Chris Sharma Wants the World to Climb

The professional climber talks about his sport ahead of the Psicobloc Masters contest in Utah.

Chris Sharma in Oman
Chris Sharma in Oman© Klaus Fengler/Red Bull Content Pool

Widely considered to be one of the world’s best rock climbers, Chris Sharma exudes the kind of character you’d want to see in an athlete at the top of his game. He’s aware of his extraordinary abilities, but he puts his passion for his sport at the forefront, rather than his ego. Approachable and humble, Sharma just wants the rest of the world to experience the same joy that climbing has awarded him.

To that end, he is one of the founders of the Psicobloc Masters, a unique climbing competition -- performed without ropes over water -- aimed at exposing the thrills of the sport to a wider audience. The 2014 edition of the event takes place later this week at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, so we had a chat with the Santa Cruz native to get a little climbing insight.

What does climbing mean to you? What does it give you?

Chris Sharma: Climbing is an amazing sport and so much more -- it’s a way of life. It’s kind of the window through which I see the world. Everything in my life is connected to climbing in some way.

As far as the sensation of climbing goes, it’s such an amazing feeling to be high up off the ground, doing these crazy moves… The one point of focus you need to complete these routes is so intense that you tune everything out. It’s one of the easiest ways to “get into the zone.”

Chris Sharma at Red Bull Creepers 2014
Chris Sharma at Red Bull Creepers 2014© Sebas Romero/Red Bull Content Pool

You split your time between the US and Spain, correct?

I spend half my time in California, half my time in Spain -- right now in Barcelona. It’s so good to be in Spain, because literally half an hour outside of the city there are tons of good places to climb. Most of my climbing time is spent there.

I’ll come over to the States for three weeks or a month and a half at a time and do events, work stuff, see my family, climb a little bit… Since all of my sponsors are over in the US I’m super busy when I’m there, then when I come back to Spain that’s when I focus on my projects.

The more people who go climbing, the better off the world will be.

What’s the story behind Sender One, your climbing gym in Southern California?

Last year, I partnered with a group of people to open Sender One. It was something I always wanted to do. I started climbing in a gym myself; I was in the first generation of kids who started climbing in gyms. I feel so fortunate that in my whole life I’ve been encouraged by so many different people, in particular the gym that I started climbing at in Santa Cruz, Pacific Edge. They held fundraisers to send me to competitions.

It’s definitely something I feel super connected to, to start other facilities to promote climbing and get people involved with it. It’s such a positive and healthy activity. The more people who go climbing, the better off the world will be.

[Watch Chris in action at the Red Bull Creepers event below]

How do you feel about climbing competition?

I did a lot of competitions when I was younger. It’s always been fun, but for me the real thing about climbing has always been about going rock climbing. Doing the hard routes has always been where my heart is.

But one of the things about rock climbing is that it’s always way out in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains or forest where not many people get to see what we do. It’s pretty solitary. I look at competitions as more of a celebration of our sport and a way to share it with tons of people. All of the competitors are usually friends and we’re just having a good time.

Competitions do force you to perform on a specific day at a specific time, and that pressure can affect you in a positive or a negative way. I’ve found that’s it’s always helped me perform better, actually. A little pressure usually brings out the best in me and in my climbing.

Chris Sharma in Oman
Chris Sharma in Oman© Klaus Fengler/Red Bull Content Pool

You’re part of the organization behind the Psicobloc Masters; why get involved in that, and what are the goals for the event?

I was just at the Red Bull X-Fighters event in Madrid, and that was a really good example of turning an event like that into a great show. That’s what we’re trying to do: obviously, have a legitimate competition with the best climbers in the world, but at the same time do something that’s really going to be spectacular and show our sport off to the world in a way that people can really understand.

Deep water soloing has been my preferred form of climbing since I tried it 12 years ago in Mallorca. It’s amazing that you can climb 70 feet up, totally unprotected, and you can climb at your limit. It’s kind of like the ultimate form of climbing. Free soloing is, without a doubt, the purest form of climbing, but if you fall you’re going to die, so the people who practice free soloing are always climbing below their limits to make sure they’re in control.

For me, that’s always been the essence of climbing -- finding out how far I can push myself. Finding the limit of difficulty we can go to.

With psicobloc, because we have the built-in protection of the water below, we can have that same freedom and purity of having no equipment but we can go to our absolute limit and climb these huge overhangs and try moves and fall over and over again. For me, that’s always been the essence of climbing -- finding out how far I can push myself. Finding the limit of difficulty we can go to.

So after climbing in Mallorca, I thought, “This will be the next step. If we can make a climbing competition like this it would blow people’s minds.” I think psicobloc is definitely our chance to get climbing into the mainstream more than ever before.

Our goal is to turn it into a world tour. We first did it in 2010 in Bilbao, Spain, and we got it going again last year in Salt Lake City, and it really went well. Climbing’s had such a hard time to show itself as a spectator event; climbing competitions are notoriously kind of slow and boring. I think the format and style of free soloing over the water is so exciting to watch that anybody, even if they don’t know anything about climbing, can immediately understand what’s going on. I feel like we kind of cracked the code in turning climbing into a spectator sport.

Red Bull Creepers winner Chris Sharma
Red Bull Creepers winner Chris Sharma© Sebas Romero/Red Bull Content Pool

How do you feel about the evolution of the sport up to now?

I think it’s a really exciting time in climbing right now. It seems like more than ever before it’s on the brink of spilling over into the mainstream. I really believe in what climbing can do for people, so I’m really happy to see that it’s at this point and to be involved at this point. It’s exciting that the industry is growing and is able to support more professional athletes, and that’s going to help the level to continue rising.

What’s on your schedule after the Psicobloc Masters?

I’ll go to California for a couple of weeks and then I’ll go back to Europe to focus on some projects I’ve been working on. I’m super psyched to try to complete a multi-pitch route that I’ve been working on in Spain; it’s about 250 meters long (over 800 feet) and has a lot of hard climbing in it. It’ll be something that’s pretty progressive, I think. I have a handful of climbing projects that I’m working on, and a handful of gym projects, and I’m going to do some stunt doubling for a climbing scene in a Hollywood movie. I’m going to have a busy fall, for sure.

Watch the finals of the Psicobloc Masters live on Friday, August 8, starting at 6:00 p.m. MT. If you're in the Park City area, you can also buy tickets to attend.

For more from Chris Sharma, follow him on Instagram.

By Kevin McAvoy