Chris Sharma: What I’ve Learned
Chris Sharma: First ascentionist, former world champion, owns gyms in Spain and U.S. Interviewed in Covid-19 quarantine in Barcelona with his wife, 3-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son.
[On being on full lockdown in Barcelona.] We can’t even go out for an hour. We’ve literally been stuck in the apartment. Doing our part. We go out once a week for the supermarket … in full battle gear.
For sure it gets to me a bit, as an outdoor person. It could be worse, that’s for sure, but this whole thing is also really scary. Our kids got sick, had all the symptoms. Alana, our daughter, had a 105 temperature. The next day she had a dry cough. We didn’t get them tested but they had the symptoms. As a parent you feel so vulnerable and you’re better off not going to a doctor, they’re overwhelmed …
This is very humbling for society in general, forcing everyone to put everything on hold, and then you see your kid sick and you’re scared … So much is uncertain for me, [but] none of that mattered, the kids were sick. In those moments you see pretty clearly what is most important.
[On a Rock and Ice profile where Andrew Bisharat observed people say they have never seen Sharma get mad in climbing.] [Laughs.] I can’t say that’s always the case. We all try to keep our composure to the level that we can. It’s tricky when you care about something a lot, and you want to do what you’re capable of, and it’s not coming together.
Part of being successful is how you deal with frustration. To climb your best, you have to have a good state of mind. But at the same time there needs to be something nagging you. A thorn in your side … to let out this tortured artist [thing] that leads them to create these masterpieces.
When I did La Dura Dura [5.15c] I was going through some relationship stuff and in a way that was when I sent the route. Josh [Lowell, filmmaker] said you need to get a little pissed off. … Sometimes you gotta get a little angry to force you to crimp a little harder.
[On growing up in a climbing gym.] Everything from where I am now is thanks to with climbing through the climbing gym. … It’s now full circle, now that I’m in the business of opening up climbing gyms, seeing other kids in a similar situation.
Whereas the typical climber back in the day had some connection through climbing in the mountains or a family member, I didn’t. My dad was a surfer. Climbing wasn’t really a thing. Thanks to the climbing gym, it was.
[On winning adult National Championships at age 14, 1995.] That was an amazing moment. I felt like that was as good as it was ever going to get. I guess I learned that I was capable of being as good as anybody.
With the next year climbing became a life path. It was fall of 1995 when I won nationals, and early spring 1997 when I did the first ascent of Necessary Evil [5.14c, then the hardest route in the country]. … I went to Hueco with Obe Carrion. Me and Tommy [Caldwell] traveled. We went to Super Tweak [country’s first 5.14b, in Logan Canyon] and Rifle and Wild Iris. I did seven 5.14s in three weeks, I climbed all the hardest routes in the States.
It happened really fast, and in a way I think climbing came almost too easy for me. … Then I was 17 and had a major injury [torn ACL]. That brought my feet to the earth pretty quick.
All of a sudden that was all taken away, and it forced me to see things in a new way. … It made me humble … I got deeper into Eastern philosophy and meditation and took some steps back from climbing. I saw how fleeting it all was. It set me on a different course. Much more on just the aesthetics and the experience of being in nature and the creative process of seeing new lines rather than sending hard lines or World Cups.
I got very involved spiritually. That’s when I did Biographie [often considered the world’s first 5.15; 2001] … I went back to it over two years and in between I was traveling to India and off the map for climbing … I was combining these high-level climbing achievements with other things that had nothing to do with climbing.
I questioned a lot of that stuff … and my next steps.
That’s when I went to Majorca to deep water solo [and climbed Es Pontas, the 65-foot coastal arch]. That’s what gave me a huge, huge second wind of passion for knowing where I wanted to take climbing for myself and what I wanted. … Through that I got curious about sport climbing again … wondered what I could do if I really applied myself. That’s when I found Jumbo Love [5.15b, 2015, Clark Mountain, Nevada] and the process of bolting my own routes [in Spain].
[On climbing hard now.] At this point I’m just trying to get by. That’s the reality of having kids, that’s the main focus right now, especially with two kids so close together. Climbing at the level I want to be at … It’s so unrealistic it would put unnecessary pressure on me right now.
It’s gonna get better and I’ll be able to go back to some of my projects, but it’s not an easy time, it totally changes your life.
[On his role as an influential climber.] As climbing is getting more regimented and structured and with the Olympics, I think it’s important to remember … not to get too caught up in the ratings.
The real value is much more than the numbers. It’s this personal journey and of course it’s very connected to progression, that’s important. The idea is to continue to progress and find new ways to progress. That’s a challenging thing as we get older.
OK, I did a 15b, let’s try a 15c and 15d … In a way it’s kind of repetitive, the same process. Progress is more when we have to reinvent ourselves. Climbing and life intertwine sometimes. It is painful to be stuck in Barcelona and overseeing a business and taking care of kids but that’s a part of my progression. Climbing can facilitate learning and personal progression beyond just, Can I crimp down on a smaller hold, by finding situations that force us to grow.
I’ve been climbing for over 25 years and am super passionate about it. That is something to be proud of more than a send. Climbing is like this old close friend, a comfort zone to be able to come back to. … I’m a much better climber than businessman, but it’s cool to be presented with these other opportunities to learn. We’re all climbing the mountain of life. Sometimes we fall, and you’ve gotta dust yourself off and try again and find a new sequence.
This interview with Chris Sharma appeared in Rock and Ice issue 264 (July 2020).