Two days ago, Touchstone Athlete Ethan Pringle made the first free ascent of Blackbeard’s Tears, a 5.14c crack on the Northern California Coast that is as gorgeous as it is difficult. Previously only climbed using a mixture of trad climbing and aid gear, Ethan’s send makes Blackbeard’s Tears the second 5.14c traditionally-protected crack in the world, placing it alongside Beth Rodden’s historic Meltdown in Yosemite Valley. We sat down with Ethan to get the full story on this epic send.
How’d you hear about this project?
I actually hiked to the base of the cliff with Chris Linder and a couple other friends one foggy evening in June like ten years ago. The crack must have been wet or I just didn’t notice it, or if I did, I thought, “that’s an impressive crack” but then promptly forgot about it. I hadn’t climbed very many cracks back then yet so 5.14 crack probably wasn’t something I was looking for. Anyway, I think it might have been my buddy Dru who owns the gym Far North in Arcata who first alerted me to its existence. I also definitely heard about it from Jim Thornburg and Steven Roth, both of whom went to check it out last Labor Day. I think they were the first ones who told me, “it will probably go free through the roof to the top.” Then my ears really perked up. Cody Sims also told me about it last winter as something he was interested in trying. I knew I was going to stop “on my way to Squamish” on this trip and check it out so I was texting with Jim and Steven (who had tried it a tiny bit before) non-stop, just getting ridiculously psyched.
Why the name?
Maybe that’s what the route’s first ascentionist Matthias Holladay called it? I think he freed the first section of the route, the 5.11- pitch, and then aided the remaining 80 or so feet of harder, steeper terrain to the top of the wall. It’s pretty cool how the route has three very distinct sections and really changes character through each. The first section is lower angle, just slightly overhung, with lots of face holds and is probably around 5.11-. Then the rock completely changes and the crack cuts sharply through this swath of really clean, really bullet rock with almost no face holds and that section ends in a hard crux getting to the roof where the third, hardest section of the route starts. The crack thins way down through the roof and basically peters out into some blockier features above it. Fortunately there are some bomber face holds above that, but not a surplus of them. It’s a truly amazing rock climb provided by mother nature in an extraordinary setting!
How many tries/days on?
I spent ten days on it and probably tried an average of twice per day. On the first day I just top roped to get a feel for the moves and figure some stuff out, then I spent a couple days trying to refine beta on lead with lots of pre-placed gear, then I pulled the gear and started putting it all in as I climbed and was soon giving all-out redpoint burns. For days and days progress was continuous and I was pushing my highpoint higher on pretty much every attempt until I was getting past the hardest crux and pumping off above on the headwall. Once, on Saturday September 17th, I fell off the very last move of the climb. The last little boulder problem on the headwall getting to the top anchor is probably only V6 or so, but requires some full extension moves between big, but flat, holds, so it’s still really taxing; and that section ends with a huge reach to a jug, which I can only keep both feet on when I’m fresh. When I finally did that move from the ground I had to lunge and almost didn’t latch it!
Who’d you try the route with (if anybody)?
Nic Sabo—who was really close to sending the route to the second (5.13+) anchor under the roof last summer—came out one day super early on in the process and TR’ed on it with me. He’s a super strong, super under-the-radar local up there but he doesn’t have much time off school so that was the only time we climbed together. I’m encouraging him to do the full line though, I think he’s definitely capable!
I think I had like seven or eight different belayers during the whole process. For the first ten days or so I had a steady stream of friends from the Bay coming through to climb and hang out, but after that I was wrangling random people from Arcata to come belay me. The uncertainty of getting belays from folks I didn’t really know on my 5.14 crack project was a little stressful, but everyone that I roped into belaying me was great and it all worked out in the end!
How was hanging out in the real NorCal?
Hanging out in real NorCal was great at times. The rugged coast, the fog, the forest; it’s so beautiful there! I pretty much only got cell reception standing in certain places at the crag and in Crescent City and Arcata, so it was nice to be a little less connected than usual. I even went over 24 hours without using my phone at all once! I went for some runs and swam in the Smith River around Jedediah Redwood State Park up by Crescent City and that was incredible. The trails there are so beautiful and not very crowded at the right times. Arcata is a fun little city and I would go down there every few days to hang out with friends and do laundry, go surfing, and restock at the hippy grocery stores. By the end of the trip I was scrambling to find partners. We were basing out of Arcata because I was only climbing every other day and Jim (who was documenting my every try with a drone, a second camera, and an audio recorder I carried in my pocket) needed to charge batteries every night. We were sleeping outside the climbing gym in our cars, or in random different places all the time and that was getting a little old. I was kind of psyched to send so I could stop slumming it in Arcata!
What was it that finally allowed for you to unlock this beast? Conditions? Beta? Something mental?
With a project this hard, piecing it together is always a bit of a process. I always think, “Damn this is gonna take a LOT of work” when I first start trying my hardest climbs, but I’m usually surprised by how quickly they start coming together in the beginning. It’s usually just a matter of putting in the work to chip away at the unknowns and dumb it all down. I try to gather as much information as I can every time I go up the route, and I often find that, even on projects that take me as long as ten days, I’ll keep refining beta until the very end. Just because you can do a move or a whole section doesn’t mean you know how to do it the easiest or the most efficient way, or that you know all the little subtleties and micro-beta. It’s all about the micro-beta! Blackbeard’s is a super complex route, especially through the cruxes, and I kept refining beta until I fell off the last move.
If you can redpoint something in a day, or even in a week or two, then it’s not even close to your limit. It takes weeks, sometimes months to get to know a route, or even sometimes a single move well enough to do it most efficiently; even more so in the case of Blackbeard’s since you’re placing natural gear and safety is an issue. It’s seriously all about putting in the work and not giving up, which is easy to do when you’re psyched and making steady progress like I was for the first eight or so days on Blackbeard’s. It just so happened that on the following couple days the conditions got a lot worse—much more humid or hot, or both. I had two tries one day, the day after falling off the last move, on which I was super nervous and the conditions were all-time schmarmy and warm. I fell twice on a move low in the redpoint crux section, or maybe I kind of gave up because I was too scared to try hard, and was super frustrated. I screamed obscenities at the top of my lungs and lost my voice! The next day the temps were equally warm or warmer, but I still managed to one-hang the sucker without too much effort and that’s when I kind of realized that I had it so dialed that I didn’t need great conditions. As soon as I lowered to the ground after that try the temps dropped and the wind picked up and I kind of knew I was gonna do it on my next try.
Did you do anything to train for this? Jump rope? Fasting? Cleanse?
Does the 22 years of hard climbing experience and projecting, and lots of mileage on cracks of varying sizes and angles count? Nothing too specific recently. I did climb in the gym quite a bit this summer and had one day of hard endurance training with Joey before I left…
What allows you to project things for so long?
Practice I guess, and keeping in mind the fact that I know it’s possible. The power of possibility is so strong! I have to be inspired to put in the work, at least in the beginning. The fact that Blackbeard’s is pretty much the sickest-looking single pitch crack climb I’ve ever seen or touched, and the fact that it hadn’t been free climbed yet made it super inspiring. But there’s always a point during the process, usually when you start getting close to a send, when fear enters the picture and it starts to matter more than you expected, and starts to get stressful and un-fun. Trying at that point can feel like a chore but I usually just force myself to anyway, inevitably disappoint myself when I fall, and get super frustrated. It’s an important phase in the process and can teach you so much about yourself if you let it. It can break you down to your true self, and that’s part of the reason I still love projecting so much. You just have to keep trying your best not to take yourself too seriously and keep it fun and light, which it won’t be. But at some point a switch flips and usually I’m like, “Okay, I’m ready to do this NOW.” You kind of just decide to do it.