Any freshman English major 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 your Moby Dick, you have your Count of Monte Cristo and you have your 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 50 feet off the ground, with a spread-eagled Spider-Man grasp on the bark of a redwood tree on the outskirts of Eureka, 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 hard routes around the world, and he now wants to be the first to freeclimb a redwood. The tree is immense, the top canopy blurring almost 300 feet above into some vague, misty Lord of the Rings-style foliage. Sharma is alone on it, exposed like a humanoid beetle in a blue shirt and yellow pants on a tree that’s 800 years old and has seen it all—but hasn’t seen anything like this.
Nature. Man. Himself. They’re 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 couple of dozen feet off the ground—and then the tree’s composition changes and his grip slips. Up there, 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 just 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 50 feet 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 outsiders of the sport; suffice to say, it starts “sorta hard” and then increases up to “callus-crackingly difficult, and 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, 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 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, 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 California’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 ascertain the buildings between the trees. “The way I started climbing was with trees, like any kid,” Sharma says. “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 is 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 at the national level competing.”
In 1997, Sharma won silver at the Climbing World Championships; in 1999, he won the gold at the X Games in bouldering. More championships followed, many more medals for the case. But what energized 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.’ ”
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 is Chris Sharma and his friends in some of the world’s most glorious locales, chalking up the face of the rock, belaying each other for safety and cheering each other on. What is displayed is the converse of the three universal conflicts: Here, man is in harmony with nature, each other and 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 climber’s climber and a general- audience kind of climber. He’s a climber’s 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 find those lines.”
The successful first ascent is the flashy part, and the visceral exultation that Sharma displays when he completes a first ascent even transfers through the tiny little screen of an iPhone. But, like most visual evidence of the Internet age, it’s about one-third of the truth. All those conflicts are still there, looming just outside of the screen.
What isn’t shown is the hard work, the pressure that Sharma puts himself under to be the first, to complete the ascent and 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 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. You just have to have that unwavering will to figure it out.”
He takes a sip of his chai tea, and then apologizes for being so esoteric. The reality is, on these big projects, you fail 99 percent 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.”
But 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 one of the hardest routes 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. 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 needing to be the best,” he says. “In life we’re trying to find ways to realize our potential, and climbing is the medium I’ve been fortunate enough to have.”
On Sharma’s first attempt at the redwood, he fell back into the safety harness twice but eventually made it into the canopy with a celebratory whoop, just like any kid thrilled to have climbed a tree. A tenacious accomplishment of grace and brute force, a fun full-circle trip that recalled his childhood, but not, by the strict 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 made a second attempt. And a third on the following day. And then a fourth. And a fifth the day after.
Did he eventually succeed? Does it really matter?
“Yesterday I muscled up the tree,” Sharma said after his first try. “Today I want to take my time. I want to discover its secrets.”
Read more on Sharma’s epic Redwood ascent at RedBull.com.