Half Life: Chris Sharma and His Career So Far
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.
Don’t you feel like on some climbs, though, that you’re trying to just get the job done? Does that still happen to you?
Oh, yeah. It totally happens. It’s a constant process. It’s like relearning the same things over and over again—kind of like every route. It’s hard to have that pure attitude. You know, you wanna send it, but that’s almost inhibiting you from just being yourself and climbing it like you know you can. When I climbed Realization, I was kind of feeling tired that day, and was like, well, whatever, I’ll give it a burn, just to remember the moves. And then you kind of trick yourself into not really caring about it, and then you’re free to just do it, I guess.
I feel like that goes for competitions, too. More often than not, when I’m successful in competitions, I’m pretty pessimistic going into the whole thing. Everyone always says you have to have a lot of belief in yourself, and I think it’s true, but for me, it’s more about taking the pressure off. If I’m already set that I’m not going to win, then I just let go and have fun, and I’m able to really climb well because I’m not worried about winning anymore. I haven’t found a formula for that except for trying to trick myself, you know? Basically trick myself and talk to myself in that way.
When you come to a competition, everybody expects you to win. It’s got to be hard—it’s a lose-lose situation in a way.
Yeah, I definitely have mixed feelings about competitions, because more often than not, I don’t prepare for them. But I try to have the mindset that I just go to participate in the climbing community and share my climbing or share myself with other people.
Personally, that’s not ever really been my deal. I mean, competitions are fun, but 15 minutes after the competition they take the holds off. It’s way more important for me to put up new routes and develop my vision in rock climbing. Create a legacy, create something lasting. No one remembers who won the freakin’ World Cup in 1997, but people know who put up Action Directe.
Talk a little bit about your upbringing. Didn’t you grow up in an ashram?
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.
A lot of us who sat through school can say the same thing.
Yeah, but I did really commit to climbing—that was all I wanted to do. And not too long after that, I blew out my knee, and I couldn’t climb for a year. That was a really rough moment for me. It was really depressing.
What was your comeback after all that?
I was probably 18 or 19, and at the trade show I met Christian Griffith. I’d already gone once to try that route Realization, and he encouraged me to go try it again. He told me that it’s something I’ll look back and be psyched on. At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to maybe go back to school. I felt like I had a really good run, I did a lot of stuff I wanted to do, but I thought, before I do something else, this is defi nitely one thing that I have cliffhanging, you know, this Realization.
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.
Did you have any sponsorship issues around your knee injury?
I’ve been really lucky in that way. Beaver [Theodosakis] from prAna has known me since I was a little kid, and he’s always had a lot of faith in me and respected my need to grow as a person. I feel really grateful for that, and in the end I think it actually enhanced my image for them. That I’ve just been able to be myself and have my image not be that of a typical athlete.
I guess I got lucky that I wasn’t ever playing that game. I wasn’t grading my climbs. I was able to climb how I wanted to climb, and I was really fortunate to meet people like Josh and Brett Lowell and shoot videos with them.
So about your label as a spiritual climber...
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.
Do you kick and scream on climbs?
Eh, not so much, but once in a while. It can be frustrating as hell to fall off 50 times at the last move, you know? And to act like it’s OK, it’s all good—that’s kind of like bullshit. [Laughs.] I feel like I’ve learned a lot from Daila [Ojeda]. She’s very much true to her emotions and, like, a typical fiery Latin woman, you know? But very true to her feelings.
Is it serious with Daila?
Yeah, we’ve been together for three years or something.
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.
What’s a typical week at home?
Well, it depends. When it’s climbing season, we’re basically like, “No more home projects.” We’re climbing five days a week, always going to the crag, driving a lot. In the wintertime, it gets dark pretty early, so even if it’s an hour and a half drive back home, it’s OK.
Any really exceptional projects in the works?
I’ve got two projects in mind right now that are in Margalef. One is First Round, First Minute [edit: Sharma completed this route in April 2011], and another is one that I bolted last fall [Perfecto Mondo—see pages 46–47]. So, just trying to focus, you know, on a couple things right now, not get too spread out.
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 Oliana 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.
And that’s a first for you.
I’m ready to settle down a little bit, you know? I can be at my house and not be sleeping on the floor of someone’s house or camping out in some random foreign place that I have no connection to whatsoever. So it feels a little more holistic. And I feel like I can work on harder routes because I don’t have to plan out my time so much.
Do you think your current projects will be your hardest yet?
Yeah, for sure. Some of the stuff I’m working on will be harder than anything I’ve ever done. But everything kind of loses its significance there, in a way, because there’s so much hard climbing that one route doesn’t really stand out from the next.
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.
Are some of these projects shorter?
Like 40 feet. I’ve always loved bouldering. Where we live, there’s not that much bouldering, but some of these shorter routes maybe have V14 boulder problems in them. It’s really cool to get in that zone where you’re just like—[sound effect]—really going for it hard in that bouldering style.
I’m just kind of mixing it up, always trying to reinvent something, I guess. Taking bouldering and route climbing and kind of fusing those styles together. I think that helps me stay psyched.
Speaking of mixing it up, you’ve ventured out a little into other disciplines, like doing Moonlight Buttress and The Rostrum. There was a rumor that you once showed up in Yosemite Valley with the idea of trying to onsight the Nose. Is that true?
[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.
But 30 years old, the clock’s ticking…
I might be ready, you know…
Settling down. You’ve got a house now, and a dog…
I might be ready, actually, but there’s a few projects that hopefully this fall I can climb. And I love putting up routes, much more than to repeat another route. It’s such a complete process—to see something, dream it might be possible, and then you have to really work your ass off to make it even possible to attempt it.
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.
So you’re kind of pushing the numbers now.
Yeah, yeah, it’s interesting. People asked why I started grading things again. I felt like, yeah, look, this is not the most important thing, but at the same time, to just not pay any attention to that is a little blind, too, you know? But for me, it’s always going to be mostly about finding cool routes—that’s the motivation to try something hard.
How do you see yourself staying involved when you’re no longer a professional athlete?
Well, outside of climbing, seeing how professional athletes evolve through life, you have guys like Tony Hawk that stayed very relevant, stayed very in tune with everything. Then you have guys like Mike Tyson, who kind of crashed and burned...
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.