Editor: Thanks for spending some time with us, Ethan. We’re honored to interview you.
Ethan: You’re very welcome! Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my life!
Editor: Happy to chat with you. At what age did you develop an interest in climbing? Which climbing trip got you hooked?
Ethan: It all started when I walked into the newly opened climbing gym near my house in the Mission district of San Francisco, Mission Cliffs, in 1995 when I was 8 years old. It clicked for me immediately. My brother climbed with me for six months or a year but none of my other family members climbed so I mostly walked there and climbed either alone in the bouldering area or with older climbers on the rope walls.
I think I had already climbed 5.12- in the gym before my first serious day of sport climbing outside because for the first couple years I climbed almost exclusively inside. My first mentor Brig Willis took my fiend David Abel and I to Pinnacles National Monument when we were 11 and 12 respectively, and we both onsighted this nails 11c called Feed the Beast, which is not even close to notable by today’s standards but we were pretty psyched. After that I got more into youth competitions and we’d always incorporate an outdoor trip into the trips for the competitions. I just got more and more hooked as the years went on. Competitions always kept my psyche high when I was a kid.
Editor: That’s some great early training right there! What and where are some of your favorite routes of all time?
Ethan: Ooo, that’s a tough question! There are so many!
Jumbo Love (5.15b)- Cark Mountain, CA
Freerider (5.13a)- Yosemite Valley, CA
This Side of Paradise (V9)- Buttermilks, CA
Iron Resolution (V12)- Joshua Tree, CA
The Five Year Plan (5.13+)- Flat Irons, CO
Groove Train (Australian 33)- Grampians, OZ
Loskot and Two Smoking Barrels (8a+)- Mallorca, SP
Femme Noir (7c)- Ceuse, FR
Realization (9a+)- Ceuse, FR
Leap of Faith (8A)- Rocklands, ZA
Midnight Lightning (V8)- Yosemite Valley, CA
Editor: Impressive! Very cool. How do you mentally prepare before each climb? How do you center your core, focus and steady yourself?
Ethan: I usually just stress out and worry. Ha! JK. I don’t do that all the time, just most of the time.
Sometimes I try to do some yoga-type breathing exercises like circle, or bumble bee breath. If I can take the deepest, fullest breath I can possibly take before I pull onto the wall and again at every rest on the wall, then I know I’m in good shape.
The thing that focuses and centers me the most is self-compassion. Sometimes I imagine a loved one showing me deep love and compassion, and trick myself into having it for myself. Sometimes that brings me to tears, but I always feel much better afterward, especially if I’ve been struggling with a particularly frustrating project, or in any tough situation. If I can manage to treat myself like I would treat a close friend who’s struggling with something difficult and talk sweetly to myself, and comfort myself, I always feel more like myself afterward and I always feel free and relaxed. It’s a tricky exercise to execute, and self-compassion isn’t something I can always feel but when I can manage to summon it, it’s powerful.
Editor: Very inspiring perspective, Ethan. Who would you say are some of your climbing icons who inspired you?
Ethan: Back in the day there were tons: Chris Sharma of course, Tommy Caldwell, Katie Brown, Yuji Hirayama, François LeGrand, Nels Rosassen, Dave Graham, all the great sport climbers, boulderers and comp climbers of the late 90s and early 2000s. So many local climbers in the bay area that took me climbing and took me seriously enough to make me feel welcome and a part of the community. Many more strong climbers have been added to the list in recent years: Adam Ondra (of course), Daniel Woods, Paige Claassen, Hayden Kennedy, Alex Megos, Jonathan Siegrist, Sean McColl… basically anyone who crushes, lets their passion shine through and is kind to others.
Editor: You’ve been working on some amazing boulder problems with Daniel, Adam and Dave. Which ones were your favorites and the toughest and super steep ones to take down in the cave in Flatanger?
Ethan: Well, I wish Adam were here! And we’ve been climbing bolted routes in Flatanger but, I have been climbing with Dave, Daniel and Andy Gullsten! It’s been motivating to climb with such a strong crew!
Thor’s Hammer was tough but Dave, Daniel and I all did it! At first it felt so hard that I thought it was something I’d have to save for another trip but we kept working on it and it came together faster than I thought it would.
The last climb I’d really like to do here is a 5.14d Little Badder. My draws have been on it since the beginning of the trip but I haven’t tried it much. It’s a long, pretty stunning line with some very cool climbing on it but the crux is hard and it’s a long ways up the route. Hopefully I can pull it off in my last two days here but if it doesn’t happen, no worries.
Editor: Hope you get to tackle it before you leave! You’ve traveled all over the world. Which locations were the most memorable for you and why? Yemen? China?
Ethan: Yemen and Western China were pretty memorable. They both were really different landscapes, cultures and environments than what I normally encounter, and I went on those trips relatively recently so they’re still pretty fresh in my memory. Greenland was maybe the most memorable trip of my life…such an amazing place with such awesome people. I can’t wait to go on another trip with that crew.
Editor: What is your advice to young climbers who look up to you?
And what are your views on wearing a helmet for certain climbs?
Ethan: Ok, advice for young climbers: don’t worry about the numbers, climb the lines that inspire you. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, though it’s good to have some friendly competition. Don’t ever say, “I can’t…” Don’t ever leave ANYTHING behind at the crags, especially finger tape or toilet paper. Be aware of your surroundings and the impact you have. Be kind to others. TRY FUCKING HARD and DON’T GIVE UP. Also, don’t sacrifice real and valuable interactions with your actual surroundings with virtual ones on your smartphone.
I think helmets are never a bad idea. Personally, I’m willing to accept the risk of not wearing one in certain situations like sport climbing or bouldering, but if I’m multipath trad climbing or bigwall climbing, I always wear one, or on sketchy single pitch trad climbs. I think it’s just a personal choice but I think if someone has even the slightest inkling to wear one, they should.
Editor: Here’s an important question that truly defines a climber.
Why do you climb?
What has climbing given to you and to your life and enriched it?
Ethan: I climb first and foremost because I love the simple act of moving over stone, or any vertical service. It feeds a primal urge I have to overcome fear and doubt, fuels my curiosity about what’s out there and what I’m made of. And because it’s just a heck of a lot of fun. Rock is beautiful, mother nature is beautiful, and looking up at a natural weakness splitting a beautiful rock face surrounded by beautiful scenery and imagining climbing it is one of the most exciting feelings I’ve experienced.
Climbing and traveling has also given me a perspective on life and the world that I might not have gained otherwise. I’ve had the privilege of seeing lots of different parts of the world and the way lots of different people across the socio-economic strata live. I was also very lucky to have grown up, long before I was introduced to climbing, in the outdoors on skiing and camping trips, and vacations with my parents. Spending so much time in nature from a very early age gave me an appreciation for natural environments and the impact we as super-consuming humans have on them. Our impact is heavy, even if we tread lightly. That’s why it’s important to tread as lightly as possible and leave as little trace as possible.
Editor: What are your thoughts on the preservation of nature and climate change? Are we doing enough to protect this fragile planet of ours?
The climbing profession depends on it, after all.
Ethan: I think we as climbers are probably more aware of the impact we have on the environment than lots of other people, but I still see litter at the crags, which is a huge bummer. I think, “Gosh, we’re climbers, shouldn’t we know better?” But I find trash and micro-trash at almost every crag I go to. In the grand scheme of things, leaving ringer tape, cigarette butts and toilet paper at the crag isn’t doing much to effect the climate, but it still reflects the general lack of awareness our community still has on our impact.
I think almost every human being turns a blind eye to the impact they have on the earth. We drive solo instead of ride a bike or take public transit, we buy stuff that’s wrapped heavily in plastic, we take 15 minute showers… I think there are lots of little things individuals can do to have a huge impact against climate change and pollution like reusing shopping bags, not buying meat from factory farms and being water conscious. If you get into the habit of doing little things like that, it has a snowball effect and you start to notice a lot more small things that add up to make a big difference over time. I hate to be a cynic but I think whatever we do, I have a feeling things are going to look pretty bad in 50-100 years, not that they aren’t already in lots of part of the world. Massive water and food shortages, catastrophic ‘natural disasters’, rising sea levels… not to mention all the war, genocide and fear mongering that happens all over the world all the time. Yep, human nature - gotta love it.
Editor: Amazing…keenly observed. Ethan, some climbers report that there is a certain spirituality to climbing and that it permeates the act of climbing.
They feel a palpable sacredness in nature, in the rocks and in the mountains…a purity that is lost in the cities.
Your thoughts, Ethan?
Ethan: I totally agree that nature has purity and sacredness that you just don’t find in heavily populated places. I think it’s called peace. Peace and quiet and the comfort of the elements. I feel more relaxed waiting out a thunder storm under a roof or free climbing a bigwall in Yosemite in the wind than I do at home in the city. It’s pretty much how I want to exist all the time, but unfortunately that’s not quite realistic for me right now.
Editor: Okay, let’s add some fun questions that your fans will love…on rest days, what kinds of books do you read and what kind of music do you like to unwind to? What’s your favorite movie/s? What’s your favorite dinner? Are you a tea or coffee person?
Ethan: The last three books I read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, One Summer by Bill Bryson and before that it was… probably something by Ken Follett. I love his stuff.
Music: Bear Cam just got me into Jamie XX and the Weekend, haha. Usually I’m more into Indie Folk and mellow instrumental stuff. Horse Feathers, Lord Huron, Blind Pilot, stuff like that. Indie Rock anthems or Hip Hop to get me psyched.
Movies: We all watched Get Hard with Will Ferrell the other night. Pretty damn funny. My favorite kinds of movies are either dark action movies or like animated, Pixar and Disney movies!
Dinners: I make a mean raw kale salad. We’ve been eating a lot of fish out here that we’ve been catching ourselves!
Coffee or tea: I actually quit caffeinated coffee while I was projecting JL this spring and haven’t gone back to it since! I still drink a fair amount of decaf but I’ve been drinking a lot more tea lately. Rooibos is good! Dave brought some good stuff from South Africa.
Editor: Really great choices! Great chatting with you, Ethan.
Ethan’s official website
List of his sponsors: Mountain Hardwear, Trango, Tenaya, Touchstone Climbing and Fitness
On the Cover:
An Exclusive Interview with
On Climbing Thor's Hammer (5.15a)
in Flatanger, Norway
Cover date: October 12th, 2015