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Who is Ontario’s Ethan Salvo? V13 in Under Three Years

He just returned from Squamish where he sent Shelter, his first V13 in just over two years of climbing. Here's how he did it.

Ethan Salvo is unique in Canadian rock climbing. He is 17 years old, has been climbing for just over two-and-a-half years and he’s obsessed with outdoor bouldering.

In those two-plus years, Salvo has completed almost all of the Niagara Glen’s greatest test-pieces and, as of this past summer, has completed his first V13: Shelter.

Salvo tries Silent Menace 5.14c – photo by Gaby Shubat

For Ethan, outdoor bouldering is everything, but that was not always the case.

“My main sport growing up was swimming. I started swimming lessons by the time I was three. At the age of seven I started swimming competitively. I swam competitively for seven years. By the end of it, I was training nine times a week. It was brutal, I completely burned out.”

For those that have met Salvo, it is difficult to believe he can burn out of anything. He is focused, psyched, and motivated, especially when it comes to climbing. As a swimmer, he brought with him strong lats and shoulders, and an understanding that failure is a necessary part of success.

Salvo said, “I wasn’t very good at climbing at the start, but eventually I experienced a really rapid progression through the grades. I think that is because of swimming. My natural strength really helped me get up the wall, though maybe not the best way possible haha.”

Salvo entered competition climbing because it was something he was used to. “I think my parents saw it as what you do: you train and then you compete. It was something that I was used to as well. I was used to training 22-hours a week and then going to competitions to try and beat my personal best. But in climbing, there is no personal best. I transferred into comp climbing after a year, training with what is now the Boulder Parc team.”

Trying Frontside V12 – photo by Gaby Shubat

“I enjoyed it for that first year. I was surprised, ‘Oh, I can make it to Nationals.’ I was competing at a high level which was cool, but that second year really drained me. By then I had started learning about the Glen and had started rock climbing a little more. Once I got my license, it was game over. I was going to the Glen every single weekend, if not twice or three times a week.”

“I think the first hard boulder I did was the Gunt (soon to be renamed). I went in January 2019, it was my first time in the Glen, my buddies Jack and Jake took me out. It was my first-time rock climbing, it was like -10, I had freezing fingers, and it was hilarious haha. I remember almost doing it in a session, and I remember thinking, ‘If I can almost do this in a session, I can probably do some really hard stuff.’

“This last year, I got really into it. I started planning trips, went to Hueco, and that was kind of the tipping point for me. I went to Vancouver for Youth Bouldering Nationals. I remember sitting in ISO (isolation) at the Hive. It was kind of that turning point where I could feel myself burning out of comps, but I didn’t want to lose climbing as a whole. I decided that I was just going to go rock climbing.”

The next step for me was the Crucifix Project. It was defined by this heinous iron-cross move, which I think really played to me because I have really strong shoulders from swimming. My fingers were naturally strong, so I liked crimping. I probably worked that thing for eight or nine sessions over the summer. I did it in August and for me that was like the first big moment of progress.”

“The next big project I did was Stairwell. For those that don’t know, that project has been up for 15 or 20 years or so. One of the most obvious lines in the Glen. You kind of walk by it every time you go to the Glen. I tried it pretty early on and it felt crazy impossible. I only really started trying it seriously at the end of 2019, early 2020. I came back from Hueco, and I was like I’m doing this thing. I had done all of the bottom moves, figured out a sequence finally, there were like these two mystery-moves that everyone thought were impossible. I just decided I would climb up the boulder beside it and try the top and just did it immediately.”

“Next session, within 30-minutes of warming up, I did the boulder. I called it Rite of Passage because it was kind of my rite of passage into the next step of my progression. Everyone thought this thing was impossible. I wondered, ‘What looks impossible for me?’ If this thing took 10 sessions, what if I put 40 or 50 into something. We are still trying to push the limits of hard, Glen bouldering. It’s quite special in the way that it sucks, but we love it because of that.”

Since lockdown, Salvo began building a home wall to train for his harder projects. He built and builds wooden holds that he sells depending on the day. The 45-degree board became his temple as he focused all of his energy on becoming stronger. Salvo was finished with high school. What was the next step?

“Originally, before COVID and everything, I had planned on taking the year off to work and save money to go on a trip. I wanted to go to school for filmmaking and now is definitely not the time to be doing that. I don’t know how long a wait it’s going to be, but I want to take the time to focus on climbing while I am still progressing really fast.”

Salvo on I Shot the Sheriff – photo by Gaby Shubat

Salvo has challenging aspirations, but it is this difficulty that excites him about hard bouldering. It is what inspired him to go to Squamish this summer.

“Going into this, I knew there was this boulder problem called Shelter. It is one of the few crimp-pulling boulders in Squamish. I woke up at 5:30 am that day, 2:30 am in Squamish, flew to Vancouver, got to the boulders around 4:30 pm, it had been a long day already, I climbed Superfly three or four times, did a bunch of eliminates, and was like, ‘You know what, I feel ready, I’m going to do Shelter. I feel like I am going to do it now.’ In 30-minutes I was standing on the top of the boulder.”

“I totally beefed the top out. It was ugly to say the least haha. Other than the move out right, it was the only move I had to really fight for. Doing it and doing it fast was a highlight of the trip. It was a good start and that momentum really carried through.”

Naturally, Salvo sought further progression He said, “I wanted to do V14, I wanted to do the Reckoning, but as soon as I pulled on I got totally shut down. I am so glad that I did. That boulder opened up all of my weaknesses. I can use my toes really well, but I can’t really use my heels.”

So what is Salvo up to now? Well, he is taking the next couple months to just climb. What does climbing mean to him? He said, “That’s such a hard question to answer. Climbing is like a lifestyle. It is something I enjoy. It is something that brings me closer to people and it is something that lets me express myself and create art. Climbing as a whole is a lot of things to me, but at its core, it is a tool I can use to express myself and do so many more things.”

What will Salvo do in the future? It’s unclear, but it will almost certainly be hard. This past weekend, Salvo grabbed the first ascent of Ontario’s hardest boulder problem. More on that to come.

Featured image of Ethan Salvo by Gaby Shubat.