Chris Sharma is an absolute legend in the climbing world, taking on unprecedented difficulties and establishing routes up the most unweidly overhanging cliffs. But, like most kids, Chris Sharma grew up climbing trees. So when he had an opportunity to return to his hometown of Santa Cruz, California and climb the giant redwoods that enchanted him as a child, he seized it with the same enthusiasm he brings to his signature “grunt” while scaling faces.
“After living in Spain and climbing on tufas there, I came back home and looked up at the bark of these famous giant redwoods of California,” Sharma told Red Bull. “And I imagined I was looking up at these huge walls of tufas. I started thinking, ‘How cool would that be?’”
How cool would that be? Sharma got to find out. He reached out to Dr. Anthony Ambrose and Wendy Baxter, two redwood-tree experts from the University of California, Berkeley, to inquire about the project as part of their research requires the doctors to understand rigging tactics and techniques in their efforts to collect the samples they need from tree canopies without disturbing the ecology. While both were skeptical, they decided to proceed.
Utilizing hands and feet with rope and harness for safety, Sharmacollected valuable data to measure tree water status in the context of the historic drought, all from within a city park in Eureka.
Anyway, I recently caught up with Sharma to hear more about climbing redwoods as well as get little more backstory as to how he got there.
Michael Woodsmall: Tell us about this “secret project!” What was the motivation behind it, and what do you hope its impact to be? Does this reflect your approach to climbing for the next chapter of your storied career?
Chris Sharma: Well, I guess this was a lot about coming full circle, back to my roots of growing up in the redwood forests of Santa Cruz, California and at the same time (as I always try to do) bring my own creative approach to it and come up with something different and new. I was climbing trees (albeit much smaller ones) long before I knew anything about rock climbing. Since I found rock climbing though, Ive spent most of my life traveling; its taken me all over the world to the most amazing spots. I think in some ways, you never fully appreciate where you’re from until you’ve had the chance to see that other side and realize that the grass isn’t necessarily any greener.
So whenever I’ve come back to Santa Cruz and spend time in the Redwoods, I’m always blown away by how majestic and special these forests are. Also, having spent my whole life seeking out cliffs to climb, I can’t help but look up at these giant trees and imagine lines for climbing. So I guess this whole thing was a way to bring together my climbing with the place I come from and these amazing trees that were actually how I got started climbing in the first place and create a film that would pay homage to all of that.
You recently topped out on El Bon Combat. And you have a history with these “King Lines” from La Dura Dura to Jumbo Love. What inspires you to do those climbs?
For me, it’s inseparable from who I am, its what I do. Of course climbing is a sport, but its also so much more than that. For me a big part of it is being creative and using your imagination to find these lines in nature that are at the limit of whats humanly possible and at the same time super beautiful, thought provoking and awe inspiring. I think that is what makes climbing so complete and rewarding. Of course these cliffs have been there for millions of years but the process of deciphering a line up them transforms them into works of art. almost like giant interactive sculptures. Its so amazing when you discover a sequence that enables you to climb something that at first glance seems utterly impossible, its as if they were designed to be climbed. This is what inspires and motivates me to become a better athlete, to new levels and climb even more incredible lines.
A column penned by one Doug Saunders called climbing the height of empty egoism. “In a century of climbing, nobody has been able to come up with a sensible reason to be doing it… Some have attempted to claim it as science or sport, because it requires some of the same skills, but it lacks the human engagement to be a proper sport or the purpose to be meaningful science.” Would you mind responding? If even only a couple sentences?
Well to each their own I guess. For me and a lot of people its a pretty profound activity. Im not saying we are finding a cure for cancer but it is something that brings happiness to so many of the people who do it so it can’t be that bad…
Most people don’t understand how much time (years) and energy/planning/effort go into these climbs. What are the biggest misperceptions of climbing/climbers? If there is one thing everyone needs to better understand/appreciate, what is it?
Perhaps you can compare it to mastering a classical music composition, or dance , or martial art. It takes years and years of practice and finally it appears effortless. We talk a lot about being in the flow, but in climbing its not so simple as just going with it, you are fighting gravity and it’s an intense physical and mental battle. Its very athletic and its takes an almost monastic discipline to hone yourself to be able to climb at your limit. So getting into that flow only comes with a major effort and struggle and through that process, we learn a lot about ourselves.
Your such an expressive climber? Give us a little backstory on that? Were you influenced at all by Boone Speed? Who else influenced you? With your outward enthusiasm in mind, if possible, offer a quick glimpse of what it feels like when you top out, or even reach an impossible hold.
Well, Boone has definitely been a big influence, mentor, and friend. It’s kind of funny, actually — he is the guys who invented yelling in climbing.
It’s very euphoric to finally achieve a big goal like La Dura Dura for example. It can be an intense psychological battle that can last years. This process can be super frustrating, but at the same time it’s what gives so much depth to climbing and forces us to dig deep in so many ways. So, of course, when you get to the top finally its pure bliss. Strangely though once we achieve these big goals, we are often left with a void in our life and its common to feel a bit lost after these big accomplishments.
I guess that just goes to show that the life of all of this is in the process and the struggle. It’s so precious to have something we are passionate about and to pour our energy into it. It’s about getting to the top, but once we get there the experience is over.
Deep water soloing — you’re largely credited with its widespread popularity these days. How do these different disciplines/styles of climbing ultimately lend to the progress/trajectory of the sport? How important is for you to be a part of that progress/trajectory (aside from establishing new routes and first ascents)?
Well, Deep Water Soloing (or Psicobloc) for me is the most pure, free and beautiful form of climbing. I grew up surfing in Santa Cruz and when I found climbing, I moved away from the coast towards the mountains. For me, Deep Water Soloing is the perfect combo since it brings my two favorite worlds together.