Chris Sharma’s name is synonymous with rock climbing: He’s been a groundbreaker in the sport since he blasted onto the scene two decades ago as a teenager. Since then, he’s established some of the hardest routes in the world, pioneered the sport of deep water soloing, appeared in dozens of climbing films, and he’s done it all with a rooted sense of who he is and a passion for the world around him.
Chris Sharma grew up in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California, the son of two parents who believed in Eastern philosophy and studied under a silent, Buddhist monk. When his parents were married, they decided to take on the last name of Sharma, a popular Hindu surname in India.
As a kid, Chris studied at a place called the Mount Madonna Center, a holistic yoga center deep in the mountains, where PE was a yoga class in the woods. Chris was always scrambling up things – climbing up trees and rocks – so when he was 12 years old and an indoor climbing gym opened in Santa Cruz, his mom figured it might be a good fit for her son. Soon after, Chris was hooked and started competing in bouldering contests.
At age 14, Chris won the US Bouldering Nationals against athletes more than twice his age. He was the first child phenom in the sport of rock climbing, and that first victory was a moment that catapulted the long and decorated career he’s had today.
Travelling to competitions, he started climbing more outside, in legendary places like Yosemite and elsewhere around California. “That’s one of the coolest things about climbing – it’s about travelling and seeing beautiful places in the world,” Chris says. “That’s a lesson I learned at a young age.”
At 15, he became the first person to climb a 5.14c route, a climb in Utah’s Virgin River Gorge called Necessary Evil, which was then the highest-rated climb in North America.
He got his GED at 16 and decided to focus all of his time on climbing. But then a year later, a severe knee injury forced him out of climbing for nearly a year.
“That injury was heart breaking, but it taught me a lot,” Chris says. “Up to that point, I was focused on just the climb. After that, I learned to appreciate these beautiful places and it gave me a unique perspective. It was a time for a lot of soul searching and it changed who I was and made me much more in tune with myself.”
Fast forward to 2001. Chris was 20 years old when he became the first climber to complete a 5.15a, an extension of a route called Biographie in the Hautes-Alpes region of France that Chris named Realization. It took him three trips over four years to complete the climb.
“For me, that was a really important route. I had to put so much energy into it, I had to work so hard,” Chris says. “I learned about patience and hard work and determination. From age 16 to 20, that was my project, failing over and over and then finally succeeding. Red pointing that route was a huge breakthrough.”
When he was 22, Chris went to Mallorca, Spain, and discovered the sport of deep water soloing, climbing without ropes on huge cliffs above water. After that, he says, his motivation for climbing soared to new heights, and now, he splits his time between his home in Santa Cruz, California, and Barcelona, Spain.
In 2006, he established what he calls his “signature route,” a 9b climb on a picturesque arching cliff above the sea in Mallorca that he called Es Pontas.
In addition to the many other climbing films he’s starred in over the years, it was the 2007 film King Lines by Big Up Productions that summed up much of Chris’ motivation at that time. “The definition of a king line is something that’s barely possible, but it’s so beautiful, you just want to climb it,” Chris says. “For me, combining these high-level sports with perfecting the control of your body and mixing that with these super beautiful, natural features like that arch – it’s just perfection.”
Chris loved deep water soloing, but he also wanted to share that side of the sport with others. So that eventually led him to create a contest, called the Psicobloc Masters Series, which involved side-by-side competition climbing on walls above a body of water.
The first Psicobloc event started in 2010 in Spain (which Chris won), and in 2013, Chris brought the contest to the U.S. for the first time on a custom-built 50ft-high [15.25m] wall above the 750,000-gallon [3.4m-litre] freestyle skiing aerial training pool at Park City’s Utah Olympic Park. The contest returned to Park City again in 2014 and Chris hopes to turn the series into a worldwide tour.
“Most of the time when we climb, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains, places where it’s really hard for people to see what we do,” he says. “So this is a great opportunity to share with the world how awesome our sport is.”
In addition to organising the events, he also competes in them. In July 2014, Chris competed in the inaugural Red Bull Creepers contest; a deep water solo contest on a bridge above a river in Puente la Reina in northern Spain. He completed the 8c route three times and won the contest.
“We’re changing the form of competition climbing,” Chris says. “Climbing has always had a hard time as a spectator sport, but through this format, it’s really easy to understand, it’s easy to compare and know who’s winning, and it’s exciting to watch.”
“I love travelling and being outside in nature and I love sharing my passion with other people,” Chris says. “My life is wrapped up in climbing and that’s the way I express myself. It’s an art form and a spiritual path as well as a sport, and it’s really something that’s all inclusive in my lifestyle.”Read more