MHW athlete Ethan Pringle spent a month camping out with the RV Project, battling one of Spain’s hardest sport routes. The struggle became much deeper than the route itself; it became a question of identity. Climbing can seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, so why was this so important?
“I’m so over it.” I told James Lucas at our small dinning room table in our dimly lit communal area on the night before my last day in Cataluña. “Like, no part of me wants to go try it. I just want to go climbing and have fun tomorrow for a change.”
I could feel my pulse in my hands, almost imperceptibly. My fingers throbbed with blood trying to repair the tissue around the gobies I’d repeatedly torn open in the pockets at the red-point crux of my project. The blood circulated harder still from the inflammatory Spanish foods I’d consumed that day (the peppered sausage, the salty bocadillo) and from the inflammatory thoughts and emotions that had plagued my being. I was midway through the nightly process of applying Neosporin and Band-Aids to the wounds. Wax paper scraps from the bandages, and an assortment of other random items lay scattered across the table.
For the last month I’d been doing battle with La Reina Mora (meaning “The Moor Queen”), a stunning 40-meter long 5.14+ test-piece in the famous El Pati sector of the Spanish mega-crag Siurana. It had become glaringly obvious to me and everyone watching that what was holding me back was no sort of physical limitation – it was in my head. Ten days earlier I had a breakthrough attempt on which I stuck the red-point crux from the ground, but pumped off above the last bolt of the route, one moderately difficult move away from success. My expectations were raised. My departure date loomed nearer. After several more days of falling lower again back at the red-point crux, doubt about whether or not I really had it in me to finish it had manifested in my consciousness. I thought my window of opportunity had closed.
This stage is an inevitable one in the process of projecting anything near your limit, but one that for obvious reasons is probably the least enjoyable, and usually goes hand in hand with the halt or reversal of upward progress, and often the loss of one’s peace of mind. It is also one that will teach you more about climbing and about yourself than any other, but it can be hard to appreciate the lessons when you’re in the midst of it.
For almost ten miserable days I tried again and again. Ostensibly I wanted to do the route, though I was so intensely frustrated and sick of failure that my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I knew somewhere deep down that I could do it on any given attempt, but that only added to my frustration. Twice I had extended my trip for weeklong increments, thinking the send would be a guarantee, and twice I’d disappointed myself.
When your whole life is centered on climbing, it’s hard not to let your sense of self-worth ride on the success of your most meaningful projects. Especially when you know you can do it. You begin to think, “If I’m devoting all my time and energy to this dumb goal and I’m continually failing at it, what good am I?” The conclusion you may eventually arrive at is, “This is a waste of time and energy,” “I should have trained” and “I have more important shit to do.”
To top it off, almost every time I tried hard through the sequence of moves past a sharp set of pockets at the red-point crux, I’d tear new flappers in my fingers- flappers that turned into tender pressure points every subsequent time I’d grab the same holds. I resorted to switching fingers in the pockets to minimize the pain.
“That’s reasonable. You came to Spain to climb, not torture yourself,” James replied. Considering the previous ten days, I questioned the validity of his statement.
Before we went to bed we made tentative plans to go to a quiet part of Margalef. I hadn’t climbed at any other crags besides Siurana in the six weeks I’d been in Spain.
I woke up on the morning of Friday March 13th feeling haggard. Waking up is actually giving the event more credit than it deserves— I hadn’t really slept. It had been a fitful night of tossing and turning in my springy single bed in my dusty, closet-sized bedroom in our rented apartment in Cornudella De Montsant. Just like every other night I could remember.
What I really wanted to do was go have a fun, stress-free day of cragging, but I felt the tendrils of disappointment creeping in at the thought of giving up my last opportunity in what would likely be a long time to try this project in which I’d invested so much of myself.
La Reina Mora: an intimidating fissure that had cracked me open wider and then stitched me closed tighter than any piece of rock ever had. This line had captured my attention from the first moment I’d learned of its existence when I watched Nico Favresse fighting his way through its intricate sequences in a video. It was the one route I cited to curious friends at the gym as the route I wanted to do more than any other in Cataluña.
After a week of easier climbing at the start of my trip, I’d finally gotten on La Reina Mora and I fell in love immediately. The moves, the length, the obviousness of the path—it was a king line, or rather, a queen line. Despite needing almost a dozen tries to feel comfortable on the unpleasant crack section at the beginning of the route, and giving myself the handicap of using sticky-rubber kneepads to make the one bad rest a decent one (no Spaniards use kneepads), I felt confident a send would come after fairly little effort. At the modest (by today’s standards) grade of 5.14c/d, it should have been a manageable task. But La Reina is a fearsome queen who demands respect (and so much power-endurance). At that late stage, I had little respect for the climb or myself. When in the beginning I had so much admiration for La Reina, and stood in awe of her beauty, now I looked up at her with resentment for the way she’d exposed my weaknesses and insecurities. I was terrified of her. My feelings for her bordered on hatred.
Despite all this, I realized I had to try one last time, for I knew a cloud of regret would follow me around for months if I didn’t. “Who knows?” I thought, “Maybe I’ll get lucky. No, that would be too perfect.” I lumbered out of bed and shuffled into the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee and greet my housemates.
A thick, dark cloud layer hung low over Siurana. A slight breeze blew through the air. Though it came from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, bringing with it some humidity, it felt comforting. As I warmed up on my favorite moderates at the sector L’Olla, I felt strangely calm and fatalistic; detached even.
Walking back over to El Pati, I spotted Jonathan [Siegrist] hanging from his rope at the crux of his project – La Rambla, the classic 5.15a test piece, which shares the start and finish of La Reina Mora. It had been beyond inspiring to watch an on-fire Jonathan piece together La Rambla astoundingly quickly. He saw me walking along the trail and said with bitter enthusiasm, “I’m sorry to say this dude, but the conditions are worse than I’ve felt since I got here. I slipped off way below the crux on a move that I did easily yesterday.” I found myself completely unmoved by this news; I had given up on caring about things I couldn’t control, which I counted as a small victory.
The scene at the base of the climb was more energetic than usual. Dogs barked, and encouragements were shouted up to people on the wall in English and Catalan. The pine trees waved gently in the wind. The pitch of half a dozen boisterous conversations grew louder and louder until someone bolting a new route on a cliff opposite us ripped a massive block off the wall that crashed through the trees to the ground. The sound thundered and echoed off the narrow canyon walls. The conversations stopped for a brief moment and then carried on as if nothing had happened.
The nagging need to check in with myself could no longer be ignored; I had reached a threshold. With nowhere else to turn to find some quiet space, I took a short walk away from the crowd towards the woods. I took a hard look in a direction I hadn’t often been able to during the previous several weeks – inward. I asked myself, “Are you ok? Like, really?” The question was a gift to myself that melted and softened me a little. So I lifted the lid on my tank of stored-up emotion, a place I’d inadvertently been neglecting out of fear of what it contained. I glimpsed the top layer of what was inside and silently gasped. The emotional damage done by the pressure I’d put on myself, by the anger and criticisms that I’d been fiercely directing at the wall but had just been bouncing right back into me, and the sadness that had caused, swirled around inside me like mercury. My eyes started filling up with tears. How had I let myself fall so far down this hole?
I allowed myself to look at the depth of my emotion. I cried simultaneously to mourn the time and energy I’d wasted hating on myself and robbing myself of the compassion I deserved for my struggle – forgetting how petty and meaningless I’d previously labeled it as, and for the immense relief I felt with the knowledge that, finally, everything was, is, and forever will be, okay.
Feeling then for myself the way I imagined my loved ones back home would, I thought of my parents, my girlfriend and my older brother. I missed them desperately. I had little imaginary conversations with each of them. I shed a few more tears and told my family I couldn’t wait to see them and thanked them for their support.
I wiped away the tears and took the deepest, easiest breath I’d ever taken. I was looking at the world through new eyes. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I wasn’t worried or anxious or regretful, just entirely present. “This must be what it feel like to truly live,” I thought. The only emotion left within me was love. I took an even deeper breath. It was my turn to climb.
“Being a depressed, neurotic insomniac, I don’t say this often but in that moment, I felt fucking amazing.”
During previous days, the international crowd of rock-star climbers and friends gathered at the base of the route to spectate brought forth feelings of insecurity for me, but now I felt only fortunate to be surrounded by so many wonderful people I’d had the opportunity to share this wild journey with. As I strapped on my shoes and my kneepads, I was completely devoid of nervousness or expectation, knowing the hardest part was behind me and all I had left to do was enjoy this beautiful rock climb.
I wanted to keep the strength I’d gained from the support of my parents, my brother and my girlfriend, so I imagined them standing on the opposite rim of the canyon, watching me. No shit, I did that. I could picture them clearly, silhouetted against the dark-grey sky. A wry smile no one else could see spread across my face.
I was so relaxed I almost slipped off the first hard section, 20 feet off the ground, but continued to the first rest completely unfazed. I got choked up thinking of my family watching, but as the tears came, so did a breath and strength I didn’t know I possessed. Without thought I moved casually from one rest to the next until I was shaking out before the red-point crux.
I was hardly pumped. It made no difference to me what happened next – I’d still be proud of myself for the effort I’d put forth up to that point regardless of the outcome. I stuck the crux dyno, kicked my feet back on and crossed to the last rest with a manageable pump. James was dangling on a rope next to me filming, going ape-shit behind the camera.
Resting on incut crimps, mere feet below my highpoint and the anchors of the route, I noticed something start to creep in – fear of the possibility of failure. From the warm blood running down my right middle finger I could tell that I’d torn open another painful flapper and wouldn’t likely get another chance to try the route. It was now or never. Trying my best to keep calm and breathe deeply, I told myself that I could punt epically again on this last little bulge and it wouldn’t matter, that I could still be proud of myself, but unfortunately I was only half-buying that story now. Honestly, I wanted to finish the goddamned rock climb.
I felt a little wobbly leaving the rest but I had so much strength left that I punched through the last boulder problem and onto the final slab. No longer able to wait even another second, I pulled up rope to clip the anchors a move too early but dropped it upon realizing I was still too low to make the clip.
After clipping the anchor draw, I totally broke down and lost my shit. I screamed like a banshee at the top of my lungs, and cried in front of the machismo Spaniards (and my American friends). They’d all witnessed my struggle on the route from start to finish; they all understood.
On the ground I got hugs from everyone like it was my birthday. After the ruckus died down, and for the next few hours, I was in shock. I sat below the cliff for a long while, absorbing what had just happened. Through a haze I watched Sonnie Trotter dispatch a small project he’d been trying with his wife and baby son watching along side me. It was a magical afternoon.
The whole of the Siurana climbing community was at the bar reveling, laughing, reliving the events of the day, gobbling down burgers and throwing back drinks. After packing my things and a short, four-hour nap, I made the early morning drive to the airport. The effects of slightly too much wine and not enough sleep or water started to catch up with me.
As I slumped in my seat, hurtling through the rarified air at 30,000 feet, the magic began to fade and give way to reflection. I felt deeply satisfied. Despite all the suffering I’d put myself through, I knew without a doubt that it had been worth it. I’d shown myself what I was truly capable of with a little hard work and a lot of self-compassion. The knowledge added to the pool of confidence and experience I could draw from on my next project – a little something in the desert outside of Las Vegas. Though sending La Reina Mora was definitely a confidence boost, I still didn’t have high hopes for the next one. But who knows, I thought, maybe I’ll get lucky? Nah, that’d be too perfect.