The Next Generation of Canadian Bouldering: A Conversation with Ethan Salvo on His Climbing Origins
Salvo discusses his athletic background, comp climbing, and his focus on climbing outdoors
Ethan Salvo is one of Canada’s strongest climbers. He recently sent one of the country’s hardest boulder problems, Zazen V15 in Squamish. In September, in a period of a little over a week, he repeated two of Squamish’s hardest lines, Deadlift and The Reckoning, both V14.
Originally from Ontario, Salvo now lives in Squamish. While still in Ontario, he cleaned out many of the Niagara Glen’s hardest problems. This led to him putting up numerous first ascents. Highlights include FAs of Metamorphosis V12 in 2019, Rite of Passage Low V13 in 2020, and the beautiful Vilified V13 in 2021.
Making this all the more impressive is the fact that Salvo is currently only 20 years old and he’s only been climbing for five years. He just might have the fastest progression in bouldering ever. Unbelievably, in a little over two years from starting as a total beginner he ticked V13 – the classic Shelter in Squamish.
We recently sat down with Salvo to better understand how he went from wearing rental shoes to becoming one of the country’s top climbers in the span of a few years. We focus here on his athletic background prior to climbing, his brief foray into comp climbing, and what led him to be focused on outdoor projects and Squamish. In articles in the near future, we’ll dive into his turbulent yet successful 2022 season, his send of Zazen V15, and his plans for 2023. The conversation below has been edited for clarity.
How did you originally get into climbing?
I was a competitive swimmer pretty much my whole life. I hit this wall where I just fully burned out because I was training 22 hours across nine sessions every week. We had Sundays off so it would be two practices a day three times a week, plus three other sessions with some weightlifting mixed in. It was pretty heinous. I kind of just hated waking up and staring at the bottom of a pool for hours and not talking to anyone. It was very isolating.
My parents are both very athletic and believe in having a bit of balance in your life. They told me I needed to do something [other than swimming]. We had peer mentors at my high school and mine, funny enough, was the one who started the school’s climbing club. He said I should give climbing a shot.
I quit swimming shortly afterwards and decided to try climbing. I joined the climbing club, immediately got a membership [at The Hub in Markham, Ontario], and started going a couple times a week by myself. I would just go and project and try the hardest stuff I could. I felt like I was pretty good at it right from the start. I was just really strong from swimming but I had no technique – that was my biggest limiting factor for a long time.
Did you fall in love with climbing immediately?
Yeah absolutely. I liked it right away. I think just being good at it was a very easy way for me to get hooked. I thought, “I’m good at this naturally, let’s see how far I can push it.” Growing up my parents always said I have an obsessive, addictive nature with things. I would pick one thing up and just try to learn and get as good as I could. Like Rubik’s cubes, for example. I’d learn one and then move on to bigger ones and then learn how do them quicker.
Climbing came in and just opened up this whole new world where [I could apply] those thought patterns and the ways that I think. I could explore movement and be really obsessive and find all these details and really dial everything in to perform. It felt really natural.
So you were naturally strong from swimming and that applied well to climbing. But what about your fingers?
I think genetically there must be some component. I’m pretty convinced at this point. Because training wise, I haven’t done a whole lot, so there just has to be some other component. My Italian side are all bricklayers and my Portuguese side are all labourers for generations back, so I’ve always wondered if those generations of working with their hands has some genetic component to my strength. I don’t know? Maybe? But yeah, clearly, my fingers are somewhat able to take [stress] from climbing.
They’ve definitely gotten pretty mangled over the years though. My knuckles are really bad with closing now, at least my middle fingers. I think it’s just a part of it at this point. I’ve accepted it.
How long until you started climbing outside?
I think I went outside for the first time about a year and a half into climbing. The guidebook for the [Niagara] Glen had just come out and I wanted to see what it was about. I went one time and didn’t want to go back.
And then maybe that same winter, some friends brought me out and we went and tried this Tim Doyle boulder called The Gunt [V10] and I got psyched. It was a sick, hard boulder that was kind of close to my limit at the time. I got really close to doing it that day. And then after that I thought “Forget comp climbing, I want to do this more often – or at least try and do both.” I think for a while there I thought I could do both, but that was clearly not going to happen.
So you dabbled in comp climbing?
Yeah I completed for a year and a half or two years. I stopped in 2020. Funny enough my last real comp was Youth Boulder Nationals at The Hive in Vancouver. I had gone to Squamish before the comp and to see Dreamcatcher and all the boulders there and I was pretty psyched on it. And then went back to the comp and I was just not having a good time. I thought, “Wow, this sucks. Why am I doing this?”
You had a pretty big send that trip, didn’t you?
Yeah, after the comp I went back and climbed The Egg [V11] my first day in town. I went to Climb On that morning and rented pads and met the people who were working there at the time. When I brought the pads back [later that day] they were like, “How was it?” and I was like, “Oh it was cool. I did The Egg.” “You did The Egg on your first day!? That’s cool! Let’s see what else you can do when you come back!” And here we are. I am very much back.
After The Egg, did you know you wanted to move to Squamish?
When I started climbing it was very clear Squamish was a place I wanted to go. After The Egg, I thought I should definitely come back for a trip. And then I did that summer. And then I came back again the next year.
And then I thought about leaving Ontario after I had done most of the things I wanted to do there. It was an obvious thing. Where do you go if you want to push bouldering in the country? It’s where you would look for boulders anywhere in the world – under really big cliffs with really good rock. And Squamish just happens to be that with a whole town five minutes away. It’s kind of a no-brainer if you want to push things. You just have to be here. The weather is shitty but you learn to deal with it. I just let myself be taken in by it – let it shape me. It’s been really good.
Why did you stop competing in climbing?
There were a lot of reasons. I didn’t like the competitive nature of it. It felt a lot like swimming. With swimming, I felt like I was putting in so much effort for no return. Training that much to take off a tenth of second of my personal best. It’s not really fun or worth it in the end. I don’t achieve anything. I don’t learn anything. I just do some arbitrary thing that’s very meaningless. With climbing, there’s a little more meaning with it I think.
I just felt like [comp climbing] was weird. It was very clear to me at the Youth Boulder Nationals. I was just sitting in the isolation zone at The Hive for semis. I was sitting there for five hours with all the homies. Everyone just has this competitive edge to them when they’re in there. It feels a bit different to me than just hanging out with your friends and going climbing. You’re all there to perform and everyone is very serious and focused, which is cool. But I think you really lose a lot of the social aspect of climbing. And when you take that away you lose a lot of opportunity for creativity and growth and learning from each other and building good community.
I thought the comp world was pretty toxic. It was forcing me to become one sort of climber and I kind of just realized there was this whole other world out there to explore. It wasn’t really that I hated comp climbing – I mean I kind of did – it just started to become very limiting and tiring. It was burning me out in the same way that swimming did.
All these years later, do you still swim?
No, every now and then I think about though. It would be good cross training, but I’ve realized it would destroy my skin, and that’s way too much of a factor for me. Maybe the salt water would be a bit better. I could swim in the [Howe] Sound [in Squamish] but it’s not really worth it for me. I just climb all the time.
Do you know of any other swimmers who transitioned to climbing?
By name, I can’t think of any but I’m sure they’re out there. It builds good base strength for all the muscle groups you need climbing – core, shoulders, legs. I’m sure there are more swimmers turned climbers out there.