sticky rubber for toe hooks and what not. They’re my go to shoe for bouldering as well.

The Quantum is stiffer and provides more support—I’ve actually worn the Quantum on two of the three 5.15’s I’ve done, so I guess they work pretty well!”

Check out the Five Ten shoes here

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“I’ve used the Tension Flash board the most in the last year or so. It’s a portable hangboard that you can set up on a first bolt or something similar. I don’t really use it for training, rather to warm up my fingers properly for difficult routes.

At home I have a Grindstone rigged up, also from Tension Climbing. If I’m at a gym, and these aren’t available, I look for the next best thing which would be anything made of wood, I like the feel of it better and it doesn’t destroy your skin as quickly.”

Check out the Tension handboards here

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“I’ve used the Multi Pant for years and they’ve been quite reliable. They are lightweight, which I like the feel of, and durable.”

Check out the pants here

When Cardwell came back out onto the route, he found wet holds both at the crux and on the exit of the 135-foot climb. He expected simply to warm up, work through the moves, dry the grips, and prepare for another day.

No pressure. A cool, fresh breeze. He hopscotched through move upon move, clear to the top, adding ascent number 21 to the tally.


Boulder’s Jon “Carddeck” Cardwell, 29, compact and dark-eyed, is quiet, thoughtful and long accomplished. He has done two other 5.15s, Sharma’s famous Biographie/Realization (5.15a) in Céüse, and Sharma’s Papichulo in Oliana, Spain, and 160 or 170 5.14s, some of them flashed and some (like Le Nabab, 5.14a, in St. Léger, France) onsighted. In Rifle, Colorado, two summers ago he made the second ascent of Shadowboxing (5.14d), onsighted Roadside Prophet (5.14a), and flashed Uncertainty Principle (5.13d) and Waka Flocka (5.14b).

Cardwell has bouldered over 100 V12s, and in 2013 pulled the third ascent of the prize V15 The Game, done by Daniel Woods. The Game only received its fourth ascent last year, by the top boulderer Jimmy Webb, who wrote on Facebook that it was one of the hardest things he’d ever tried: “[I]t really feels like something I shouldn’t be able to do.”

Jon Cardwell first stared up at La Rambla in 2009, at age 20. “I didn’t try it, but I remember feeling intimidated by its height and reputation,” he says. Only seven climbers, the very best, had then redpointed the faint line up the grey-and-rust limestone El Pati sector at the sport crucible of Siurana, Spain. Featured in the classic Masters of Stone series, it had been one of the first climbs he’d ever watched on film, as a child. “It looked amazing, unlike anything I’d ever seen as an 11-year-old beginner in Albuquerque.”

Ascentionists include such names as Ramon Julian Puigblanque (who moved the ending chains up 20 feet, making the route higher though not harder) in 2003; Chris Sharma in 2006; and Alex Megos in 2013. In February 2017, La Rambla blew up across web pages again when Margo Hayes, trading catches with Matty Hong and Cardwell, become the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15.

Hong had completed the route the day before. Cardwell, third in their team, tried for weeks as well, finding it even “more technical and complicated than I imagined.” The crux section, around V10, follows about 115 feet of 5.14b/c climbing: “You need to arrive to this point basically fresh, or have incredible recovery ability. That first string of attempts, I didn’t really have either.” He struggled on a long move that opens into the crux, and “never really made it past that point after around 20 attempts,” he says. “Mentally, this was tough.”

Cardwell wasn’t expecting a send that time, either. He had just spent two weeks back home in Albuquerque, where he grew up in an active family (his parents ran ultramarathons and his stepbrother was an elite ski racer), for Christmas, enjoying the meals and “treat intake” of the season. “I made it to the gym a few days … mostly just doing massive amounts of pull-ups to shorten my session, as I was visiting family and didn’t want to be in the gym for hours and hours.” Looking back, he thinks the old-fashioned pullups, done on small holds, might have helped make his fingers strong.

He’d been trying the problem over two years. The day of the ascent was unpromising, with temps in the low 20s. He brushed snow off the holds, began a token attempt from the middle, and reached the top handily. Startled, he began from the bottom and sent.

“Jon’s thing is that he is strong on a whole other level—he’s got his box,” Dave Graham, a peer, told Rock and Ice at the time. “And no one can get in Jon’s box except for Jon.” When something suits Cardwell and he pulls out the power, the others just shake their heads, Graham said.



Cardwell wasn’t expecting a send that time, either. He had just spent two weeks back home in Albuquerque, where he grew up in an active family (his parents ran ultramarathons and his stepbrother was an elite ski racer), for Christmas, enjoying the meals and “treat intake” of the season. “I made it to the gym a few days … mostly just doing massive amounts of pull-ups to shorten my session, as I was visiting family and didn’t want to be in the gym for hours and hours.” Looking back, he thinks the old-fashioned pullups, done on small holds, might have helped make his fingers strong.

He’d been trying the problem over two years. The day of the ascent was unpromising, with temps in the low 20s. He brushed snow off the holds, began a token attempt from the middle, and reached the top handily. Startled, he began from the bottom and sent.

“Jon’s thing is that he is strong on a whole other level—he’s got his box,” Dave Graham, a peer, told Rock and Ice at the time. “And no one can get in Jon’s box except for Jon.” When something suits Cardwell and he pulls out the power, the others just shake their heads, Graham said.

Jon Cardwell first stared up at La Rambla in 2009, at age 20. “I didn’t try it, but I remember feeling intimidated by its height and reputation,” he says. Only seven climbers, the very best, had then redpointed the faint line up the grey-and-rust limestone El Pati sector at the sport crucible of Siurana, Spain. Featured in the classic Masters of Stone series, it had been one of the first climbs he’d ever watched on film, as a child. “It looked amazing, unlike anything I’d ever seen as an 11-year-old beginner in Albuquerque.”

Ascentionists include such names as Ramon Julian Puigblanque (who moved the ending chains up 20 feet, making the route higher though not harder) in 2003; Chris Sharma in 2006; and Alex Megos in 2013. In February 2017, La Rambla blew up across web pages again when Margo Hayes, trading catches with Matty Hong and Cardwell, become the first woman to climb a confirmed 5.15.

Hong had completed the route the day before. Cardwell, third in their team, tried for weeks as well, finding it even “more technical and complicated than I imagined.” The crux section, around V10, follows about 115 feet of 5.14b/c climbing: “You need to arrive to this point basically fresh, or have incredible recovery ability. That first string of attempts, I didn’t really have either.” He struggled on a long move that opens into the crux, and “never really made it past that point after around 20 attempts,” he says. “Mentally, this was tough.”