On Sunday, March 15, sunlight trickled through budding leaves at southern Ontario’s Niagara Glen. Three days later, the area would shut down in an effort to aid in self-isolation during the coronavirus outbreak.
He didn’t know it, but Ontario climber Ethan Salvo would not have another opportunity to try his project before we all went into lock-down.
This sort of project is hard to find these days. Over the past decade, bouldering has grown into a major climbing discipline, one defined by the absolute hardest moves, in southern Ontario. As training knowledge increases, the strength of the climber, and the speed at which they achieve that strength, has also increased.
As a result, there are very few long-term open projects left in local crags. In Niagara, there was only one: the Stairwell Project.
Over the last few decades, it had seen some of Ontario’s strongest climbers try it. Perhaps the craziest thing about the project is how obvious the line is. The holds are perfect. Sloping limestone edges climb out an increasingly steep overhang until the climber is tossing to the lip. If you miss the toss, your back is exposed to a nasty, spine-first fall onto a stone stairwell.
For Salvo, the line had always been inspiring and has represented the next step in his climbing. For those who haven’t met him, Salvo represents a unique case in Canadian youth climbing. He began climbing just over two years ago in November 2017. He first went outside in June 2018. By the following summer, he would go on to complete a number of the Glen’s test-pieces.
During a particularly strong session in 2019, Salvo sent The Punt , a V12 left start to Tim Doyle’s classic V10 The Gunt. In that same session, Salvo would also put down his second V12, Karasu, as well as establishing the sit start to Black Eagle which he would ultimately grade V11.
For a climber with only 16 months experience with the sport, this result is nearly incredible. Even still, the Stairwell Project remained unsent.
Over the course of the following months, Salvo tried and completed the famous project. Sticking moves and making progress, he began to feel closer, though the send was far away. Frustrated, Salvo turned to training, spending hours on the Boulder Parc Tension Board. He went on a trip to Hueco with Canadian strongman Yves Gravelle to learn more about climbing in a powerful style.
Just over a week later, Salvo was back in the Glen with the Stairwell Project being his focus. For Salvo, the project was important. He said, “I wanted to do it to prove I was something.” With such a small number of hard boulders in Ontario, it can be difficult for local climbers to know where they stand in the greater context of difficulty. The Stairwell Project, in many ways, represented progression for both local climbers and the crag as a whole.
Upon his return, Salvo gave the boulder a beta-day followed by a day of rest. Mere moments after warming up, Salvo climbed through the crux and fired the rig.
When asked why he named the problem Rite of Passage, Salvo said: “For me, sending that boulder was my rite of passage to the next level of climbing in the Glen. Now that I’ve done it, every line I look at in the glen seems possible. I feel like my perspective on hard climbing has changed a lot since I’ve done it, and I think the same will go for anyone that repeats it.”
Does that mean the all the projects in the Glen are gone? Not yet. There is a sit to this classic line and Salvo will be descending on it after we each break free from our quarantines.
In regard to the sit, Salvo said, “It’s about four extra moves, but they’re all pretty big, require a lot of tension and precise footwork. It’s been wet the past couple months so I’m not terribly sure how hard it is. The last time I tried it I could do the first move and that was it. I think it’ll be a V8 to 10 boulder into the stand, but the hard part is just having the power endurance for the whole thing.”
Salvo has proposed the grade of V12 for the stand, and the boulder currently awaits a second ascent for confirmation. To stay fit during coronavirus, Salvo has undergone a construction project.
He said, “It’s been a weird shift, but I impulsively built a woodie in my backyard. It’s just enough to train on, but it’s been a ton of work to get it up. I’ve spent the past week building it and making holds, and it’s getting close to done. I’m really fortunate to have it.
“Being able to set simulators of my projects has been a great way to stay in shape, and stay psyched on outdoor climbing.”
Rite of Passage