Half Life: Chris Sharma Turns 30
Sharma has delivered everything that “the next generation” is supposed to in rock climbing. He has been setting new standards for 15 years—half his life. And now, on April 23, he turns 30.
You could define an old-school climber as one who remembers a time “before Sharma.” From his boy-wonder teenage days to his meditative 20s, Chris Sharma has captured our imaginations, inspiring us not only with his routes— Necessary Evil, The Mandala, Realization, Witness the Fitness, Dreamcatcher, Es Pontas, Jumbo Love—but also with his humility. Sharma was so soft-spoken, so mellow, that when he showed up at a national championship or the X Games, he seemed almost out of place. And when he’d win, it was as if the victory belonged to climbing itself, a triumph over the competitive and narcissistic hang-ups tainting our art-slash-sport. Besides, his free-swinging style was great to watch.
We caught up with Sharma in October, outside a bagel shop in Boulder, Colorado, where he had come to do a benefit slide show. In a three-hour interview, it became very clear that he’s still just as psyched as when he was a scrawny 15-year-old, campusing to the top of the climbing world. He firmly believes his hardest climbs are still to come. But now he has a house, a girlfriend of three years, and a dog. His soul patch has grayed a bit, and he has wisdom to share about climbing that all of us can relate to. Which shouldn’t be surprising. An athletic gift is given by nature, but for the gift to keep on giving, your guiding philosophy must stand the test of time. Sharma’s has.
You have this public image as the “spiritual climber.” Is that an accurate description?
I feel like I have been portrayed like that. People, interviewers, whatever, they try to put you in a box, you know? Not that it’s not true, but at the same time I feel like that’s not telling the whole story. I think it’s really just trying to be true to yourself and as authentic as possible. Not trying to strategically create some image.
So, as a professional climber, how do you keep it real?
I think for me, whenever I’ve gone climbing, it’s because I really wanted to go climbing, not because I wanted to try to outdo someone or prove something to the world. There is this side of my climbing that’s professional—it’s like my job. But I feel like I’ve found a good way of separating those things. If I go to a trade show, or a competition, or a slideshow, that’s when I’m on the clock, being a professional climber.
My parents were both students of Baba Hari Dass. When they got married, they took the name Sharma. It means “good fortune,” or something like that. It’s actually a pretty common last name in India. I went to school at the Mount Madonna Center, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I lived in Santa Cruz, and we would go up to the school every day, but we didn’t live on the center.
Did this background affect your early climbing?
For me, it never was just blindly like, OK, I’m a climber, I’m just gonna climb. I definitely relate that to my background and to my friends, Andy [Puhvel] and Sterling [Keene] and other close friends from Santa Cruz. It wasn’t like we were in a climbing scene. Being a famous climber was never really something that I tried to make happen.
What set you on that path?
I won the national championship when I was 14. I had amazing opportunities like that. But when I was 17, I had a really bad knee injury. That was a pretty powerful experience for me because all of a sudden, I couldn’t climb. And I’d kind of put all my eggs in that basket. I’d gotten my GED through an alternative high school that basically just accepted my life experience as my schooling. When I was 16, I was hitchhiking around France with Tommy Caldwell, climbing, and that really has been my education. Traveling and meeting people and just life experiences. I guess I didn’t learn so much math.
Between trips there I spent a lot time in Asia. In Japan, I went on this crazy trip, walked about 1,000 miles around this island [Shikoku, a 1,500-year-old Buddhist pilgrimage], totally by myself, just sleeping in the forest in Japan. I went to meditation centers in Thailand and Burma and India. That was a big part of my life for a while. And climbing, as a comparison, was just so external. I worked on Realization, and that was kind of the exception. I was really miserable when I hurt my knee, and it made me realize that climbing is pretty ephemeral.
So… I got back, I got a girlfriend, and I went to Majorca and totally fell in love with deep water soloing. Perfect rock over the ocean, and climbing onsight, ground up. Just super pure.
What I don’t like about the idea of being a “spiritual person,” is it’s like, OK, I’m a spiritual person, so I’m going to act all peaceful and try to be all saintly or something. But if you’re feeling pissed off in the moment, it’s much more true to be pissed off than try to act all peaceful.
I’ve been living in Spain for a long time now, and people are very expressive there, very fiery, but very authentic. It’s like you have to express yourself, even if that’s frustration or something. From what I’ve studied in Buddhism, that’s the goal, right? To not be caught up in your own personal image, but actually be authentic, whatever expression that takes.
So my sound bite can be, “At age 30, Chris Sharma is outgrowing the stereotype of the spiritual climber”?
To be stereotyped like that definitely detracts from me personally. Like I said, I’m totally happy talking about this stuff. I just don’t want to make some image for myself like I’m some sort of saint or something. I get frustrated, and I get bummed out.
Thinking about getting married?
We’ll see… I’m not ruling that out, that’s for sure.
Like to have kids some day? Do you think about that?
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I think so. But, uh, first things first. We’ve got a dog now. A black lab, Chaxi. That’s a good start.
Talk a little bit about Catalunya and the house there you two have been fixing up. How does it feel to have a real home base?
It’s pretty much the first time I’ve ever had that in my life. Since I was three years old, I was going week on, week off, at my mom and my dad’s houses. And I’ve basically been on the road for 10 years, not really knowing where to call home. I’d been spending a lot of time in Spain, and Daila and I just said, where are we going to live? And we decided to live in Lleida. Now I’ve got a place where people come and visit me, and we’ve ended up creating a community where we are.
Describe the landscape where you live.
There’s a lot of agriculture, orchards, and stuff like that. Olive trees and almond trees and peach trees. We live in a little village of about a hundred people. It’s almost like if you’re coming to the Valley [Yosemite] through Mariposa or something like that. Similar kind of climate, maybe 2,000-foot elevation, and the closest crag is a 10-minute walk.
How many projects do you have that you’ve bolted but haven’t sent?
Have you given up on some of those? Left them for the next generation?
There’s one in Oleana that I have kind of given up on, but I did all the moves. Each individual move is really, really hard, and I think it’d be no doubt 15c or d—really gnarly. But it also has really small holds, and that’s not really my strong point.
In the past, I would always just focus all my energy on one route. Like OK, I’m going to go to Clark Mountain and just camp out in the desert and stay till I do it. And that was a cool experience, but it’s really hard to have an everyday life, and you always have these time constraints. Being in Spain, I have these projects, these amazing futuristic lines that I’m working on, but I’m able to mix that with everyday life and develop a little bit of a home base.
I feel like, as soon as you do one new level, other people are like, “So when are you going to do the next hardest thing?” That’s not really how it works. It took me, like, seven years to go from 15a to 15b. It’s not like, oh, so I did some 15b— when’s the 15c gonna come? It’s not as simple as that. And it shouldn’t be. Every time the scale goes up, it seems like it should be a significant difference.
And I’m super-stoked on a lot of different kinds of routes. It’s cool to do a long route like Jumbo Love, and it’s also really cool to do a short bouldering route.
[Laughs.] Well, my buddy and me were gonna try it. And on any route I try, if it’s my first time on it, I try to flash it, you know? That’s what I always try. We went up the first seven pitches, and I fell on, like, a 12c move…
Seven pitches up—those traverses into the Stoveleg Cracks?
Yeah, right there. So that’s something I would love to go back on. I don’t know if we really did it so strategically—like we were hauling and stuff, and ended up fixing line to go back to the ground. And the next day we woke up and were just both so tired. We were like, uh, I think we’re just gonna go bouldering. I would love to do more high-off-the-ground stuff like that. Bring what I’ve done in sport climbing and apply that to longer routes. I’d love to find some rad, overhanging 600- to 1,000- foot wall and find a 5.15 on it. But I feel like there’s some work for me in single-pitch sport climbing still, some improvements I’d like to make, and some harder routes I’d like to do before I move on.
So, back to an earlier point. Your new home base—this is the next step for you in order to climb harder?
Yeah, for sure. Some of the strongest climbers now are from Spain, and where we’re living is really what southern France was in the mid or early 1990s, you know? Right now, there’s literally 15 5.15s within an hour and a half of each other. So it’s really kind of a special moment in Spain.
And you’re saying that you can’t reach a new level if you’re always globetrotting.
I went to China last year, to Yangshuo, and I bolted four amazing routes, really great projects. But we were there for three weeks, and there’s just no time to do any of them. Like I was saying, to put your life on hold and go camp out in the Mojave Desert is stressful for your relationships. It’s pretty amazing that Daila went with me, like, five times to Clark Mountain. She looks around, and she’s like, “I don’t get it, there’s a million crags in Spain….”
It’s totally worth it to find a route like that, but in the game of finding harder climbs, it’s not like you can just whip ’em out every week. Or every year. It takes consolidation—that’s the dirty work.
Which direction do you see yourself going?
[Laughs.] Hopefully not toward crash and burn. I was just talking about this with Boone [Speed] this morning. Boone is a great example—he’s staying connected to the industry through design and photography.
So how would you work it?
Well, I’m actually really motivated on shoe design right now. I’m going to Evolv tomorrow. I’ve also worked with a kid’s climbing camp called Yo Base Camp—one of my best friends Andy Puhvel and his wife, Lisa, just a mom and pop company—doing a scholarship fund for them called the Sharma Fund. I had a lot of support from my local climbing community, and without that kind of support, I know I wouldn’t be here today.
But for now, still an athlete…
I’m super-psyched to keep pushing it as long as I can, but I think I’ve tried to be aware that there’s gonna be a time when I’m not the best climber. What I felt, just traveling all the time—you’re having these great experiences, meeting great people, having these connections, but you never really go anywhere with those connections. My family is the friends that I have, because I don’t have any brothers or sisters. My mom passed away, and I’ve never been super-close with my other relatives. I wanted to start to build something so that in 10 years, when I’m really washed up and over the hill, and…
No more slideshows…
That’s just kind of a sad image. So being in Spain is really trying to find a balance. Continuing my climbing, but also trying to develop something more that’s, like, a life. I mean, even now I feel like a lot of the pressure’s off. There’s a new, younger generation to push new standards. More of the pressure is on them now. I’m still enjoying it, so why not? I’m still good, I’m still psyched, but I don’t want to approach things from the perspective of trying to hang on to something. I feel really happy that I have a house and a girl to go back to.