Interview: The Future of Sharma
With new responsibilities as a business owner, husband, and father, America’s greatest climber talks about training, motivation, and his future.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Close your eyes and imagine that unlike 99.9% of climbers, there aren’t any routes hard enough for you. Picture showing up at Rifle, the Red, Buoux, or Céüse and climbing every route there, without much effort.
That’s the reality Chris Sharma has lived in for the past 19 years. Born April 23, 1981, in the West Coast surfing town of Santa Cruz, California, Chris went to the gym for the first time with his mom at age 11. Less than a decade later, Chris lived in a world where all the 5.12s, 5.13s, and 5.14s on Earth were too easy.
At 20, Sharma traveled to France’s Céüse, where he found a route that stopped him momentarily. Jean-Christophe LaFaille had bolted, but never completely freed, Biographie. When Sharma completed the route and clipped the chains, technical rock climbing jumped in its evolution. He renamed the route Realization, and although he didn’t grade it himself, the line would eventually become the world’s first 5.15a.
On a planet with 7 billion people, being the best at anything—even for an afternoon—is amazing. Nineteen years at the pinnacle of any sport is rare, but it verges on superhuman in climbing. Consider that in 2016 it’s possible to be a sponsored climber simply by repeating Sharma routes. No need to discover, bolt, and send new routes of equal or greater difficulty. Sharma shaped modern rock climbing. Whatever he thought was cool, we followed. Bouldering. Projecting hard sport routes. Deep water soloing.
Not only did Sharma have the guns to become the first human to climb 5.15, he had the genius to see the potential, coupled with the commitment to spend months and years of his life proving it. Sharma has spent his life traveling, seeking out, and redpointing the world’s hardest routes and problems—Necessary Evil, The Mandala, Realization, Witness the Fitness, Three Degrees of Separation, Es Pontas, Jumbo Love, La Dura Dura, Bon Combat. It’s a legacy of influence that might not be matched for generations.
Over the past three decades, Sharma has cultivated a mellow Southern California persona, but in reality he’s one of the most competitive, focused, and driven athletes out there. As he points out, high-end climbing isn’t touchy-feely. To climb the most difficult routes in the world, you’ve got to try hard—like really hard—often for months at a time.
“For the past 20 years I’ve been told I’m the best climber in the world and now that’s coming to an end,” said Sharma. “I have to find a new way to define myself.” For such a natural athlete that may prove harder than climbing 5.15. Sharma recently married Venezuelan model and television personality Jimena Alarcón. The pair welcomed their first child, a daughter named Alana, in June 2016.
“When I did La Dura Dura,” Sharma said, “I thought, I can climb harder than this. But since then, I’ve wondered whether that is really the best use of my time and talents. Should I devote more years of my life to putting up another line 40 feet left of La Dura Dura, or should I try new things?”
After years living in rural Spain near the world-class crags at Oliana, Sharma has moved to a high-rise apartment in the heart of Barcelona near where he and a group of investors opened a state-of-the-art climbing gym in the fall of 2015.
Sharma is arguably the highest paid pro climber in the world with an annual income well into six figures, provided by international brands such as Red Bull, Prana, Evolv, Sanuk, Sterling, and Petzl. He’s continually offered endorsement packages by corporations like Ford, and he’s paid handsomely for stunt work in motion pictures, like the recent remake of “Point Break”. He’s even been paid to take billionaires bouldering for a weekend. But Sharma knows the days of being paid just to climb won’t last forever. He’s working to reinvent himself as a husband, father, and businessman. He’s part-owner of Evolv, and he has a business relationship with several gym companies, including Sender One, Momentum, and his own signature franchise in Barcelona.
In the five weeks before our interview, Sharma had flown back and forth between Europe and the U.S. four times. One week he was in the redwood forest of California climbing a giant sequoia for Red Bull. The next he met with city officials, architects, and construction bosses to discuss the Barcelona gym. Then he flew to Iceland for a photo shoot. All while planning his August 2015 wedding in a five-star Barcelona hotel, which brought in climbing glitterati from around the world for an all-night bash.
And between those and dozens of other engagements, he climbs. But not like the rest of us.
With all his responsibilities, Sharma may climb less than the average climber, and he admits to never doing much specific training. Yet he can hold his own at a Psicobloc event against World Cup competitors like Sean McColl or Daniel Woods for whom training is the air they breathe. And when Sharma does climb, he goes all out, pedal to the metal, pulling down with every fiber of his being. When we met up to shoot and climb in Spain, he did a quick warm-up on a horizontal 5.13b, then he jumped on his 5.15b/c testpiece Bon Combat, and suddenly it was the guy we’ve all seen in hundreds of videos—shouting, exploding from hold to hold, feet flying. His face was contorted with effort, and he was climbing as though his life depended on it, climbing as though he were the one and only Chris Sharma—and no one else in the world can do what he does.
Chris Sharma: Climbing was love at first sight. Before that, any sport I tried—whether it had a board or a ball—I was pretty clumsy. I always knew I was athletically gifted, but before climbing, I’d never found the one thing I did well. I didn’t need anyone telling me to go to a gym to train, and that’s been my approach ever since. I love climbing so much I want to do it all the time. The discipline to become good comes naturally when it’s something you love.
I went through a tough period when I was 16. I’d been climbing since I was 12. I was already a professional, and I’d made a lot of sacrifices. Those are pivotal years. You’re trying to process a lot of things, figure out who you are. I injured my knee bouldering and all of a sudden I couldn’t climb for nearly a year. For a while it seemed like all my dreams were shattered. That prompted a lot of self-reflection. And I did that by returning to the traditions I’d been brought up with. I did a lot of soul-searching by learning more about meditation and Buddhism. That gave me tools to deal with difficult moments.
Chris Sharma: Getting injured at 16 taught me that life has ups, downs, and difficulties. You can apply this to climbing or anything else. Often we make a situation more difficult or painful simply by our resistance to what’s happening. Life can be challenging, but acceptance of the situation goes a long way toward learning to live with it. An injury like I had can be physically painful, but obviously the psychological hardship we put ourselves through can be accentuated by the way we respond. The ability to relax in the present moment, to accept what’s happened, and know everything changes, everything is always coming and going, that as painful as this moment is—it too will pass. You learn to be patient, sit tight, and not add more mental strife to an already difficult situation.
Now I feel very fortunate I had that experience. Those were my first few years of being in the limelight. I still saw climbing in this two-dimensional way—it was only about doing hard climbs. For example, as a kid I hated hiking. I would only hike to climb. I didn’t have much appreciation for nature. I was hungry and ambitious, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t climb at all. So I had to take a step back and learn to enjoy nature and how to be happy without climbing. Those were big lessons, difficult to learn, but super-valuable. It’s so common and normal that we wrap our contentment with the results of our external life. Then if it doesn’t work out, we’re not happy. I was forced to find peace with it all. I saw the hollowness of pursuing sports-related goals and fame. Suddenly it all seemed shortsighted, and it forced me to contemplate the things in life that could provide lasting happiness. Through that process I developed a whole new connection to climbing, one that was very personal and very spiritual.
For example, I would do my knee therapy by riding my bike up the coast from Santa Cruz, and there was this little bouldering spot called Panther Beach. I would go there every day. I think during one period I went 45 days in a row. It was just this tiny wall by the ocean where I would climb barefoot and make up little eliminates. By no means world-class! But it was very special for me. Those were pure climbing experiences. They touched on what it means to have a deep connection to moving on rock, learning that climbing is a way of connecting with yourself and your body, being alert and present, both with yourself and your surroundings. It cut through all the externals—sponsorship, grades, publicity, and competitions—and got right to the basics of climbing for the pure joy of movement. That was huge. It changed everything.
Chris Sharma: I’ve never wanted to put a box around myself. I’ve always tried to embrace whatever comes, and somehow that’s always been connected to climbing. Climbing is the window through which I’ve seen the world. But this is an interesting time. I’m 35. I’m still a pro athlete. I still feel at the height of my power and my ability. But I’m also aware that being a pro is not something one can do their entire life. So I’m interested in building gyms because I started climbing in one, and it’s neat to see how much the sport has evolved, to see it becoming mainstream, and to be involved in that process. I’m in a unique situation because I’m recognized internationally, so I’m involved in a California gym called Sender One, and now my business partners and I are opening Sharma Climbing BCN in Barcelona.
Obviously I have a lot to learn about business, but I like the challenge the same way I like working a hard route. It’s a struggle, but you have a vision of something you want to create, and that passion is a precious thing. For me the bottom line is having a project, whether it’s in the garden, school, or on the rock. The important thing is to stay busy, to keep growing and evolving.
I’ve always tried to create circumstances so that whenever I go climbing, I do it for pure enjoyment, not for some other reason. And that’s tricky. I’ve seen lots of people struggle with being a pro, trying to find the right balance between business and passion. Most people go climbing because it’s an escape from everyday life. They take the time just to be themselves and get away from everything. But when climbing is your life, that changes. Suddenly the pressures of your career are all mixed with your passion. And I’ve seen those pressures affect both my own and other people’s climbing experience. I’ve always tried to keep my climbing pure. And I’ve been fortunate to be supported in that by these amazing companies who have allowed me to follow my dreams.
I’m at a point now where I’m starting my own company, and that’s an interesting transition. I’m still a sponsored climber and at the same time I’m dabbling in other ventures, splitting my time between Europe and the U.S. I’m traveling back and forth dealing with different sponsors and projects and trying to immerse myself in this other world that’s totally foreign to me, learning about spreadsheets, and all that stuff. Life is hectic, but I’m happy, and I’m as psyched as ever. Whenever I go climbing I feel as giddy as when I started.
Here in Barcelona I’ve been able to develop a routine where I usually climb one day on and one day off. I’ll do business in the morning, then climb in the afternoon. Living in a place like Spain where you have so much rock climbing, and basically a 10-month season, it’s not a problem getting enough. In fact, you have to pace yourself, find the sweet spot where you don’t climb so much you burn out. I was leery at first of living in the big city, but it’s been enriching to combine an urban lifestyle with a half-hour drive to the middle of nowhere to climb beautiful walls. It feels very complete.
When I was 20 I actually considered quitting climbing. I’d just climbed Realization. I’d won World Cups. I’d done the hardest routes in the world. I’d done a lot of the things I had set out to do. And I had the awareness that there’s more to life than climbing. I knew there were a lot of things to experience, and I thought maybe this is the time to change gears and try something else. At that moment I didn’t know where I wanted to take my climbing. I was doing a lot of soul-searching and traveling to various meditation centers. It was a good chance for me to hone my mind in a way I hadn’t done before, to discover who I was without climbing.
Then I went to Mallorca and discovered deep water soloing, and that was what made me fall in love with climbing all over again, because I realized I could free solo over water and do these amazingly difficult things in a super-pure style.
That was pivotal. It took all the existential stuff—the questions about what does climbing really mean—out of the picture. For example, I had friends who were working construction jobs just to get by, and I realized, “Man, I’m really lucky!”
I realized that climbing is my gift, my way of inspiring people, my way of contributing. No matter what we do, we have to find a way to give back and stay connected. It’s easy to think the grass is always greener on the other side, that I’d be happier doing this or that. But I had this moment of realization that I don’t need to change who I am to have a meaningful life. I just need to embrace what I’ve got.
When you stop questioning and embrace the life you’ve been given, that’s when you discover meaning. Meaning to go climbing, to have all these projects, to make films, to do slideshows and events, in order to share climbing with others. It’s so rewarding when people come up and say, “I started climbing because I saw a video of you.”
You don’t need to look for something outside yourself. Just be yourself to the best of your ability, and everything you do will be that much more meaningful and rewarding.
Deep Water Soloing
Chris Sharma: My friends at BigUp Productions had filmed the boulderer Klem Loskot deep water soloing in Mallorca. Klem had heard about it from a local climber, Miquel Riera, who invented psicobloc, as they call it in Spain. So when BigUp wanted to go back for more footage, I went with them, and I met Miquel. Coming from Santa Cruz, I grew up in the ocean, but once I discovered climbing I was always running to the mountains. So finding a way of climbing above the sea brought my two worlds together once more.
To me deep water soloing offers all the things I like most about climbing. On one hand it’s similar to bouldering. There’s pure freedom of movement and no gear, but you always have to be aware of how you fall. You don’t want to land on your back, just like you don’t want to fall on your back from even 10 feet up on a boulder problem. At the same time it’s a lot like sport climbing in that you’re climbing long sections of overhanging limestone.
It shares elements of trad climbing as well, because you are always attempting a ground-up onsight. You’re climbing up and down. You might be on the wall for an hour trying to figure out a sequence, then climb back down to rest, because you don’t want to fall.
It’s similar to free soloing, just you and the rock. But instead of climbing above the ground, you’re over water, so you can attempt moves at your limit. Climbing at your limit is out of the question with normal free soloing because the consequences of falling are too great. I could never do that.
And finally you’re interacting with the ocean, knowing how to deal with the sea. For all these reasons, deep water soloing embodies for me the perfect form of climbing. Take Es Pontas for instance, it’s a route I put up in Mallorca. It’s 5.15, but I can solo it. For me, that’s as good as it gets.
Starting a Family
Chris Sharma: I’m super excited about this next step with Jimena. We’re starting a family and that’s something I’ve always wanted. It’s something I’ve looked forward to. And at the same time, I’m still hoping to do everything. I want to keep climbing. I still have a lot of things I’d like to do. And it’s interesting to get involved building climbing gyms and starting my own company, to keep evolving, finding new ways to stay relevant, to continue being an ambassador and helping the sport. I feel I’m in a unique position to be able to help guide the sport in a positive way. I think as climbing becomes more mainstream it could easily get distorted. For instance, I’d like to instill in people a healthy approach that’s connected to nature and a more spiritual side of climbing—aspects people might miss climbing in a gym. I want to remind people that climbing is much more than a sport. It’s a way of life—a way of discovering who you really are.
Chris Sharma: I believe one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay psyched on climbing for so many years is listening to my heart and following my motivation. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I like to keep climbing fun. People beat themselves up because they don’t feel psyched to climb. They’ll force themselves to do 10 laps on a route because their training plan says so, or so many feet of climbing per day, or whatever. But I think that what we do has to come from the heart. Otherwise it can backfire. I’ve seen many people burn out by forcing the situation. It’s really natural, you know. I’ve been climbing for over 20 years, and it’s impossible to be 100 percent motivated all the time. Motivation goes in waves. I’ve always trusted that my motivation will return. And when it does, it comes back tenfold. Then you have the experience of falling in love all over again. You can’t force yourself to climb hard. It has to be something you really want.
After sending something like La Dura Dura, Realization, or Jumbo Love, it’s normal to take time to step back and reassess. I try to live in a spontaneous, free-flowing way. So much so that people often think I don’t train. But it’s a natural flow. When I find a project I’m passionate about, that inspiration motivates me to work really hard. And if the inspiration and the motivation are there, the discipline comes. It doesn’t even feel like discipline, because it’s what I want to do.
Working on a big goal naturally organizes all my time. That’s one of the coolest things about having a project. I can put my whole life into it. Your life becomes focused in this crystal-clear way, so that you know exactly where you want to be and what you want to do. That’s one of the greatest things in life— to have a purpose.
Chris Sharma: Of course looking for a project is about pushing limits and trying difficult things, but it’s more than that. If it was only about seeing how strong I am, I can do that on a hangboard or by seeing how many pull-ups I can do. Climbing is about difficulty, but it’s also about aesthetics. It’s very creative to find these beautiful forms and features, discover stunning positions and amazing movement. There’s an entire adventure based on seeking out those elements. I’ve always loved that adventure because it’s so personal. It’s not about comparing yourself to anyone. You’re just going out and doing your thing. This is where art and climbing intersect. You find this amazing line that just barely goes. It’s been created by nature but it almost seems designed to climb. It’s so perfect, but it’s just beyond reach, so it makes you want to get better. You want to get stronger so you can do the climb. It’s all connected. The discipline and hard work necessary to be a high-level athlete come from the inspiration of nature, seeing these beautiful possibilities, and wanting to bring them into reality.
The term King Line was originally coined by Klem Loskot, but something that’s always appealed to me is the search for really spectacular beautiful lines. It’s not enough to do something hard; it needs to be in an amazing position, a route that asks you to pour your heart and soul into climbing it. I have so many routes I want to try. It’s beyond my capacity to do them all. You have to pick and choose your battles, because there’s only so much time and energy. You have to choose what’s most important. It’s classic: Often when you bolt, you’re hanging there in your harness and you feel the holds, and you think, Oh, that feels good. That’ll go.
Then you try the route and realize, Whoa! This is way harder than I thought. I always say my eyes are stronger than my fingers. So you need to be realistic, you need to get focused and pick a route that makes the most sense for you in that moment.
Chris Sharma: If I’m really busy, I’ll do some hangboarding or I’ll go climbing in the gym to keep my fitness up. As I get older I have to maintain a bit more, whereas in the past I could take two months off, go straight to a comp, and win. Now I have to work harder. But my basic approach to training is to get inspired by a line—most recently Bon Combat—then work it over and over. You can call it training if you like, or you can just call it climbing your project, but the reality is that if you want to achieve something at your limit you’re going to have to work really hard. And everyone has their own way to do that. You have climbers who spend a year training in a gym, then they go out and send their route second go. I like to work the actual project until I can do it. You might say the first climber sent the route in two tries, while the other guy took a year. But the reality is both climbers required a year of solid effort. I’ve always needed the objective in my face, telling me I need to work harder. Everyone needs to assess their personal situation and find the approach that works best. Even if you don’t have the luxury of spending a year on one route, you can still approach climbing in a holistic way. Don’t think, Now I’m training and Now I’m climbing. Just go climbing and find enjoyment in the entire process. To me that’s success. We should even embrace the suffering involved in training, because the entire experience we call climbing is a struggle. It’s frustrating to fall over and over again on the same move, but that’s what makes the route so rewarding when we succeed.
This is the paradox of hard climbing, that to climb our best we have to be able to free ourselves of attachment to the outcome, because attachment can cloud our ability to be in the moment and climb well.
At the same time if we’re not attached, how are we going to try so hard? The answer is learning to enjoy trying, working hard, and learning to make these amazing moves. The answer is to have fun.
Chris Sharma: For sure, we all have our tricks and different ways of getting into the proper mindset. It’s important not to be too attached to the final outcome, but it’s also important to get to the top. Otherwise what’s the point? But it’s really difficult to walk up to a climb you’ve been working literally for years, and have an open mind. There’s so much baggage.
The psychological side of redpointing can be even more difficult than the physical side. You know you’re capable of doing something, but the mind sabotages you. That’s happened to me many times. So I’ll try to trick myself in order to take some of the pressure off. For example, on La Dura Dura my first burn would often be my best attempt of the day. I’d feel super strong and fresh. But at the same time I would be a bundle of nerves—all these expectations creating a knot in my stomach.
But on the second try I would relax, because I felt I’d already done my serious effort. So now let’s just have fun. You have to find a way to convince yourself not to take the process so seriously.
In competitions I used to tell myself, “Well you know, you’re not really in very good shape right now.” I would find a way to accept the possibility of defeat before I even started. “It’s probably not going to go very well today, so let’s just accept that and deal with it.” And once I’d accepted it, I’d be free to be myself, however things turned out. That worked for me, but I’ve heard other people say, “No, you really need to believe in yourself and be confident.”
It’s a fine line between confidence and having expectations that create extra pressure, that create nervousness, which can lead to not living up to your expectations.
I always strive to find ways to take the edge off, to return to the mindset I had years ago at Panther Beach, just climbing by myself, when there were no goals other than trying hard moves. Just getting back to having fun, because those are the moments we are really in our flow. I probably did some of the hardest moves I’ve ever done on that beach. But who cares, right? It was for the sake of enjoying climbing, tapping into kinesthetic awareness, being in tune with my body and my mind with no expectation whatsoever. Sometimes I have to try over and over to attain that, until finally I get lucky and fall into the right headspace, and everything clicks. It’s funny because I can come across as easygoing and just going with the flow. But climbing is interesting because it’s not like snowboarding or surfing where you’re going with gravity, flowing down a mountain or wave.
Climbing is more like fighting. There’s a real struggle involved and you have to embrace it. In high-end climbing it’s only when you try 100 percent that you feel any flow. When you first work a project, everything feels hard and awkward. You’re trying over and over, you’re training for it, and you’re crimping on these holds as hard as you possibly can—then suddenly it starts to flow. But that’s a funny kind of flow!
I suppose that can be a metaphor for life. Life requires hard work and frustration, making mistakes, failing again and again. Learning how to enjoy the process and flow with it, as hard as it may be, that describes what I try to do.
Someone might ask, “Wouldn’t it be more fun just to go and do a bunch of 5.13s—just flow up the rock all day?” But for me it’s more interesting to try things that are beyond my limit, routes I’m not sure I can do. And that becomes this involved, dramatic process. It requires that you put everything in, and only then do you get so much back, when you actually achieve your goal.
Chris Sharma: When will we see the first 5.16? Who knows? It was a huge leap for me to climb 15a, then 15b, and finally 15c. And there are routes I’ve tried that could be 15d—but I believe that 5.16 should be a leap to a whole new level.
It will require another really big step in the evolution of climbing. Right now is an interesting time. You have guys like Ondra and Megos and kids like Ashima blowing everyone’s minds. It will be interesting to see what they can do, and how far they can take the sport.
I got to a pretty high level in bouldering where I could climb v15, and it seemed to me that boulder problems were just getting longer, not necessarily more difficult. It felt like there was a natural limit to the maximum technical difficulty and a limit on how many of those moves one could make in a row.
But the interesting thing about sport climbing is that there’s a lot of room for doing harder routes if you break things down into individual sequences. For example Bon Combat is a V11 on top of a V11 on top of a V11. And if you look at climbing from that perspective, there’s a lot of room to do harder routes. I believe sport climbing has huge potential in the sense that it’s mixing cutting-edge bouldering with endurance. That makes me think there’s a lot of room to take it much further.
The previous excerpt is from the book Why We Climb: The World’s Most Inspiring Climbers, by Chris Noble, to be published November 2016. The book is available for pre-orders through Amazon.