Chris Sharma happens once in a generation. As an unknown kid from Santa Cruz, he literally leapt past climbing’s older guard of calloused and revered journeymen (mostly European), and abruptly reinvented their sport by scaling the most daunting routes in ways no one had ever tried. Sixteen years later, Chris is an inspiration to anyone who has ever put a hand in a chalk bag. He leaves his mark by erasing old ones, dreaming up new ones, and placing them much, much higher.
Chris Sharma: I’m a rock climber. I really specialize in doing first ascents, and finding new routes outside, as opposed to doing competitions. I focus my energy on going out into nature and finding these new climbs. For me, it’s not just this athletic pursuit—it’s a really creative, artistic thing of finding these amazing formations out in nature, and mixing that with this high level of athleticism. That’s what’s so amazing about climbing—it’s not just a sport. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a way of being creative, of connecting with yourself and with nature.
Maranda Pleasant: When did you fall in love with nature?
CS: I started climbing when I was twelve, and maybe didn’t appreciate all the places I was going to so much. Until I had an injury. I had a bad knee injury when I was about seventeen. I wasn’t able to climb for about six months. It was kind of like a transformative time for me, because it was really hard for me not to be able to climb. It forced me to appreciate things without just climbing. I really learned to approach climbing not just with a pure athletic mentality, but also to appreciate all these beautiful places we get to go to.
In particular, with climbing, we’re climbing on these surfaces that Mother Nature has created. We search out the most perfect pieces of rock. It’s so amazing that these formations are so perfect for climbing on. It’s almost as if they were created for climbing. You’re taking these random rock formations and you’re bringing to it this interaction. It transforms it from being this random rock into almost this piece of art. It’s almost like a sculpture or something. Just by finding the handholds, finding that line up the rock. Every climb is different, has its own unique set of movements and body positions. Climbing and my appreciation for nature are totally intertwined.
MP: Is it like a meditation for you?
CS: For sure. I have done a fair bit of meditation practice, but I think through climbing it’s definitely an easier way for me to tap into that mental state of being present and in the moment, very in tune with your body. But not in an intellectual way. Just really responding to the moment, where you don’t have time to think. You’re reacting and really flowing. Beyond that, it’s my life pursuit. Where I get a lot of meaning out of life is through dedicating myself wholeheartedly to these climbs. They are very meaningful. There’s this meditative, spiritual side to it, absolutely. Being in these amazing places, it’s unavoidable to appreciate where we are.
MP: What causes are you passionate about?
CS: I’ve worked for years with the Access Fund, which is an organization that works on behalf of climbers to keep climbing areas open and to educate climbers about respecting nature.
I started a foundation called the Sharma Fund, where we focus on bringing underprivileged youth outside to teach them rock climbing. Kids that normally wouldn’t have that opportunity, that live in cities. Climbing has transformed my life in so many ways. I’m really happy to have that opportunity to share that with younger people. I really believe in its transformative effects on our lives. That’s the thing about climbing—it’s not just a sport or a hobby. Most people that get into it, it really does transform their lives. It’s such a fun activity but the places where it takes you—it overtakes your life in a lot of ways. In a positive way. I feel like the more people that can get into it, the world will be a better place. At the same time, as climbers, we need to learn to be good stewards of the land and take care of these places where we are spending so much time.
That’s another thing we’re seeing as climbing is getting so popular—the impact on those places is getting higher. It’s really important to follow that with education on how to treat nature. People that come from the cities don’t really know how to do that.
Climbers, spending so much time in these places, it’s natural that you want to take care of those places, too.
MP: What is your biggest passion outside of climbing?
CS: I love my girlfriend, my family, my friends. I think I’m a pretty creative person. I love building things. I love working on my house. Landscaping, stuff like that. Same thing as what I was saying about developing new rock climbs—I love finding something. For me it’s not just about the athletic challenge, it’s about finding new things. When I’m not doing that in climbing, it manifests itself in other ways. There’s the athletic side of it, but it is very much an artistic thing.
MP: How do you cross-train for this kind of extreme climbing?
CS: Mixing cement, I guess? I don’t train or cross-train, but like I said, I work on my house. I do a lot of work. I’m always building on my house. For me, it’s always been that climbing has been my training for climbing. Sometimes I’ll go for a run. Stretching, some yoga. But in general, climbing is this lifestyle activity that really works every muscle in your body. I don’t really do that much cross-training.
MP: What do you attribute your longevity to?
CS: There’s moments of intense focus and discipline, but it’s never been externally imposed. When I’m inspired I get super motivated, and dedicate myself wholeheartedly to these projects.
When I don’t feel that, I take time to let that inspiration come back. Climbing is this long term, lifelong journey. It’s really important to just take your time with it and keep it fun. I’ve seen a lot of people burn out because it starts becoming this job for them. It stops being fun. For me, it’s been really important to keep it enjoyable. Listen to your motivation.
Most injuries happen when you’re not motivated, too, and you’re forcing yourself to do something. Your mind’s not aligned with your body and you’re just going through the motions. That’s when you’re most likely to get injured. They kind of go hand-in-hand. Following your motivation, resting when you need to rest, and going for it when you feel inspired.
I’m going to be climbing for my whole life. There’s so many things to explore in life, and if you don’t have that inspiration or motivation to do it, then don’t force yourself. Take that time to do whatever else you need to do. That inspiration or motivation will always come back and when it does, it’s always stronger.
I’ve been climbing for almost twenty years now. I’m more inspired and more motivated. I feel stronger than I ever have. I feel like that’s worked up until now. Keep it fun. Don’t take it too seriously. At the same time, when you do feel inspired, take it seriously, too. There’s a balance. Time and place for everything.
MP: Is your girlfriend a climber? Can you imagine not dating a climber?
CS: Circumstantially, right, we spend so much time doing that. So it comes in handy that we both love to do the same thing, for sure. She’s a really talented climber.
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