Called ‘the most famous rock climber in the world’, American Chris Sharma was in town to give fans a glimpse into what drives him to push the envelope of sport climbing.
I never really set out to be the best,” says Chris Sharma, the “rock star” who has ruled the climbing scene for nearly two decades. “Being the best has never been a goal, climbing is more of a personal journey.”
So says the Michael Jordan of sport climbing — the climbing wunderkind who redefined what was possible and transformed the sport.
Sharma’s speciality: notching first ascents on the hardest routes in the world. He made the headlines at age 15 when he completed the first ascent of Necessary Evil rated 5.14c, the hardest route in North America then.
(Based on the American grading system, routes start at 5.0 (beginner’s level) to 5.15c, currently the world’s two most difficult routes found in Spain and Norway.)
Five years later, he raised the climbing bar with the first ascent of Realization in France by setting the first climb rated 5.15a. In 2008, he pushed the boundaries again by ascending Jumbo Love in California, setting the record for the hardest route in the world, rated at 5.15b.
Sharma has inspired and captured the imagination of climbers worldwide not only with these routes and boy-next-door charm, but also his “King Lines” – routes that are “beautiful to look at and climb” and tough to crack.
The elemental climber
Born in the surfing town of Santa Cruz, California, Sharma’s foray into climbing started in a climbing gym when he was 12. Like any typical teenager, he took a shot at soccer, baseball, skateboarding and surfing.
“I was mediocre at these sports,” he says, during our interview. Sharma was in town for the last stop of his Signature Tour 2013 to meet his fans, do some demo climbs and present a slide show at Camp5 climbing gym in 1Utama Shopping Centre, Petaling Jaya.
Climbing came naturally to the precocious child who loved shinnying up the trees.
“Physically, I have talent in climbing. But so much of it is also mental, like the motivation and passion you bring to it,” says Sharma, 32, who won the Bouldering Nationals at 14.
“One of the reasons why I became so good at it is because I love it so much. I do it all the time,” adds the soft-spoken, mellow chap. After completing high school, he dove into climbing full-time.
“I was lucky to have sponsors who really believed in me and gave me the freedom to pursue my dreams – travelling around the world and climbing the hardest routes in the most amazing places,” says Sharma whose parents were students of Baba Hari Dass, a monk and guru classically trained in Ashtanga Yoga. His parents took the name “Sharma” after they got married.
Not surprisingly, Sharma has always been portrayed as a “spiritual climber” where scaling a rock is as much a spiritual pursuit as an athletic endeavour. He has sojourned in meditation centres in Thailand, Myanmar and India, and completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan, covering a 1,200km-long journey on foot, alone, and sleeping in forests.
In a climbing career that spans nearly 20 years, Sharma has had his share of hardships (he doesn’t want to elaborate on that, though).
“Sometimes, when you get to a certain point, it’s easy to want to quit. But if you push through this (the hard times), this is when it gets interesting and satisfying,” he says.
And being an ambassador for a lifestyle sport has its advantages. Sharma’s sponsors (prAna, Evolv, Walltopia, Petzl and Sterling Rope, to name a few) encourage him to be himself.
“If you feel too pressured by the sponsors, it’s easy for climbing to stop being fun and you’ll burn out.
“Climbing is who I am. It is an outlet for realising myself and developing myself. Of course, it’s a really fun way to do it too,” says Sharma.
As Sharma sees it, climbing is a personal thing — whether you are a newbie going to a climbing gym for the first time or an accomplished rock hound.
“We can all experience it at the same level because it is about overcoming your own barriers,” he explains.
And unlike some sports, there is no pinnacle in climbing.
“That’s the beauty of it. There’re always new places to see and experience, as well as new rocks to climb,” says Sharma who spends half his time in California and the rest in Spain where he lives with his girlfriend, Spanish climber Daila Ojeda and their dog.
“Every time you gain more experience and knowledge, your passion for the sport deepens. I’ve been climbing for 20 years and I’m more excited about it than ever!”