In the relatively short time I’ve been climbing, I’ve seen people beat themselves into pulp trying to crank like Chris Sharma. I’ve seen friends campus until they popped tendons. I’ve met climbers who were constantly trying to get lighter, shedding weight until they turned bony and angular. I know comp climbers who go to the gym three times a week and just traverse mechanically around the bouldering area in giant laps, heading home most nights without having touched a rope.
The irony is that Sharma doesn’t do any of those things. He doesn’t cross-train, do drills, or follow a periodized training regimen. As Sharma says, climbing is his training, and his regimen goes something like this: he finds something he wants to climb, and he tries it. If he fails, he tries again, and again. When he feels his muscles and tendons starting to give in, he rests. When he gets frustrated or bored with the project, he finds something else to focus on for a while. Then he comes back, and he starts trying again.
As Spanish climber Dani Andrada put it in a blog post, “Chris equipa y prueba a muerte”: Chris equips and then tries to the death. He’s camped out in the desert for weeks working on projects, and has been known to climb five days at a stretch.
Surprisingly, Sharma’s’ career has been almost totally free of serious injuries, with the exception of a busted ACL suffered while bouldering in Yosemite. He credits his good health to proper motivation.
“I think a lot of it is just being really present and connected to your body and going climbing because you’re motivated to go climbing, not because you’re disciplined from the outside,” he says. “The times when I’ve tweaked a finger or hurt my ankle were when I wasn’t 100% psyched.”
What about the young climbers who look up to Sharma as a role model? Every time I go to the climbing gym I see his influence, reflected in shirtless guys who let out pull-hard screams every time they lunge for a hold. People want to be like him; to a certain extent, they want to be him. When I ask Sharma what kind of example he tries to set, he fumbles for an answer.
“I’m just trying to go through life and learn. You make mistakes, but I’m just trying to be an authentic person,” he says. “I don’t have any super profound advice or anything. Just go for it and follow your dreams, and…just go for it.”
For the past decade and a half, journalists have struggled to explain Sharma, to crack open his psyche and isolate whatever spiritual strength or primal energy lets him climb things that no one else can. After a 45-minute transatlantic phone chat, I’m no more qualified than any of them to tell you who Chris Sharma “really is.”
But let me make a suggestion: maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe he’s not the enigma he’s made out to be. Maybe, in the end, the secret behind Sharma is that he has no secret: he’s just a guy who really, really likes climbing.
There’s undoubtedly more to it than that. But I think the most important fact about Sharma is so obvious that it’s often taken for granted: he loves climbing. Not just the summit or the comp podium, but the process itself, all the little underappreciated moments of discovery along the way.
As a teenager, he chose climbing over having a home and spent the next ten years bouncing from crag to crag, never staying long enough to get comfortable. For 17 years, climbing has been his life, the lens through which he’s viewed the world. After all that time, he’s stayed motivated, hungry.
I ask Sharma if climbing has changed him as a person. He has trouble answering.
“I think, for sure,” he says finally. “I mean I can’t imagine where I would be if I wasn’t a climber right now. It’s been so many years.”
Sharma doesn’t really believe in last great problems or nostalgic golden ages. What he’s accomplished isn’t the end for climbing, just another step in its natural, healthy evolution. He says he’s already starting to see younger athletes like Daniel Woods push climbing to the next level. That’s OK with him. He feels grateful to be part of that flow.
But Chris Sharma’s own evolution isn’t over yet. He wants to dig deeper into trad and multipitch, and hopes to still be pushing his limits in 20 years. For now, he’s still psyched on sport climbing, and is still improving. He’s putting up new routes in Spain, where he’s settled down for the first time in his life. He has a house in Lleida, where he lives with his girlfriend Daila Ojeda and their black lab, Chaxi. This April, he’ll turn 30. That’s part of the evolution too.
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