Matt Niswonger
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Chris Sharma’s Search for the Planet’s Greatest Climbs

By Matt Niswonger

Chris in Mallorca, Spain. Photo by Corey Rich.

In the early 1990s an indoor climbing gym, Pacific Edge, opened up in Santa Cruz. A climbing gym in the surf capital of Northern California raised a few eyebrows, but from day one there was quite a bit of interest. Early on a few of the local kids started going to the gym on a regular basis, discovering indoor climbing as a good after-school alternative to skateboarding, biking, and playing in the ocean. But after a while, the initial excitement sort of ran its course, and most of that early group moved.

A core group of kids, however, became totally consumed by the climbing thing. After about a year, these kids got really strong—ridiculously strong. Pacific Edge, with its 50-foot lead cave, was the perfect incubator for raw power. Kids and preteens, those with elastic tendons, progressed rapidly. Some of the older Sierra climbers who were hanging around the gym back in those days began to take notice. Some of the kids were crimping their way to the top of boulder problems that these climbing veterans could only hope to solve.

Chris Sharma was one of the kids. He did stuff that made the vets just shake their heads in disbelief. It was like the standard rules of physics just didn’t apply. He could take on a tough boulder problem, do everything wrong and still succeed on his first attempt. His big bony fingers could hold on to miserable holds like they were ladder rungs. He could do multiple one-arm pull-ups. He was climbing 5.13 when he was 13.

Of course, these were climbing-gym 5.13s, achieved while toproping on routes with bolt-on artificial holds. Skeptics, although impressed and perhaps a bit jealous of his indoor skills, said Sharma’s climbing prowess would never translate to natural rock in the great outdoors. It wasn’t anything personal, it was just that many of these experienced climbers had learned to climb in the Yosemite tradition, when climbing was less controlled and more exposed and people spent 10 years learning to lead 5.11, if ever.

At the time, sport climbing was taking off all over the country. The climbing paradigm was shifting away from Yosemite and other areas that emphasized traditional climbing, as a more athletic, acrobatic form of climbing gained in popularity. Clipping permanently installed anchors in the rock while on lead made outdoor climbing a whole lot more similar to gym climbing.

Sport climbing and gym climbing fueled each other in a way that raised climbing standards nationwide. It wasn’t a stretch to think that Sharma and his generation of indoor climbers would be able to make the transition to sport climbing outdoors.

In 1995, at age of 14, Sharma erased any doubts by winning both the Junior Nationals and the adult National Championships. The fact that a young teenager who honed his skills largely in a gym was the best climber in America heralded a new era in the sport. Only a few months later, Sharma became the youngest person ever to ascend 5.14 on an outdoor climb, and the transition was complete.

Suddenly, Sharma, a shy and reserved personality, was the most exciting climber in America. Traveling to Europe, he excelled on some of the toughest climbs in the world. Indeed, he was only getting stronger. In France, Sharma had a chance to try an unsolved extension to an existing route, Biographie. At 5.14c, Biographie was notoriously desperate, but the extension made it a candidate for the mythic grade of 5.15.

After many attempts spread out over three years, Chris linked Biographie with this devious upper sequence, becoming the first person in the world to ascend a (later) confirmed 5.15 route. He named the route Realization. In the book Vertical World by Katie Brown, Sharma explained, “In French, to realize a route means to send it … It was very difficult for me mentally, physically, and emotionally. In order to be ultimately successful, I had to ‘realize’ a lot of things about myself.”

Since completing Realization in 2001, Sharma has been involved with numerous film projects. Concentrating on bouldering, he teamed up with Josh Lowell of Big Up Productions on such films as Dosage, Rampage, and Pilgrimage.

Refusing to grade his projects, Sharma became a force for de-emphasizing numerical grades in order to focus on the intrinsic and personal challenges that climbing presents. Although this more closely allied with his Zen beliefs, it made things difficult for the climbing magazines looking to quantify his projects for an international audience. Readers naturally wanted to compare the latest Sharma project with the routes of other world-class climbers, but Sharma found the grading system superficial. Instead of breaking everything down to its lowest common denominator, he emphasized that each climb was its own challenge, played out in a unique setting.

The climbing press soon realized that the man who brought us 5.15 would not be chasing 5.16. Yet, far from hurting his career, his refusal to chase numbers inspired others to look for a deeper meaning in the act of climbing.

If grades don’t tell the story of the latest Sharma epic, then his videos certainly do. He has been able to express the stunning nature of each of his successive projects on film. For the past two years, quite a buzz has been building around the climbs appearing in King Lines: Chris Sharma’s Search for the Planet’s Greatest Climbs, his latest film collaboration with filmmakers Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer.

In early 2006, dramatic photos of Sharma deepwater soloing (climbing without a rope over water) in Spain appeared in Climbing magazine. Sharma’s new project, a 65-foot rock arch on an islet called Es Pontas, off the coast of Mallorca, will be a highlight of the film. The committing nature of deepwater soloing – Sharma reportedly took 50-plus falls into the churning Mediterranean while attempting to solve a dynamic crux move 35 feet off the water – has made King Lines his most anticipated film yet. In addition to Es Pontas, the film features Sharma on Moonlight Buttress in Utah, bouldering in Venezuela, and on an unfinished mega route on Clark Mountain in southeast California.

Recently, ASJ had a chance to ask Sharma about Clark Mountain, his latest obsession. “It’s my hardest ever, the most amazing sport route of my life,” he says of the ultra-long, 230-foot single-pitch route on this mile-high limestone peak rising out of the Mojave desert near the Nevada border.

In attempting such a long single-pitch climb, Sharma is pushing the envelope of human strength and endurance. The sustained nature of this marathon climb is like stacking brutally difficult boulder problems one on top of another for 230 feet. Whether he can actually link these sequences into one seamless climb remains to be seen, but few would bet against his mix of talent, strength and determination – and past successes!

Lucky for the rest of us, there’s usually a film crew to capture the drama.

King Lines: Chris Sharma’s Search for the Planet’s Greatest Climbs will be showing at the following Northern California locations in September and October. To see a trailer of the film go to www.kinglinesmovie.com.

For more information, check out www.reelrocktour.com:

  • Santa Cruz, Sept. 7
  • The Rio Theatre, 7:30 pm
  • San Francisco, Sept. 8
  • The Victoria Theatre, 8 pm
  • South Lake Tahoe, Sept. 14
  • Lake Tahoe Community College Theatre, 7 pm
  • Berkeley, Sept. 26 and 27
  • Pyramid Brewery, 8 pm
  • Yosemite, Sept. 27
  • Yosemite Lodge Amphitheater, 7 pm
  • Walnut Creek, Oct. 4
  • Pyramid Brewery, 8pm
  • San Luis Obispo, Oct. 12
  • The Palm Theater, TBA
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