From Santa Cruz to the world, surf and stone are always linked

By Chris Van Leuven

Chris Sharma, now 36, shares how climbing changed his life. A gym rat at Pacific Edge in Santa Cruz in the early 90s, he was first profiled in ASJ in 2001. Sixteen years later, he’s combined his love for the sea and stone, coming full circle as the world’s most prominent deep water soloist.

With Adventure Sports Journal entering its seventeenth year, we got back in touch with our old friend Chris Sharma, a Santa Cruz native once regarded by National Public Radio as the World’s Best Climber. We wanted to know how his life and career has changed since he burst onto the scene as a 12-year-old phenom in the early 1990s.

He answered the phone from his Barcelona home in his typical relaxed-but sincere style, like someone who has just gotten out of a hot tub. Since meeting at a competition in the early 90s, we’ve since kept in touch. That first day, some 25 years ago in a dusty climbing gym in Davis, with me having blown it at the competition, he was calm, relaxed and friendly. His demeanor set the tone for our future interactions. I forget if he won that day, though it’s likely he did;  after noticing I was having an off day, he took me aside to boulder together at a quiet section of the gym. That night, with the event over and the crowd filtering out the exits, we continued climbing one-on-one. He shared his select boulder problems and we climbed, without ego, just two people enjoying their favorite thing.

We connected again a few years later at Camp 4 in Yosemite and bouldered for hours along the famous blocks scattered in the area. Then there were the times we talked among friends in the back of a van in the Camp 4 parking lot, along a river in Tuolumne Meadows and in my RV parked on a suburban street in Bishop.

As the decades went by, with him standing atop the podium at the world’s toughest comps, our interactions took place at more formal events, most recently at a hotel in Salt Lake City during the Outdoor Retailer trade show, six months ago. That late morning, with nearly everyone in attendance on the trade show floor a few blocks away, we chatted quietly on the couches in the hotel lobby with no one else around. It didn’t matter that he had grown into perhaps the most famous climber in the world and that I was a journalist writing for a few pubs (and a dedicated though comparatively unexceptional climber), he addressed me on the same level.

He interrupted the conversation from Barcelona, apologizing that his wife, Jimena Alarcon, and their newborn Alana, needed his attention for a moment. I could hear their voices in the background. The pause in our hour-long chat gave me a chance to acknowledge how much his life had changed in recent years. Two years ago he married, with his daughter arriving shortly after. He also became a businessman, having recently opened Sharma Climbing BCN near his home. Though he shared much of these changes in “Above the Sea,” a 15-minute short and part of the REEL ROCK 12 Film Tour (on the road now) profiling his fascination with climbing ropeless over the ocean in Mallorca, as we talked he shared much more with me, including how his formative years in Santa Cruz helped shape who he is today.

A child of Bob Sharma and Gita Jahn, Chris entered the world in Santa Cruz in 1981, spending his youth surfing with his father, boogie boarding and climbing trees before advancing into rock climbing.

At age 12 he joined Pacific Edge climbing gym located mere blocks from the ocean, and he burst onto the scene. His talent was obvious and he received support from the local climbing community. The since-closed Bugaboo Mountain Shop gave him his first harness, and Tom Davis, the owner of Pacific Edge, held a fundraiser to send him to his first Junior Nationals competition in 1994.

Matt Niswonger, the editor of ASJ, remembers that one day at the gym a specialist tested Sharma’s hand strength and said it was off the charts.

“Here was this teenager whose grip strength was equal to a 250 pound weight lifter who only weighed 150 pounds soaking wet,” recalls Matt. He was truly a climbing phenom, and his career was only in its infancy.

“I don’t know how he can keep his nerve, 60 feet above crashing waves, no rope, doing insanely difficult moves. Every fall means you smash into the water below. If you don’t land right it can seriously mess you up,” says Josh Lowell, Director of Above the Sea and co-founder of Reel Rock. (Adam Clark/Reel Rock 12).

Over the phone, we reminisced about the time he met world-class photographer Jim Thornburg at the Pinnacles, in what would become a partnership spanning decades. Sharma, then 13, with an electric-clipper-length haircut, a skinny frame except for developed biceps and forearms, was working on a repeat of Thornburg’s first ascent, a steep, thugy 45-foot route rated 5.13c.

Thornburg captured shots of him on the climb and later accompanied him on his early visits to Céüse, France, where Sharma would go on to establish Biographie/Realization, in July 2001, the world’s first climb rated 5.15a. The same year he completed that route, he also walked 720 miles through Japan, visiting nearly 90 Buddhist temples during his pilgrimage. While all the fanatical climbers wondered what out-of-the-world climb he had planned to do next, he was quietly following his own path, one influenced by his spiritual youth and parents.

Thornburg, like many adults Sharma spent time with, was a father figure to him.  Looking at my desk covered in broken climbing gear and cups filled with day-old coffee, I zero in on Thornburg’s coffee table book from 2010: “Stone Mountains: North America’s Best Crags,” containing images of Sharma from over the decades. Looking through it is a timeline of his most significant ascents.

From ages 16 to 26, he ticked off the hardest climbs in the world and established his own, all while living out of a backpack. By the end of that era he felt the need to settle down and lived in Bishop for a period but his busy lifestyle meant he was rarely there to enjoy it. Finally, some five years later, he found his home near the Mediterranean Sea in Spain.

Today, instead of embarking on weeks to months-long climbing trips, he day-trips to his local crags, which contain routes at the highest level. He currently has four projects up to 5.15d, the highest rating in the world. If he times it right after a day of climbing, he can be home in time for dinner with his family. He calls this “integrating climbing with real life.”

Sharma splits his time in Spain between his home in the bustling city of Barcelona and the quiet village of San Lorenzo de Mongay. He also makes frequent visits to the deep-water soloing walls at Mallorca. He began visiting Mallorca after his mother died in 2006. There, climbing over the ocean—obsessively—helped him work through that difficult, painful time. It was a spiritual journey that had a lasting effect on his life.

“We have a nice lifestyle here. But I certainly miss California. I miss my family out there. Now that I have a daughter, I feel a duty to share that part of my world with her,” he says. “We’re slowly organizing our lives to live in both places.” He makes three to four visits to California yearly.

Photogenic beauty is part of the appeal of combining surf and stone (Adam Clark/Reel Rock 12).

In Barcelona, he’s paying forward the kindness he experienced in Santa Cruz by playing a mentor role with the kids at his gym.

At 36, despite his busy life as a husband, father, business owner and celebrity, he’s still at the top of his game. This is apparent in the latest video profiling him, “Above the Sea,” which is about his latest demanding deep-water solos in Mallorca. Describing the short movie over the phone, he pointed out many parallels between his climbs over the ocean and the love he discovered for water as a child in Northern California.

In one scene, he’s in a deep, dark body of water, just like around Santa Cruz. However, instead of mountains pouring into the ocean, steep, striated limestone walls tower over him. To climb here, he says, “You have to be an ocean person. The main danger isn’t falling. It’s being in the sea and being comfortable in it. The tides, the wind directions; many things you don’t have to deal with in regular climbing.”

“Above the Sea” is poetic, mesmerizing viewers with crashing waves and sea spray under hard climbing. It’s also soundtrack free, allowing viewers to take in the simple beauty of the surroundings without distraction. Even Sharma’s narration is filled with pauses. It’s him in joyful play and in celebration of his surroundings. The film begins with him saying:

“There really is nothing like being on a huge wall with nothing but your climbing shoes, chalk bag, and dangling by your fingertips. The waves are smashing into the wall, you actually feel the vibrations in the cliff and the reverberations in your ears.”

Though this isn’t the first video of Sharma deep water soloing, with the first coming out 12 years ago, this one is a continuation, showing his evolution as an athlete.

“Today deep water soloing is the forefront of climbing for me,” he explained. “For someone like myself who grew up by the beach every day, it’s really adventurous. Every year I go back to Mallorca. I feel quite at home there. It’s epic, man. It’s the ultimate place.”

Sharma bouldering in Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT (Nate Christenson/Red Bull Content Pool).

Sharma poses for a portrait in Eureka (Keith Ladzinski/Red Bull Content Pool).