The nomadic life of an elite climber

Spanish climber Jorge Díaz Rullo spends most of the year living out of a van as he trains to complete his next big goal: to become the second person in the world to finish a 9c-rated route

Jorge Diaz Rullo
Jorge Díaz Rullo, in one of his climbs, in an image from his Instagram account.

Jorge Díaz Rullo discovered climbing right after turning 12, the day he was taken to a small marketplace in Vallecas – a working-class neighborhood in Madrid – that had been renovated to hold a climbing wall. He wasn’t impressed. These sorts of places are found across Spain: friends get together, rent a cheap place, clean it up and create a makeshift bouldering gym. The climbing walls are not high enough for a rope to be needed, but that’s not important as they’re made for solo training. Díaz Rullo played soccer back then, but as he started to visit the climbing wall, little by little, he became completely enthralled.

There was nothing glamorous about Díaz Rullo’s foray into rock climbing. Even now that he is one of the best rock climbers in the world, he leads a no-frills lifestyle. Working is his thing. At least eight months a year, this 22-year-old lives in his van, parked somewhere close to any of his favorite training centers. The other big Spanish climber, Alberto Ginpes – the first and only Olympic gold medal in climbing – lives at the High-Performance Sports Centre of Catalonia (CAR), and his success, as big as it was unexpected, has changed his life. But Díaz Rullo never complains: he has slowly been gathering sponsors, some as big as the Italian manufacturer of climbing shoes Scarpa. “I currently live off the help of my sponsors, and I’m also part of the SoulClimb team, a climbing gym in Leganés [in the Madrid region], where I work as an outfitter and run some activities. That’s my home away from home in Madrid with my parents, where I go back to recharge my batteries and sleep in a warm bed with all the comforts of home, and of course, to spend time with my family.”

While Alberto Ginés is totally centered on competitive climbing, which is practiced on artificial walls, Díaz Rullo is obsessed with rock climbing, in particular redpointing. This practice refers to sports climbing routes that already have protection bolds fixed into the rock. Climbers can rest on these redpoints, but are not allowed to use rope or any artificial protection. Díaz Rullo’s long and impressive list of achievements includes several 9b redpointed routes. The complexity of a redpoint rises grows as numbers and letters go up. The hardest redpointed route has a grade of 9c, and was done by Czech climber Adam Ondra in 2017. In 2020, German climber Alex Megos suggested a 9c difficulty for the iconic Bibliographie climbing route, but a year later another climber, Stefano Ghisolfi from Italy, completed the route and classified it as 9b+. Díaz Rullo also attempted it, but given it was so far away from home, in France, he decided to pause the project and create his own. Now the Spanish climber is setting out to do a completely new route called Café Colombia, which is located in Margalef, in the Spanish region of Catalonia.

“It might be harder than Bibliographie, but since I haven’t been able to redpoint it, we still don’t know the difficulty level of the route,” says Díaz Rullo of the route. “I’m still working on putting it together, but I feel closer every day. I’ve spent almost 60 days on the route. Right now, my dream is to improve my sport climbing level and you can’t imagine how hard I’m working to achieve it and the hours I’ve put into this. I really hope I make it one day,” the climber says.

Could Díaz Rullo become the second person in history to complete a redpointed climb graded 9c? His preparation calls to mind fellow Spanish climber Iker Pou, who became the third person ever to complete a 9a climb in 2000 after finishing the Action Directe route in Germany’s Frankenjura. Since then, Spanish climbers have continued to take advantage of the country’s landscape, which is filled with different kinds of rock faces. “Spain is the center of the climbing world,” says Díaz Rullo. “If you’re a climber, it’s impressive to see all the areas we have, from the south to the center and up north of the country, passing through Catalonia, which all have amazing quality, and big blocks and routes that are pretty complex.”

Díaz Rullo’s path in the climbing world has not always been straightforward. Living by himself in that van, there were days when he didn’t even have a belay device to secure himself, so he would ask strangers to watch him. “I think I’ve learned to pick my place to live and my projects based on where I know my friends are going to be or where I know people are going to be passing by,” he says. “I didn’t use to think that way and I would pick random projects in hidden places with not too many people. This has given me some solo experiences and the skill to work on my projects by myself, learn how to climb alone, and trust strangers to hold me. Thinking about it, I used to have a great time doing that and met a lot of people, but it’s definitely more comfortable to share experiences and inspiration with good friends.” He doesn’t think too much of his nomadic lifestyle: “I can’t complain, I live in the mountains, which has always been a dream for me, I do what I love and I get to know and share adventures with incredible people.”

Free climbing

Although the sport is growing fast, making a living out of it continues to be a challenge. “I’m a professional climber and, coming from where I came from, I think I’ve had a lot of help. There are Spanish climbers that I believe are really good and could be part of the global elite but they have no support. Even I, sometimes, feel I don’t have enough help. There are trips and projects I can’t afford,” says Díaz Rullo, who studied Sports Science and is currently considering studying to be a nutritionist and a climbing guide.

His bold spirit has taken him to try high-level free climbing, using no equipment such as ropes. Routes for this discipline are short, and the highest grade for them is 8c, which is difficult to reach. “It’s a little hard for me to explain why I free climb, I think each discipline has its own feelings, they each bring different challenges and everyone chooses what really motivates them. I love that mental factor, the adrenaline knowing you can’t fall, but at the same time trusting myself and knowing I won’t fall, no matter what. I honestly feel safe all the time and, if I do it, it’s because I 200% know I’m not gonna fall and I’m going to enjoy it.”

Dispute over grading

Climbing is not an exact science, so grading the difficulty of a climb has become a matter of heated discussions. “It’s true, the difficulty level is subjective,” explains Díaz Rullo. “There are always routes that feel different among climbers, whether that is because of their height, hand size, arm length, strength, technique, flexibility… it feels different for everybody, but I think that’s one of the beautiful things about this sport, because challenges are really personal.”

He continues: “We are never going to say that one climber is better than another, but there are climbers who are better prepared and adapted to shine in different types of climbing. It’s also true that the levels are going to depend on how in shape you are. Sometimes you’re at your peak and you can reach a goal faster. But if you’re facing a challenge at your lowest point and you’re out of shape, it feels harder. You can even jump into a project and be lucky enough to have great weather or you can be there and have rain and humidity to slow you down. Grades are always going to depend on so many factors. I always say that what matters is achieving your goals and seeing the progress, seeing everything you’ve accomplished with your effort. Difficulty levels are a motivation, but at the end of the day, it’s just a number,” he says. Although don’t get him wrong, the scales are the ground-level Olympic medals of the climbers.

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