Any first-year English student can recite the trope about the three potential sources of conflict in a story: man vs nature, man vs man and man vs himself. You have Moby-Dick, you have The Count of Monte Cristo and you have The Tell-Tale Heart. But what do you have when it’s an ordeal that combines all three conflicts?
This is the situation Chris Sharma is facing right now. He is about 15m off the ground, with a spread-eagled Spider-Man grasp on the bark of a redwood tree on the outskirts of Eureka, in northern California. There is so much about the scene that is outsize and improbable: Sharma, 34, is a rock climber known for completing first ascents of diabolically difficult routes around the world, and now he wants to be the first to freeclimb a redwood. The tree is immense, the top canopy blurring almost 100m above into some vague, misty Lord Of The Rings-style foliage. Sharma is alone on it, exposed like a humanoid beetle, wearing a blue shirt and yellow trousers, and clinging to a tree that’s 800 years old and has seen it all – but hasn’t seen anything like this.
Nature. Man. Himself. They are all in play and on attack, whirling around Sharma as he sits back in his safety harness, gently swaying and studying the pattern of the bark for yet another hour. Sharma can get a few metres off the ground – and then the tree’s composition changes and his grip slips. Further up, the bark is looser, more undisciplined, less striated. Handholds are difficult, footholds are impossible. “I’m just so amazed by how much variation there is,” he says. The tree does not want to be climbed.
Sharma could simply give up, drop back to the base of the tree and head out with his friends to grab a beer. You know, it’s still pretty damn cool to freeclimb 15m of an ancient giant. But he doesn’t. That’s a shortcut, and for Sharma, it’s the journey that’s important.
The rating system for the difficulty of a rock climb is arcane and impenetrable to those outside the sport; suffice to say,it starts at “sort of hard” and then increases to “callus-crackingly difficult”, when the rock will mock you while you whimper and bleed and fight to cling to it. Sharma is a specialist in first ascents of the latter category, routes with such evocative names as Dreamcatcher, Fight Or Flight and Stoking The Fire.
“There are a lot of people who are really gifted and strong climbers, but I think there’s a difference between that and someone who has a vision to find new first ascents,” he says. “Climbing is so much more than just doing a difficult thing, because if it was just about doing that, we might as well be having a pull-up competition.”
All sinew, gentle smiles and brown shaggy hair, Sharma looks as though he was dreamt up by the tourism board of his hometown, Santa Cruz, in California. He embodies the town’s beachy-arty-hippie-sporty vibe, and over bagels downtown one morning he’s happy to reminisce about his path from growing up on the Golden State’s central coast to becoming one of the most dynamic athletes in action sports.
Sharma’s father worked in maintenance at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a campus that’s noteworthy for being so densely forested that it’s hard to determine the buildings between the trees. “The way I started climbing was with trees, just like any kid,” says Sharma. “It’s easy for all of us to take ourselves seriously – maybe too seriously sometimes – and the reason why we do this stuff is that it’s fun.”
When he was 12, the first indoor climbing gym opened in Santa Cruz and Sharma was hooked. It was instantly apparent that he wasn’t the typical adolescent scrambler. “Immediately we were like, ‘Who is this kid?’” says his childhood friend, Justin Vitcov. “All eyes were on him. Within six months it was obvious that he needed to be
competing at the national level.”
In 1997, Sharma won silver at the world championships; in 1999, he won the gold in bouldering at the X Games. More championships followed, many more medals for the cabinet. But what energised Sharma wasn’t the trophy tally, it was the poetry of motion that occurred when he was on the rock.
“My expertise has always been putting up first ascents, finding new lines – it’s a creative and an athletic process, a cool crossover between a sport and a performance art form,” he says. “In climbing, like everything in life, our opportunities are conditioned by our perception of them. In climbing, it’s possible to go to the same cliff over and over again, maybe 1,000 times, and then you go one day and you’re like, ‘Wow, look at that. That would be a great route. I can’t believe I never saw it before.’”
Sharma’s patience – he calls it stubbornness – is fortuitous in a day and age when every movement is recorded on video. Watching his climbs online is like watching the adventures of a particularly Bohemian superhero: here are Chris Sharma and his friends in some of the world’s most glorious locations, chalking up the face of the rock, belaying each other for safety and cheering one another on. What is displayed is the converse of the three universal conflicts: here, man is in harmony with nature, with other men and with himself.
“You know how you have authors who are authors’ authors and musicians who are musicians’ musicians?” Vitcov asks. “Chris is kind of unique because he’s a climbers’ climber and a general audience kind of climber. He’s a climbers’ climber by doing the hardest stuff, but he doesn’t just go out and climb anything because he can. He finds the most beautiful lines. That’s what calls him. And it in turn inspires other climbers to go and find those lines.”
The successful first ascent is the flashy part, and the visceral exultation that Sharma has when he completes one even transfers through the tiny screen of an iPhone. However, like most visual evidence in the internet age, it’s about one-third of the truth. All those conflicts are still there, looming just out of shot.
What isn’t shown is the hard work, the pressure that Sharma puts himself under in order to be the first, to complete the ascent and to make it seem effortless.
“It’s who I am, it’s how I express myself, how I tap into a higher level of being,” he says. “Not that I’m trying to compare myself to Superman, but a person can be a nerd in every other way, and when I get into climbing, I’m able to do a lot more than I’m normally capable of doing. You just have to have that unwavering will to figure it out.”
He takes a sip of his chai tea, and then apologises for being so esoteric. “The reality is, on these big projects, you fail 99 per cent of the time,” he says. “If you’re only happy when you’re at the summit, you’re going to be happy only a very small percentage of your life.”
However at this moment, Sharma does have the right to be outrageously happy, to be embarrassingly giddy about his accomplishments.
When it’s pointed out that he was the first to successfully climb what is considered the hardest route in the world earlier this year – El Bon Combat, a dastardly cliff face near his home in Spain – Sharma shrugs. It’s a not a dismissive gesture, but rather one of acceptance: “Yeah, I had my eye on that rock for eight years, and then it took one solid year of work and planning and preparation, and blood and sweat and tears, to finally make the first ascent of it, and with every handhold I had to push myself and scream until my lungs were empty. It’s all cool.”
With this, the secret to his mental resilience becomes apparent, and it’s both the simplest and hardest thing in the world. Find something you love doing. Do it until you die. Respect the journey in between. Don’t worry about achieving, worry about accomplishing. The conflicts will resolve themselves.
“If it’s going to be something you do your whole life, it has to be something that transcends the need to be the best,” he says. “In life we’re always trying to find ways to realise our potential, and climbing is the medium I’ve been fortunate enough to have.”
On Sharma’s first attempt at the redwood, he falls back into the safety harness twice, but eventually he makes it into the canopy with a celebratory whoop, just like any kid who’s thrilled to have climbed a tree. A tenacious accomplishment of grace and brute force, a fun, full-circle trip that recalls his childhood, but not, by the strictest standards of climbing, a first ascent. To successfully freeclimb the tree, he would have to make it to the top without relying on the harness.
So Sharma makes a second attempt. And a third on the following day. And then a fourth. And a fifth the day after.
Does he eventually succeed? Does it really matter?
“Yesterday I muscled up the tree,” says Sharma after his first try. “Today I want to take my time. I want to discover the tree’s secrets.”