The Complete Chris Sharma Interview
In professional climbing, where talent burns hot and fast, a decade is a long time. Ankles snap. Shoulders pop from sockets. Fingers calcify. And those rare talents that don't succumb to nagging injuries often falter beneath the mental pressure. Picking projects at your physical and mental limits means constant exposure to the reality of failure. The struggle crushes many, weeding out the strong-fingered charlatans from the lifers. Above it all reigns Chris Sharma, 26, an athlete endowed with unparalleled physical strength and mental tenacity, dominating world sport climbing and bouldering for the last dozen years.
Last July, six years after his historic ascent of Realization — the first confirmed 5.15a in the world — Sharma returned to Ceüse to tick another monster, Three Degrees of Separation, redpointed on July 23. This 5.14d follows desperate climbing up tufas and micro-crimps to series of three spectacular, all-points-off dynos, a hyper-dynamic line one French climber deemed "c'est moderne." For someone who's spent the last decade on the road, the Ceüse trip was a coming home of sorts. Close friend David Graham, who became the first American to repeat Realization, on July 30, was there, as well as climber Ethan Pringle (who became the third American to repeat Realization).
Lowell's King Lines footage is vintage Sharma. Adrift on a giant slate-gray wall punctuated by blue-water streaks, Sharma launches from finger divots that would barely pass as footholds for the rest of us, sighting and then hanging distant pockets. There is something both graceful and barbaric in Sharma's climbing. He couples a child-like playfulness with ferocious grit that leaves even his peers in awe and the rest of us inspired to reach a little higher and hang on a little longer.
This last 12 months might be Sharma's most productive yet. He ticked La Rambla Direct's (5.15a) second ascent, onsighted 5.14a's at Rodellar, and put up the landmark Es Pontas. Each route seems to lay the groundwork for the next. Even as a self-proclaimed "old man" of sport climbing, Sharma still thinks he hasn't reached his full potential.
"It's all about finding a line that motivates me," says the soft-spoken Sharma. "I'm not the type who can train, be doing something now so that in three months I'll be strong enough to try I route. I just go try a line a million times. The training occurs on the route." This kind of approach demands a nomadic lifestyle, with the destinations dictated by temperature and season. Between red-eye transatlantic flights, he lives out of a small backpack for days on end and spreads a sleeping bag across his friends' floors.
We caught up with Sharma long enough to ask him about living with fame, the fine line between the possible and impossible, and his struggles to find balance amidst the never-ending road trip.
What was the trip to Ceuse last summer all about?We wanted to shoot a little bit more for King Lines. We were sitting around trying to figure out a place to go. It was summertime so it’s hard to find cool temps or a place to climb hard sport routes, but in Ceuse it’s the best time of year. I knew there were a couple of projects. I told Josh and Corey. I had tried this line six years ago. It was a line that Arnaud Petit bolted. I remember trying it. It had this huge dyno in it.
When I walked up this time, I saw that maybe the pure line was a direct start. Petit had kind of traversed into the dyno on a line of pockets out right and then left. If you go straight up it takes this beautiful tufa to this thin face and then finishes straight up the dynos. So, I went and rebolted the whole line and started trying it. Coming there I didn’t have any expectations. I just wanted to try some new routes on a really spectacular wall. It turned out be a pretty classic route. The movement in it was just so amazing. It’s so unique; so few routes have that many jump moves and even the climbing getting up to the dynos is classic.
Six years ago you sent Realization. The same crew was there for that. Was it pretty cool to be back there with the same crew? We were there with Dave and Ethan Pringle. We were all there. It was good time.
Obviously you spent sometime at Ceüse through the years. What makes that place so special? Why do you keep coming back? It just has spectacular climbing – amazing limestone with holds on it. It’s got a good approach. It’s just the full experience of hiking and climbing. I just feel really healthy and fit. The cliff itself has these incredible blue streaks and it’s basically on top of a mountain. There are these lines that are just barely possible and then there are all these classic routes from 5.12 to 5.15. It has some futuristic potential for hard projects.
Do you plan out where you’re going to travel?This year, I’m going to be in the States through October and then I’m going to try and live in Spain for a while. Just try to base out of there. I’ve been traveling nonstop for so long that I’m kind of jonesing to have a house and settle down a bit. For me, it’s always been a problem in Santa Cruz, where I’m from, cause there’s not really any climbing. I love being there because of the climate, the ocean, but there is just no climbing. For me, Mallorca is a perfect spot because it’s got the ocean and tons of climbing potential. Being in Europe in general, it’s just a central place in the world. So many cultures. All sorts of languages being spoken. You’re just right in the mix. I plan on spending more time over there these days. Continue traveling, but I think I need a home base. It wears on you to not have one. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. It’s time to try something different.
Is it going to be Mallorca?Yeah. I’ve been there 11 times. It already feels like home.
What are the good parts of traveling to climb that keep you going?Just being in a new place. Meeting new people from foreign places. Speaking new languages. Going on adventures and being spontaneous. You never know what’s going to happen. You meet someone and you end staying at their house. And climbing in exotic places. Exploring the world.
How many king lines do you think are out there? Do you think that this is a quest that you’ll keep following?It’s pretty much an infinite number. Just as much as there are rocks around. A king line symbolizes one thing for me. For others, it might be different. It’s something that is very motivating very inspiring. For me, I have this opportunity to explore the world on a global level and find the lines that inspire. Other people maybe don’t have the opportunity to travel, but they find the line at their local crag. It’s a line that calls out to them. Maybe it’s not as beautiful as a line at Ceuse, but it’s a line that motivates them to become a better climber. For me it’s something that takes my climbing to the next level and a line that’s beautiful. It’s the same mentality for anyone, I think. I probably have a high standard because I’ve been fortunate enough to spend my life at the best places in the world.
But I remember starting out as a kid bouldering at Castle Rock. I would just explore and find the best problem in the world.
Do you remember which problem?No, I mean it’s the attitude. It was a bunch of different boulder problems. Every day you’re going to find something new. It’s that experience of exploration. Finding the line and then making it happen.
I’m curious – you’ve got the passion to explore. Is it an internal search to discover something inside of you?Certainly: you try a project something for months on end and it requires a huge amount of determination and focus. You try something that is way above your level and it requires a huge amount of dedication. In those situations, that’s when I feel the best. I feel like I’m living my purpose in my life. If I have a project that really motivates me, everything is perfectly clear. There is no confusion about what I should be doing. Everything is obvious. I’m here trying this project, that’s what I’m here to do. I need to find things that push me mentally and physically to my ultimate level. The projects are really psychological. There’s a lot learned during that journey.
When you don’t have a line like that weighing on your thoughts, do you find it hard to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing or where you’re supposed to be?For me, it definitely is. I’ve always followed these projects around the world. They keep me centered and grounded. Otherwise, I’m just floating around. I have nothing to anchor to. When I do have a project, it’s an anchor. It gives me a focus. When I’ve finished a hard project, I’m really ecstatic at the beginning. Then, afterwards, after the excitement wears off, then I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel kind of lost.
I’ve had friends that have gone through university. They explain the same feeling to me. They’ve spent their entire life studying and they get out and all of a sudden, they can do anything, but they don’t know what they want to do. For me, I’m always floating, always trying to figure out where I’m supposed to be. It’s nice to have those projects. Everything feels so clear. There are no questions.
What were some of the king lines of older generations? What were some of the last generation’s king lines that really inspired you?The routes that inspired me…Just Do It at Smith Rock, that was a king line for sure. It was a line that was big and hard and beautiful. Necessary Evil at the Virgin River. Super Tweak. Those were all king lines. In terms of boulder problems, Midnight Lightning, Thriller, The Force. Those were all very inspiring. They were big lines, highball. They were full-value boulder problems.
More than a decade ago, when you broke onto the scene, a lot of the older generations were a little bit critical. They said you’re footwork was crummy, that you had no training regime. Looking back at those articles, the one thing that is really clear is that there was a certain amount of envy. Those writers and climbers saw that you were a special climbing talent. Mentally and physically you had an incredible amount of promise and potential. Here you are at 14 or 15 years old being labeled as the future. As a teen, did you ever feel that pressure?I never really felt pressure. Climbing has always just been fun. It’s playful. Climbing is an expression of being happy. When I feel inspired, I feel like anything is possible. I will do whatever it takes to climb it. If I’m not pysched, I’m not even going to bother. It’s hard for me to discipline myself if I don’t have a project. I’ve never trained. It’s always been a matter of finding an inspiring line, getting on it, and trying it a million times. The training happens on the route. It’s really hard for me train now so that I can be strong for a route in two months. I want to go straight to it and try and try it a million times.
I never felt any pressure of living up to potential until just recently. I’ve never taken climbing very seriously. Until just recently, I never thought about that sort of thing. When you’re younger, you never think about the day when you might not be as strong. I still feel like I have potential. I’m 26 now and I’ve started realizing that the time is finite. I’m more motivated now to raise the bar on my personal level. To realize my potential as a climber. Every climb I work on teaches me a valuable lesson that I can take and combine with the other routes. I can build on that to find the next rad project. It’s this never-ending learning and processing of routes. It’s not something that going to stop. It’s not going to resolve. It will get to the point where I won’t be able to climb the hardest routes in the world.
Boone Speed and Ron Kauk, they set the bar for US climbing. They were redpointing 5.14’s and defining what was possible. I saw that and it made me think it was possible. That’s what’s so hard about first ascents, is that you’re not totally sure whether it can be done. You have to have the vision to make it happen. So right now, I’m trying to set the bar as high as I can, so that the next generation can build on that. So that they can set the new limits. That’s how climbing evolves.
Since you’ve started to realize that your time is finite, are you starting to feel like a 26 year old?Yeah, I get sorer than I used. I have to warm up better than I used to, but honestly I still feel like I’m improving. I’m not sure how much stronger I am than eight years ago. Maybe I was stronger, but I didn’t have the same experience. A lot of it’s physical, but for me it’s really mental. Motivation is the most important part. Or at least equally important as the endurance or power. To be able to focus, to say that’s what I want to do, and then make it happen. It’d be easy to float around and try a bunch of routes that have already been done and just kind of have fun and not hone in and focus.
Are you becoming the crafty veteran?I don’t know, but for sure at the competition at the trade show, those kids are probably a lot better than me at a lot of things, but for example the fourth boulder problem that I finished and they didn’t was more technical — it was a little more technical, strange, outdoor climbing style that I’m good at. I still have a long ways to go before I’m the wily veteran. I have more to learn.
Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or Kelley Slater. They’re all people who changed their sports, who redefined what was possible. You’ve been that same kind of incredible force inside your sport. All of them have this killer instinct. This indomitable will. When you tie into a rope, it’s clear that the same thing happens. Typically, you’re really laid back, but when you put that harness on you become this possessed Alpha male. What changes?I don’t know. It’s just climbing. I like it. When I’m motivated, it’s just like… I don’t. I can’t really explain. I definitely get pretty agro, certainly more intense than personality.
When you do hard routes, you have to try hard. They’re not easy routes. You have to give everything you have. You have to get totally animalistic. When you’re super pumped, I have to yell to bear down. I remember seeing Boone Speed yelling his way up routes. That had an affect on me. It’s like martial arts. When Bruce lee threw a punch, he had to mean it. Haahhh! (simulating karate grunt). Like that. When you’re doing a hard move, there is this excess energy you have to let out. Air explodes out of you.
After Realization, you weren’t really tethered to anything. You wrote that you were considering giving up climbing. If you weren’t climbing, what would you be doing?At that time, when I wrote that article, I was intensely focused on Eastern philosophy and meditation. I was contemplating these material achievements. I was wondering what the point was. Climbing a rock – what’s the big deal? I hadn’t experienced a lot of other things in life. Part of me wanted to experience something else. To try other things.
For me now, I feel that climbing is a part of who I am. It’s my way of life. It’s my way of expressing myself. My way of being in the world. In the past, I questioned it a lot. Now it’s obvious. This is who I am. This what I do. I’m much more aware of that now. I think about how fortunate I am to be supported by all these companies and in reality the climbing community that supports those companies. I feel so fortunate to be supported by everybody to live this life, to travel around the world and to try and raise the standard of climbing. I feel very confident in my path through life, but in the past, yeah, when I climbed Realization it was a high moment I had to work really hard to work for and it felt like there wasn’t anything else. Actually, climbing is never-ending thing. There is always ways to evolve with it. There is always going to be something harder.
At what point does a climb become too hard? At what point does it become impossible?Well, take the route that I just bolted in Ceüse that I said was too hard. There were six moves in a row that I could just barely hold onto. I could only take my weight off the rope for a second or two. For six moves, it was like that. I could say that it was too hard for me, but I can hang off all the holds, so theoretically if I can hang onto the holds, I should be able to move off of them. It’s possibility. Maybe not for me, but Realization was bolted 15 years before I did it and it’s possible. Maybe in 15 years, some little kid will come up to that route and climb. It will be the next level. Maybe 5.16. I don’t know.
Basically, that’s the limit. You have to at least be able to hang onto the holds. There has to be enough hold, to hold hang onto. If it’s a V14 to V14 to another V14 it’s possible. It’s just a matter of time before someone links it. Maybe not in my time.
Out of any climber there is more written about, more movies made about you. What do you make of this keen interest to get inside your head? Like I said earlier, I just feel really blessed to be supported by the climbing community. To be in the position to push the standards on a global level. I’ve come to terms with the weirdness of being well known in climbing circles. In the past, that was something that tripped me out, that I struggled with, but now I’m accepting of it. It’s the path of my life, my way of participating in society. I’m just trying to do what motivates me. tI feels great to share my experiences through the movies we’ve made.
Does it feel like you’re a rock star at certain points?I really can’t complain. I live a really awesome life, not that it is perfect, but I’m really fortunate.
What’s up with the Spanish girls?(Laughter) Uh. I don’t know man… No comment.
Oregon-based freelancer Fitz Cahall found his last king line on Tooth Rock, in the Arizona desert, where with friends he freed a monster crack-and-corner climb.