Climber Spotlight: Jon Cardwell

Many of us consider climbing more than just a sport—it’s a way of life. However, some people take this concept to another level, and Jon Cardwell is one of those people.

Jon eats, sleeps, and breathes climbing. His time is spent setting routes, coaching, climbing, and traveling. His hunger for the climbing life is infectious, and he shares his story with us in this week’s Climber Spotlight:


Jon Cardwell
Mug shot of me contemplating my attempts on Biographie, aka Realization (5.15a), in Ceuse, France. My multi-year project! Photo: Matty Hong

How did you get into climbing? Tell us about the early days of your climbing career?

My parents have always been active in the outdoors, and from a young age they introduced me to that. From hiking, mountain biking, to skiing, we did pretty much all of it. I think it was after a trip exploring Clear Creek in Arizona that my mom and stepfather realized that I enjoyed climbing. In that canyon there are numerous places where you have to ‘boulder’ a little to get in and out of sections on the river. A couple months later my mom got me a membership to the local climbing gym and I became obsessed. That was about 15 years ago.

My early days were full of adventure; I thought everything about climbing was cool: every rock, the gear, climbing magazines, competitions, ice climbing, and even any new climb that was set in the gym. I had some mentors; a big influence was Lance Hadfield. He was the one that truly introduced me to climbing outside. A lot of my first climbing experiences were in Hueco Tanks, and I think that played a huge role in shaping me into the climber I am today.

 

Related: Climbing Destination Guide: Hueco Tanks, Texas

Jon Cardwell in Joe's Valley
Climbing the Ben Moon classic Black Lung (V13) in Joe’s Valley, Utah. This was my absolute last try of that trip! Photo: Chelsea Rude

How have you managed to make climbing into a lifestyle?

In the last few years I have managed to find a balance between being on the road and having a home base. I think this has been key to maintaining a healthy motivation for climbing and in a lot of ways provided me the time I needed to keep a regular job coaching and setting at the local climbing gym.

My time at home helps fund travel for bigger trips, and gives me the time to recover and prepare for these trips. And while being at home doesn’t allow me to try all my projects, I am lucky to live in Colorado where there is a massive amount of climbing in all styles. My sponsors have also provided me with some great opportunities that allow me to travel around the world to pursue climbing; they (adidas Outdoor, Petzl and Five Ten) are the main reason you see me climbing internationally! I couldn’t thank them enough for believing in me.

However, in the end, it’s still about finding balancing in these two lifestyles financially and mentally. When it’s time to travel and try a project or just go to a new area, I am more psyched than ever!

Jon Cardwell
On the finishing moves on the second ascent of Shadow Boxing (5.14d) in Rifle, Colorado. Photo: Matty Hong

You have an impressive resume full of 5.14 and V14 ascents. Out of all the routes you’ve tried, which one has been the most significant to you and why?

I think in climbing it’s always going to be hard to single out specific ascents, especially those that push one to their physical and mental limits. It’s always going to be relative and every experience is unique, like my first 5.12! However, that doesn’t mean there are not some climbs that stand out.

 

Related: Golden Limestone, Abandoned Quickdraws, and a Budweiser: How I sent my first 5.12

 

Climbing The Game (V15) is probably one of my most significant ascents and not necessarily because of its difficulty. When I first tried it, I was really unsure if it was even possible, however I really enjoyed the moves so I decided to keep at it. Overall, this problem of just 10 moves haunted me for over 20 days throughout 2 years. It was becoming mentally exhausting, until I finally did it on the most random occasion. I was coming off of a short climbing break and hadn’t tried the problem in over 6 months. I warmed up and gave a burn. I was close, and on the next try I sent it!

The Game V15
Third ascent of The Game (V15) in Boulder Canyon, Colorado. This shot was during the actual send! Photo: Scott Clark

That moment always stays with me and reminds me that climbing is certainly as much a mental challenge as it is physical; where sometimes it’s best to drop all the pressure you put on yourself and just climb. During those moments some amazing things can happen! It was a great lesson to learn, and such a good boulder problem.

Recently released footage of Jon’s ascent of The Game (V15):

In sport climbing I have encountered many scenarios like with The Game, however I have more belief in myself when it comes to climbing routes. One climb really sticks out though. It isn’t my hardest, but sending it was totally surreal. It’s called Kryptonite and it’s at a remote crag just outside of Rifle called the Fortress. I was there alone with my friend Ryan, and as I was climbing he was completely silent the entire climb. In some ways it made me totally nervous but in other ways I entered a focus that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Everything was going so well I thought it couldn’t be real. Before I knew it, I was resting at the final jug and then clipping the chains. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed so loud after climbing a route—I had to break the silence!

Jon Cardwell at the Red River Gorge
Climbing the Golden Ticket (5.14c) in the Red River Gorge, Kentucky. One of my favorite climbs in the world! Photo: Francios Lebeau

What about climbing do you love most?

I love how connected the climbing community is throughout the world. Often times when visiting a new place it doesn’t take long to meet new climbers and feel like you’re a part of that place. I also really love the challenge in climbing, how you can learn something new with every climb, attempt, area, etc. You can even learn by teaching or observing other climbers. It feels like climbing is a never-ending process that cannot be fully mastered and will continue to evolve with every next generation.

Tell us about a not-so-proud moment in your climbing career.

I feel that climbing like life has its ups and downs, learning curves and lessons. I’ve had my fair share! One moment sticks out beyond the rest though. That being said, it pertains more to growing up into a responsible adult more than anything haha …

It was a few years ago—I was 19 years old or so and was traveling around Europe for an extended amount of time. In the years before, I had spent over six months in Europe without leaving, and once I flew home, everything went smoothly. Little did I know, certain laws changed between those trips.

 

Related: Solo Travel & Climbing: How to Maximize Your Time on Rock When Traveling Alone‏

 

I was in Europe for over eleven months and flying out of Switzerland. Check-in went well, and even passport control—but once we left those stations, some police came to us and said that they had some questions. Long story short, they had caught us overstaying our tourist visa in the Schengen area from the stamps in our passports. Thus, we received a fine and a warning that if it were more time we could be banned for 5 years!

Thankfully, the fine wasn’t too intense and we were not banned for that long. I’ve been to Europe almost a dozen times since. The whole experience taught me a valuable lesson about travel and that is to check to see how long you’re able to stay for, along with other things, for starters!

Jon Cardwell in Ceuse
On an attempt on Biographie (5.15a) in Ceuse, France. Still an ongoing project! Photo: Keith Ladzinski

What’s the best advice on climbing you’ve ever received?

To be patient and come prepared for the challenge.

Jon Cardwell
A new climb in Chile. Photo: Sam Bie

If you could give one piece of advice to a beginner climber, what would it be?

Enjoy climbing for the whole experience, and if possible, travel to as many new areas as you can. I think it’s important if you’re really excited to get better at climbing to first learn the fundamentals of how to move on as many different styles of rock as possible. For example: granite, sandstone, limestone, slabs, overhangs, arêtes, cracks, etc.

Plan trips to many different areas, and after some time you’ll discover your strengths but won’t have to compromise as much when you encounter a style that’s challenging.

 

Related: Free eBook—7 Mistakes to Avoid as a New Climber

 

If you could give one piece of advice to a 5.15/V15 crusher, what would it be?

Don’t be too shy to other climbers at the crag—especially those who are new to climbing. They look up to you and professional climbers have an incredible opportunity to inspire and teach many people.

I know there’s a time and place to be focused on a hard project, and it’s ok to take your time and have space, but afterwards or on days where you’re less focused, take some time to interact with other climbers.


To learn more about Jon, check out this video from Five Ten:

From all of us here at Moja Gear, thank you for sharing your story, Jon! We are constantly inspired by your strength and passion for climbing. We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next!

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