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This is part four of The Indestructibles. a five-part series profiling climbers who came back from serious illness or climbing accidents to climb harder than ever. New editions will be posted weekly. This story originally ran in the May 2018 issue of our print edition—subscribe here.
The Spot Bouldering Gym in Boulder, Colorado, was near capacity at the 2009 American Bouldering Series Nationals. Ethan Pringle, then 22, stepped up to the final problem. “It was Valentine’s Day, 2009,” says Pringle, now 31 and from Sacramento, California.
He felt fatigued from back-to-back efforts on the last three problems, and tried to regain focus as he assessed the holds on the freestanding Hueco Boulder. Pringle—a prodigy who’d entered the sport at age eight and had four consecutive years of undefeated wins at national and international comps by age 16—had just come off an impressive few years. After sending Realization (5.15a) in 2007, he started working on Jumbo Love, a 250-foot pitch at Clark Mountain, California. The route, speculated to be a 5.15b, was poised to become the hardest single pitch in the world. But after a season battling neck-and-neck with Chris Sharma for the FA, Pringle saw his efforts stymied by 2007/2008’s winter.
Regardless, Pringle was riding high; he’d rebounded from a three-month sideline due to a fractured heel in January 2008. In July 2008, he sent The Path (5.14- R), Sonnie Trotter’s 130-foot quartzite quest in Alberta, Canada, and the Squamish single-pitch 5.14b Cobra Crack. But the fire started waning when Sharma claimed the FA of Jumbo Love in September 2008.
Back at Nationals, Pringle started up the fourth problem. He came to a monkey-bar rose move, where he cut his feet and campused.
“I felt my left shoulder give out and there was all this pain,” recalls Pringle, who dropped to the mats. The next day, Pringle couldn’t lift his arm. An MRI confirmed a labrum tear.
“Labrum tears are particularly devastating for climbers,” says Salt Lake City–based physical therapist Esther Smith, “as they come with a time-intensive rehab.” Says Pringle, “I’d never experienced such a devastating injury before—or since. I thought my career was over.”
In June 2009, he went under the knife at Kaiser Permanente of San Francisco, right after his twenty-third birthday. After surgery, Pringle imagined the worst: “I thought there was no way surgery would allow [my shoulder] to be as strong as it was,” he recalls. Shaken, he enrolled at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), taking nursing prerequisites. Says Pringle, “I was basically coming to terms with the fact that I’d never be a top-level climber again.”
Still, he began to recover; he met all the physical-therapy checkpoints, doing stretching and therapy-band exercises. By five months post-op, Pringle was as strong as ever. He finished the classes at CCSF, but didn’t re-enroll. His climbing psyche had been given new life, not to mention he’d changed the very way he moved: “I climb tighter to the wall now, with my shoulders more engaged. I use my whole body and core a lot more.” He contrasts this with his style as a teenager, “climbing more floppy and dynamically with straighter arms and a looser core,” and says there’s no way he could have climbed 5.15 or V15 while being so inefficient. His first big outdoor trip was to Smith Rock, where in spring 2010 he sent Scarface (5.14a). That same year, he sent Wheel of Life, the 65-plus-move V15 in Australia. Pringle also took first at the 2010 Unified Bouldering Championship Pro Tour Finale at The Nor’easter.
“To come back and win a competition, which is the thing that fucked me up, was a big boost in my confidence,” he says. In May 2015, he made the second ascent of Jumbo Love, eight years after he’d first tried it.
“Jumbo Love was a milestone … ,” says Pringle. “[It] represented, more than anything, the knowledge that the serious doubts I had about my ability and the mental barriers I’d erected were just a bullshit story.”
Read more from our The Indestructables series:
Strength Training for Injury Prevention
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