The scorched desert expanse surrounding Las Vegas smears together into one terrible brown color as Chris Sharma, Dalia Ojeda, Miguel and I whiz along at 90 miles per hour in an old Jeep Grand Cherokee. The American West, this celebrated frontier, as tame as it has become with commercialism and super highways, is still the last good place I know of for real adventure.
Daila Ojeda, riding shotgun, perks up in her seat like a fox. She says something in Spanish and rolls down the window. Miguel Riera, in the back seat sitting next to me, does the same. What now, I wonder.
"Tr-ry one," Daila enunciates. She smiles. Her perfectly white teeth complement the caramel hue of her Spanish skin.
Miguel and Daila are impetuously photographing a billboard depicting one of the many forms of entertainment you can find in Las Vegas. The billboard shows an AK-47 assault rifle with the strangely innocuous suggestion to Try One. Apparently, you can rent automatic weapons here. Try one. Why not? Miguel turns to me, his emergent mustache spreading across his sun-baked skin.
"Mustache Power!" he says, an odd catch phrase to have picked up. He gives two thumbs up and smiles.
"This is their first time to the States," says Chris Sharma, gently rocking the steering wheel with one arm. "Can you imagine what it must be like for, you know, Las Vegas to be the first thing you see in America?" In Spanish, Chris explains to Daila, his girlfriend, and Miguel, his Mallorca deep-water-soloing mentor, how Las Vegas is not like most places.
At least that is what I think he says, but I don't really know because I don't speak Spanish. I can order beer, ask for a light, and tell a girl she is beautiful, but that's about it. I slouch in my seat. Technically, I'm here to profile the world's best climber - to see what Chris Sharma is really like beneath the superlatives. In some ways I feel like I already know him from watching a decade of climbing movies, but I'm interested in seeing the human element that is inevitably lost in his celebrity.
Just as we cross the California border, Chris veers off a nondescript exit and swoops the borrowed Jeep onto a dirt road pointing toward distant mountains miles away. We begin the long, treacherous drive to the middle of nowhere.
"Aye!" Daila cries. She fires a heated phrase at Chris. He says something back, the cadence of his California drawl stretching the foreign words to the brink of their unity. Chris lovingly pats Daila on her leg. Miguel grabs onto the front seats and rattles off more Spanish. They all laugh.
I look out the window. Man, I really have to pee.
Eventually, the flanks of Mount Clark become too steep to drive. We stop. Oh, and the Jeep's smoking like there's an oil fire under the hood.
We dive out of our respective doors as if we've just reached land after months at sea. I hear the normal reaction when meeting celebrities is to notice that they look smaller in person. But Chris, who is shirtless and wearing karate-style Prana pants, is taller than I expected. He's a bit over six feet, and quite lean, somehow lacking the Herculean musculature he appears to have in films. Also, he has a really big head.
"See, that's the Monastery up there," Chris says, pointing to a distant shield of white rock in the mountainside. "The third tier. The Project goes right up the center of that face, all the way to the top. It's the most perfect, incredible route, you know?"
As a climber, I am stoked to sample Mount Clark's famed rock, as well as see Chris try, and possibly send, perhaps the world's most difficult rock climb: the Project at Mount Clark. My uptight, East Coast side, however, is begging me to fret over the smoldering engine.
Chris starts packing shoes, a harness, Gatorade and maté. He stretches, a soft expression on his face: his eyelids in particular. He exudes a general calmness that unsettles me further.
"Should we be worried about the car?" I ask. My question is serious, but I'm also a bit curious to see how this immortal climbing talent deals with the most mundane nuisance: car trouble.
"Oh, yeah. OK," he says. Chris pops the hood and a mushroom cloud of steam blasts the air. Its source is a spurting geyser of green liquid. "Shit, is that bad?"
"I don't know," I say, even though I do know. Yes. "Do you have any water?" I ask. I retrieve a gallon jug from the back seat and sparingly douse the engine. "Oh, shit, the coolant cap's busted," I say. "Do you have any duct tape?"
I quickly go to work. First, I pour some water into the system. Then I take the cap in my hand. It's plastic and cracked in half. I tear a thin six-inch sliver of duct tape with my teeth, and wrap the cap tightly. I screw it back on.
"OK, I think I fixed it," I say, but no one is paying attention. I catch Chris looking up at the outlying rock. His ocean-colored eyes look bright despite the overcast weather, and I notice something disquieting about their depth - as if they possess great scope, but choose only to operate with penetrating focus.
What's wrong with these people, I think. Don't they care that the car might be broken? I turn toward the highway, 10 miles away with a Mordorian landscape in between. I gather my rope and harness, and the four of us begin the long march up to the zenith of Mount Clark.
Miguel keeps a red handkerchief with him. He folds it carefully into a triangle, refolding it if necessary until it's the perfect shape. He touches the corner of the handkerchief to his lips, running it over the delicate surface gently, softly. Apparently, his mother used this technique to calm him down as a child. It's a little weird.
The Monastery of Clark Mountain - or is it Mount Clark? - stands as the country's most impressive limestone wall. The overhanging face is unreal, dwarfing all other free-climbing objectives I've seen. Chris's project - thus far, all he has talked about®is an aesthetic plumb line through the blank center.
With a propane stove and an empty tuna can, Chris boils three ounces of water. While the water heats, he pours cold water into a maté gourd, stirring the South American tea leaves with a metal straw and sucking the water out in one gulp. "If you wet the leaves first, it brings out the flavors," he says. Chris wraps his thick hand into his hoody's sleeve, grabs the tuna can by the lid, and pours the now boiling water into the maté gourd. He sips, he smiles, he offers me a sip, too.
"Hey, man, do you want a belay or anything?" he asks.
We head over to the left side so I can warm up on a couple of easy routes. I tie a double-bowline to my harness and ask Chris, "So, is this place called Clark Mountain, or Mount Clark?"
"I don't know," Chris says. "We've been calling it Mount Clarkain."
"I like that," I say dumbly. I feel like I'm standing at the free-throw line and Jordan just passed me the ball. One reason I like climbing is that world-class athletes and gumbies can share the same arena. Still, I'm a bit nervous.
After doing some fun pitches on good rock, Chris shows me a juggy 5.12c traverse. We play and warm up on the steep holds.
"So, what's it going to take to get up this route?" I ask.
"It's all about motivation, you know? I have to be motivated."
"What motivates you?" I ask.
"The line," Chris says without hesitation. "I'm kind of a rock snob. I only want to climb on the best routes, you know? I've always been like that, though. Like when I was 16 and went to Ceüse for the first time. I saw Realization, and that was the first thing I got on. No warming up. Nothing. ... Of course, these days, I have to warm up a little more."
"So, what's your angle for this story?" Chris says, abruptly changing the subject. "I don't have one," I explain, "because I try to approach situations without judgments."
"That's cool," Chris says. "But everyone has an angle. I weakly insist that I don't. You think I could read the story first?" he asks.
I stick to my guns and say no. I turn it back on him by asking, "Why? Have you had bad experiences with the media before?"
"You know, whatever. I just don't want to be compared to anyone. I just want to do my own thing. I really don't like being compared to others."
He is wary of my motives, but I suppose I can understand why. Chris has a lot of control over the direction his life takes: where he goes, what he does, even whether he redpoints or waits till he's stronger. Whichever way, it's all on him. Chris's jurisdiction over his own fate, accordant or not, might explain his caution around me. Still, I'm intrigued considering how frequently he appears in the media. Shouldn't he be comfortable with this? I mean, Chris Sharma is perhaps the best-known climber of our time. He has appeared in at least 16 feature-length climbing films since 1998, on NBC television and in major publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire.
No other climber has been so influential simply by doing nothing more than being. Chris Sharma is not just a person but also a concept - a barometer that measures the current state of our sport and offers a prediction for its future.
In the late 1990s, for example, Chris not only put Bishop on the map, but helped usher in the bouldering boom that subsequently became so over-hyped we're all feeling burned out on it. In fact, even Chris says as much: "I'm sort of done bouldering. I'll still go out, but, you know, I don't really want to climb any harder than V15. The holds get too small, too painful."
Then Chris introduced us to deep-water soloing. He was a big reason I went to Mallorca myself. And now, with this project at Mount Clark, or Clark Mountain, or whatever, sport climbing once again is where it's at.
Bouldering led him to deep-water soloing, which in turn brought him back to sport climbing. I'm astounded by the mythical overtones of this path - the call to adventure, the expansion and growth along the way, and then, a return to the place it all started - here, in his home state, California, at the top of Mount Clark and beneath the world's next hardest route with the fire of the hero's journey.
This adventure of Chris Sharma, now 15 years in the making, has brought him around the world to face the sport's most colossal challenges - unfathomable, beautiful and menacing. Necessary Evil (at age 15), The Mandala (at age 17), Realization (at age 20), Dreamcatcher (at age 24), Es Pontas (at age 25) and now this project at Clark. These routes are embedded in our sport's collective psyche because of how Sharma dispatches them: always with his special brand of struggle, humility and simple deepness.
I've heard well-known climbers credit Chris with no less than saving the sport - squashing the negative, competitive attitudes that marred the late 1980s by being a young teenager who was stoked, positive and climbed harder than hard. It put the worst members of the older generation in their place, banishing them and their ridiculous opinions to the Internet forums.
Chris operates in the moment - even to the point of appearing irritated when I bring up the future. When I ask," Are you going to the Petzl Roc Trip next October?" he quickly changes the subject back to the Project. As if to say, the Roc Trip will come, but the time for Clark is now.
People often resent those who are better and freer than they are. But not Chris. He climbs constantly and travels wherever he wants and for some reason it comforts the rest of us to see that life really can work that way. Also, the lifestyle plainly suits him: His parents divorced when he was a child, and until he was 16, he spent one or two weeks at each parent's home. He jokes that he has never stayed in one place for longer than two weeks his whole life. At 16, Chris, an only child, graduated from an alternative home-school gig and began his search for the planet's best rock.
Many articles over the years have tended to muse about Chris's so-called mysticism, or Eastern spirituality, developed during his yearlong stint in Asia meditating with Buddhists. He was a susceptible 19 years old, and had just badly hurt his knee bouldering. Through meditation he says he reconciled climbing full time and how strongly he would allow the sport to characterize him. However, as far as I can tell, Chris is really just a regular, thoughtful guy who is a lot like everyone else I know in their 20s: struggling to define who they are and what they will become.
The most recent years have been both difficult and pivotal for Chris. In the darkest months of 2005, his mother jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. She had suffered from depression for a long time, and sought help through medication. According to Chris, she slowly became a different person as doctors prescribed one anti-depressant after another. The drugs, he says, took his best friend away, both in the latter years of her life, when it was difficult to be around her, and eventually, forever.
Now, having entered his 27th year as of April 23, Chris seems to have achieved a grounding comfort with himself. He knows he won't be climbing this well forever, but he reiterates to me how lucky he knows he is, and how thankful he is to the community for supporting him. Mostly, he talks about how fortunate he feels simply to be climbing.
"In the past, I was more conflicted with life, with what I was doing. I put all of my energy and happiness into climbing hard, and when climbing wasn't there, like when I hurt my knee at 19, I was super depressed," Chris says. "But I realized you have to find happiness in yourself. You can't climb to
be happy. In the past, I wasn't so sure about what I was doing. But now, I am more settled. Climbing is such a comfortable thing to come back to. It's an anchor. I don't have any reservations about it. For maybe the first time, I feel like I can truly give it a hundred percent."
Chris leaves me with that before focusing on the first of two goes on the Project. I feel stupid writing this, but Chris Sharma climbs harder than anyone I know. His climbing style, like his life, is defined by freedom of movement - leaping for holds, hanging on by nothing, composing himself and fighting upward despite making mistakes in footwork and body position. There's no dicking around - none of the beta refinement or bullshit or saying "Take" at a slight error that for most climbers typifies the experience.
Miguel and I watch from the ground. In Spanglish, he tells me that Chris can't even do a one-arm pull-up. He's not the strongest guy around, he says. I ask Miguel what makes Chris the best. He taps his finger on his head. "The mind," he says. "He believes he can climb."
Though I've come to profile the world's best climber, I see how pointless the superlative is. It complicates a rather simple truth. Chris is good because he has no hindrances about climbing on the hardest routes he can find. This expansiveness is what's unique, not finger strength. There are no mental knots. Just one attitude he has carried since he was 16 years old and walked up a big hill in Southern France, saw Realization, felt inspired by the rock, and hopped on for the ride without looking back. Or forward.
Chris climbs with a totality of singular purpose - to try to reach the top of whatever route he loves. Now, here at Mount Clark, the same story unfolds. As Miguel and I watch Chris climb, a small part of me suspects I have been going about this sport all wrong.
Somewhere below the lip of the overhanging wall, after which there is nothing left but a mere 80 feet of 5.13b, Chris falls, casually lobbing 30 feet through the air with Daila, the relatively weightless belayer, shooting up off her perch. People who know Chris well say that in his 15 years of climbing, they have never once seen him get angry when he falls.
"Try putting her in second or first gear," I suggest from the back seat. The Jeep is making a bad sound when Chris brakes down the yawning steeps of Mount Clark.
The engine is smoking. Chris pops the hood and I get out. The coolant cap, and my lame duct-tape job, have blown to smithereens. Daila tunes in some Spanish rap on the stereo. Miguel gets out his red handkerchief, folds it and runs it over his lips and up and down the bridge of his nose.
There's nothing to do but push on. We bust ass to Primm, Nevada, and pull in to Terrible's, a great gas station with a terrible name.
Chris buys coolant and Gatorade. Daila says something to him and he laughs. "She doesn't understand why I like the colored water," Chris explains to me. Then Daila says something else, and gestures her hand to her mouth. "She also says that we Americans sound like we talk with potatoes in our mouths." "Co-lor wa-ter." She says, "'Take the potato out of your mouth.'"
We fill the Jeep with coolant and head out. As we drive, the Jeep emits an awful sound, like shrapnel in a blender. The grinding is coming from the rear tire, but other than location, the problem is indeterminate. Chris and Miguel talk back and forth in Spanish as they look at the wheel. I imagine they're talking about mechanics, calling AAA, and so on.
"Hey, man," Chris says. "I think we should get dinner at McDonalds. You know, let the car chill?"
It seems perfectly unreasonable to me, so I go along. Chris and Daila order fish filets, and Miguel and I get spicy chicken sandwiches. It's an awkward dinner, really. I talk about how great Mount Clarkain was, some chicks in skanky tube tops spill soda on the floor, and all I can think about is how weird it is to be eating at McDonalds with Chris Sharma.
After stuffing our faces as politely as possible, we return to the day's great uncertainty: the Jeep. Again, we pile in, and, again, Chris turns on the car. Despite 45 minutes of chilling, the sound continues. I consider taking the potatoes out of my mouth and putting them in my ears.
"Hey, man," Chris says. "We might have to get a room at the casino hotel, or something. We might have to wait till tomorrow to figure this out."
"That's fine," I say, lying. It's 11:30 p.m. Perhaps he's right.
The sinking reality of having to spend a night in Primm, however, settles in for them as well. Considering our circumstances, action is better than nothing. We jack up the Jeep, take the tire off and huddle around the wheel. We swap blank looks from the corners of our eyes. Chris takes a lug nut and taps on the strut, as if to inspect its integrity. Miguel takes a lug nut and taps on the wheel hub. Perhaps this thing, whatever the fuck it is, is broken. We take turns with this mock inspection. Tap tap. Tap tap.
Chris puts the lug nut down. Without a second thought, he pulls the wheel casing off. A hundred broken metal parts - springs, gizmos and whatnots - spill across the pavement like shattered glass.
Everyone bursts into laughter. There's nothing left to do but laugh.
You can learn a lot about a person from watching him deal with a rundown, broken Jeep. Maybe it's best not to worry about duct taping coolant caps when it's time to climb - or even to worry that none of your subjects is speaking English when it's time to write a feature. Sometimes it's best to go with the flow and return to a place of inner happiness, which can be found anywhere, even in the Terrible's parking lot at midnight. Projects, climbing hard, life, writing and even fixing an old beat SUV will take care of itself.
Chris retrieves a plastic grocery bag from the car and picks up the scattered metal parts. We fit the tire back on and tighten each lug nut. Once again, we pile back into the car. Chris turns it on and tries driving slowly. No noise. The awful metal grinding sound is gone.
Perfect. We drive off, the best Jeep mechanics in the world, toward the faint lurid glow of the Las Vegas strip.