Chris Sharma Free Climbs a Giant Redwood Tree

The accomplished rock climber returns to his roots (no pun intended) on an old-growth sequoia.
By Andrew Bisharat

Like most kids, Chris Sharma grew up climbing trees. Born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, Sharma’s earliest climbing experiences involved scaling the limbs of trees in his parents’ backyard.

In 1992, a 12-year-old Sharma traded trees for both indoor and outdoor rock climbing when he discovered the sport in one of the earliest indoor climbing gyms in the U.S. He quickly went on to be recognized as one of the best rock climbers in the world, winning both national and international climbing competitions as a teen, and ultimately pushing global standards into the realm of climbs rated at 5.15. (For a primer on climbing grades and terminology, click here.)

His iconic first ascents of routes named Realization (5.15a) and Jumbo Love (5.15b) were the first of those respective grades in the world and milestone achievements in the sport of rock climbing.

Watch him climb a giant redwood in the video player above.

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
One move at a time © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Since 2006, Sharma has chosen to live in Catalunya, Spain, for its wealth of extremely difficult sport climbs. The infamous limestone of this region is very tall, very steep and very blank, all of which lends itself to 5.15-and-harder climbing.

The limestone is also known to present itself as “tufas,” vertical formations of rock created thousands of years ago by mineral deposits left from seeping water. Tufas, which look like vertical columns protruding from the rock face, lend themselves to excellent free climbing as the climber can pinch and squeeze the tufa with his hands and feet.

“After living in Spain and climbing on tufas there, I came back home and looked up at the bark of these famous giant redwoods of California,” Sharma said. “And I imagined I was looking up at these huge walls of tufas. I started thinking, 'How cool would that be?'”

Would it be possible to free climb — that is, to use only one’s hands and feet and no additional tree-climbing aids such as spurs — up the sheer side of a giant redwood?

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Chris Sharma on his way up © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

“For me, climbing has always been about reconnecting to that playful side,” he said. “It can be so serious. You put your heart and soul into a hard rock project. But it’s also good to take a step back and remember that this is supposed to be about having fun.”

Sharma, working with a team at Red Bull, reached out to Dr. Anthony Ambrose and Wendy Baxter, two research scientists and redwood-tree experts from the University of California, Berkeley, to see if this project would even be possible. Part of their research demands that Ambrose and Baxter be versed in rigging tactics and techniques in order to collect the samples they need from tree canopies without disturbing the ecology. Ambrose and Baxter also have backgrounds as enthusiast rock climbers, so they were excited about the idea of working with Sharma — if dubious that his goal would be possible.

“I admit, I was pretty skeptical,” Baxter said.

“I’ve never seen or heard of anybody trying to actually free climb up the bark of a redwood,” Ambrose said. “I didn’t think it would be possible, not because I doubted Chris’ abilities, but because I wasn’t sure the bark would support his weight.”

For this project, permits were secured from Eureka city officials and the Humboldt County Film Commission. And the team chose a location with a pre-existing network of well-traveled trails. Now all that was left was choosing the right line.

Sharma found the line: a 77-meter tree (just over 252 feet), with 50 meters of pure bark before reaching the first branch. Slightly overhanging. And a relatively clean, aesthetic trunk.

“The specific tree Chris chose was good because it was fire-scarred,” said Ambrose, who estimated the tree to be around 600 or 700 years old. “It didn’t have a lot of lichen and moss growing on the trunk. And the bark was solid. But because of that, the fissures and grooves in the bark weren’t that deep. It was also overhanging. It made the climb hard for him. He was getting pumped!”

Climber Chris Sharma Ascends a Giant Redwood Tree
Chris Sharma climbs a giant redwood © Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool

Over three days, Sharma worked his project, which he named “Jumbo Wood,” on top rope. “It was straight-up real climbing,” he says. “Probably at least 9a!”

Sharma found it difficult to remember the beta (information about the climb, including where the best hand and foot holds were). “It’s so overwhelming," he said. "As rock climbers, we’re trained to look at cliffs and see the sequence. On the redwood, I drew a blank. I got disoriented by all the patterns. There was definitely a very specific sequence.”

Sharma placed tiny chalk tick marks on the best bark hand holds — which would all be gone the following day due to the dense cloud of Humboldt fog that would descend upon the forest each morning.

“The first 50 feet were really sustained,” he said. “Good pinches and good foot jams between the bark. Then the foot holds ran out, and it was just pure compression moves with really precise foot jams.”

“I was really impressed that he was able to do all the moves and sequences,” Ambrose said. “He was definitely working for it.”

Ultimately, Sharma wasn’t able to redpoint (complete the full route in one go after practicing it] Jumbo Wood. But to him, that wasn’t the point.

“This wasn’t about serious redpointing. And it’s not like I’m going to give up rock climbing and just focus on redwoods now,” Sharma said, laughing. “It’s just such a random thing. It’s easy to take rock climbing too seriously. And for me, it’s good to step back from all that and just go climbing, have fun with it and feel like a kid again.”

Watch Chris Sharma’s Giant Ascent on YouTube and Red Bull will donate $.10 for each unique view of the video, up to a maximum of $10,000, to help continue redwood tree research.

Donation offer starts 6/15/15. Offer ends the earlier of 7/31/15 or when 100,000 unique views are reached. Donations are not tax deductible to you. Excludes residents of AL, MA and SC. Void where prohibited. Benefiting Entity: University of California, Berkeley Foundation.*

*The University of California, Berkeley nor its Foundation are affiliated with, sponsor or endorse this promotion.

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