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What do Chris Sharma and Edward Whymper have in common?

Rock climber hanging above the sea

Note: this text was originally published by Adam S. on an earlier version of this site.

They are both climbers who have pushed boundaries and made ascents previously believed to be “impossible.” In the process, they changed our perception of human limitations.

So why have you never heard of Edward Whymper? The easy answer is that his greatest climbing achievement came in 1865 before climbing had its modern roots – or any roots at all to be precise. Almost 150 years ago, Whymper led the first ascent of the Matterhorn. His party, eight strong at the outset, returned with only four survivors. The others died in a horrific fall shortly after the summit. Whymper would later become a depressed recluse, never getting beyond the tragedy. But though they paid dearly, the men on Whymper’s expedition were the first in the world of climbing to defy the “impossible.”

Last weekend, we had the pleasure of attending a slide show by the present-day standard-bearer, Chris Sharma. He has pushed the realm of possibility into 5.15 and shows no sign of slowing. He made a trip back to the Bay Area to hold a fundraiser for Castle Rock State Park, a destination I’ve written about a couple of times here on ClimbingHouse lately.

It’s a matter of opinion who the best rock climber is right now. I think strong arguments could be made for Alex Honnold, Adam Ondra, Tommy Caldwell, Daniel Woods, and Chris Sharma. Each has accomplishments the others don’t match across the variety of disciplines the sport offers.

It’s even harder to gauge the best climber of all time. Equipment, techniques, training facilities, and shared experiences have made it possible to stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. If I showed up in Eldo in 1970 with a full rack of BD cams, a lightweight harness, a shiny pair of Muiras, and a crystal ball guidebook, in short order I might have been considered the best climber in the world. But obviously, The Naked Edge is a different proposition with a rack of homemade nuts, a Swami belt, a pair of glorified hiking boots, and most importantly, the arresting knowledge that nobody has ever climbed it.

The Matterhorn Swiss Alps

Imagine setting out well before first light in a quiet team of mountaineers, nervous in the face of an imposing, unclimbed peak. It has fallen to your lot to carry the wine bags and for the health of the party, you clandestinely refill them with water as they become diminished, a miraculous replenishment according to your colleagues. You carry ropes but know no practiced techniques with which to use them. Crampons, harnesses, belays, and pitons are inventions of the distant future. Within a few grueling days, the rock, snow, and ice fall away on all sides and you are the first to conquer the impossible and summit the Matterhorn. Hours later, four of your companions lay dead on a glacier 4,000 feet below.

The price for success was failure.

“I fail 99% of the time.” We all laughed but recognized the statement as honest and true. In Chris Sharma’s world of super-high-end sport climbing, the impossible is not death-defying risk, tenuous snowfields, and ice-blasted summits. It is most often 100 consistent feet of individual moves so hard that I couldn’t do one, much less link ten feet. He fails and fails and fails and fails, and then, one day, conditions are perfect, the moves are infused into every being, the rock is an extension of his body, and he succeeds. And the impossible has become possible. He is the first, and often throughout his career the only, person who has ever lived who could do what he just did.

It’s Labor Day weekend, 1947, and temperatures in the Valley are hovering around 100 degrees. John Salathé and Ax Nelson are gearing up for a push on the Lost Arrow chimney. Salathé has fashioned 18 pitons and a skyhook the team will use, along with 12 carabiners and slings, for aid and protection. A tempered drill and a handful of star drive bolts are in tow for the Arrow Tip headwall. The minimalist team doesn’t even haul sleeping bags for the 5-day journey and only brings a half-liter of water per person per day. Food consists of fruit and nuts. The leader would establish a high point, descend to clean gear, and then head back up and advance further. In this grueling style, one particular lead takes Salathé eight hours. When the team pulls over the top after their ground-breaking ascent, they have pushed the standards of North American climbing and threw down the gauntlet for their successors.

“I’m the first of the climbing gym generation,” said Chris Sharma while discussing his introduction to climbing in the Bay Area and Castle Rock specifically. Aided by intense training at the Pacific Edge climbing gym, where he learned the sport at age 12, he became so good so fast that he exhausted the possibilities of Bay Area climbing within a few years and set out to find greater challenges elsewhere. His focus was sport climbing and he soon became the first American to send 5.14c with his ascent of Necessary Evil at age 15. He showed the video of that climb at the slide show and talked about it as his first true project. It took him about 10 days.

Es Pontas Mallorca Spain

After weeks attached to the face of El Capitan, Warren Harding pulled his exhausted frame onto the summit, ignoring the rescue rope a team had lowered from the top. Having just been beaten to the punch by Royal Robbins and company on Half Dome, Harding was not about to accept such nonsense on The Nose. Even to Valley regulars, El Cap was outside their perception of possibility. Since a technical rescue was obviously out of the question, Harding and his teams went at the route in painstaking fashion, establishing numerous camps and fixing thousands of feet of ropes. The first camp was only 300 feet above the base. As Salathé was still the only manufacturer of hard steel pitons, the team only had the soft iron variety available – not nearly as durable and safe. They pendulumed to the 400-foot Stoveleg cracks where the 2-inch wide features would only take the largest of their pitons, of which they had a total of four. They made these pitons from the legs of a discarded gas stove excavated from the Berkeley dump. As with Salathé’s ascent of Lost Arrow, descending to clean the lower pitons before advancing further was required. After sevens days, they descended 1000 feet of their fixed rope to refuel and restock. Later, Harding and a new team started off again, now using their fixed ropes to quickly establish at their high point. After 11 days, they were within shouting distance of the top. On the final lead, Harding hand-drilled 26 bolts (with the “rescue” rope dangling needlessly within an arm’s length).

Dean Potter and Sean Leary recently scaled The Nose in 2:36:45 and were back at the base in time for lunch.

While listening to Chris Sharma describe his current projects, including a huge (~8 pitch) sport line with a crux 5.14d pitch along with numerous other 5.14 pitches, I kept thinking about how climbing has evolved to allow him and us to push our limits in such a purely gymnastic style. My generation of climbers, and those after me, more and more view sport climbing, gym climbing, and the purely athletic aesthetic as a natural part of the endeavor. Though traditional climbing and aid climbing are still strong in many circles, as I watch the youth team run laps on the clip-ups at the massive Planet Granite gym while coaches bark orders from below, I can’t help but think that climbing is undergoing yet another evolution. Will the next generation be even less tolerant of risk, an aspect of climbing pure and fundamental to the pioneers? Will dedication only mean how many “go’s” one’s given a project? Will success be measured only in numbers?

I hope legends like Leighton Kor, John Salathé, and Lynn Hill continue to burn brightly in the psyche of the climbing community. To that end, I recommend a book that any dedicated climber should read, “Climbing In North America” by Chris Jones. The book, published in 1976, provides a detailed history of climbing, beginning from the first march up Pike’s Peak in 1820. Jones gives a fantastic account of both the little and big events that marked transitions and progress in the sport and shows us the links woven between early mountaineering through the free climbing revolution. Throughout the book, Jones describes the personalities and circumstances surrounding the forefront of climbing, often illuminating the importance of what we take for granted today.

Having the privilege to see Chris Sharma in person, in a cozy setting of maybe 150 people, I felt lucky and left inspired. Even more now, I believe that Sharma is successful for multiple reasons. First, obviously, he is an athletic freak. He is truly the Michael Jordan of climbing. The next generation of climbers will look back on his career and be amazed (and all but the very few will still not be able to climb his routes). However, just as important, are several other personal qualities. He devotes himself completely to his goals. Many of his routes are the result of months and even years of effort. If something comes easy to Sharma, he doesn’t want it. This is all the more impressive considering that for the majority of his career, he has had to be completely self-driven. Nobody had the talent, strength, and willpower to one-up him.

Also, Chris Sharma is a good person with a persona so humble that he often gets laughs when he’s just trying to put himself on the same level as the rest of us. He’s endearing. We want to be like Chris Sharma because of who he is, not just what he’s done. If he was getting paid millions of dollars a year to be a star NFL running back, when he scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl, he would run over to the ref, hand him the ball and head back to the sideline to encourage the kicker. We want to see people like him succeed because we would want to be the same way if we had the same opportunity. Despite all the fanfare and accolades, Chris Sharma climbs and pushes the limits, just like he always has, because he loves it. He is still amazed by the sport and grateful for the people he’s met and the cultures he’s experienced because of it.

Finally, Sharma has a great eye for beautiful climbs that straddle the current definitions of possible and impossible. With a few notable exceptions (Necessary Evil, Jumbo Love, etc.), he’s blazed his own trail. Many other world-class climbers find their headlines by freeing abandoned projects, linking existing lines, or repeating difficult routes. For the most part, Sharma’s greatest ascents were conceived in his own head and then he dedicated the work to bolt them, decipher the moves and then link it all together, all the while not truly knowing if it’s even possible. Having never devoted that effort to a climb, to me that difference is akin to composing a song compared to learning one. The task of putting up a route is even bigger when the goal is not only a quality line but a 5.15b. The importance of that vision to Sharma’s overall success is underestimated. Who else in today’s world of climbing would even think to go looking for a 5.15 (Es Pontas; FA 2007) free water solo over the ocean? By the way, despite attempts by some of the strongest climbers in the world, Es Pontas has yet to see a repeat. This is despite efforts to climb around the famous 7-foot dyno that took Sharma over 50 attempts to stick.

While Chris Sharma continues to work toward 5.15c, right now, 70-100 people are making their final push to summit Mt. Everest, feats earlier generations would have considered impossible.

On a side note, during the Q & A after the presentation, I got to ask Chris Sharma a question. It was fun to hear the thoughts of the predominant figure in climbing. I wanted to ask him many things, but I thought back to a picture I saw of him while perusing Mountain Project years ago.

So, I asked how he envisioned his personal climbing when he has taken a step back from super-difficult sport climbing. I could be wrong, but after being the best sports climber in the world for 15+ years, I don’t think he will want to keep finding, cleaning, bolting, and projecting lines if he is no longer pushing the limits of possibility. Maybe he will cruise some of those classic 5.13s he’s been missing out on. Or maybe he’ll take up trad climbing and fall in love with high altitude multi-pitch routes. Maybe he’ll just give it up.

So I mentioned to him that I had seen the above picture of him trad climbing on Center Route and asked how he envisioned his future climbing if he might enjoy the easier classics. He responded that he’s psyched about traditional climbing but he didn’t detail any specific ideas or vision for the future. Regardless of his theoretical distant future climbing endeavors, it is obvious from his slideshow that he still has much to accomplish in the present tense. I look forward to witnessing how he will continue to shape the ever-malleable possible.

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