Chris Sharma: A Climber of Our Time
Published on: 05/29/2022
Few climbers have made as significant an impact on the sport as Chris Sharma. Born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, Sharma’s 2001 first ascent of Biographie, which he renamed Realization, catapulted him to stardom. Since then, Sharma has gone from strength to strength, completing several iconic first ascents and repeats.
But just who is the man behind these daring, groundbreaking feats? Read on as we delve into Chris Sharma’s life and backstory and what truly makes him click.
Early Life: Sharma’s Background and Introduction to Climbing
Born on the 23rd of April, 1981, Chris Sharma grew up in Santa Cruz, California. His parents, Gita Jahn and Bob, were followers of an Indian Buddhist yogi called Baba Hari Dass. Their devotion led them to take on the surname Sharma when they married. Sharma’s middle name is Omprakash, a name that Baba Hari Dass gave Sharma when he was born. Sharma is no longer a practicing Buddhist but has discussed how profoundly religion has shaped his worldview.
Already a climbing professional in his teens, Sharma struggled with significant injuries between the ages of 16-17 that set his career and trajectory back dramatically. But, pushing one’s limits has always been a strength of Sharma’s. At just 20, Sharma completed the historic first ascent of Biographie, which he then renamed Realization.
Introduction to Climbing
Sharma got his start in climbing at the age of 11 when he first visited his local climbing gym with his mother. Unlike any other sports Sharma had tried as a child, he took to climbing instantly. Despite feeling like a talented athlete, Chris had never found a sport that felt natural to him, like climbing. By the time he was 16, however, Sharma was already climbing at the professional level.
Climbing Style and Specialty
Chris Sharma is notorious for climbing aggressively and with intensity; it’s obvious he doesn’t climb just for fun. Sharma has a passion and grace when climbing, making him a joy to watch for many. Another thing that characterizes his climbing style is his unusually long arm span. Some have speculated that this feature gives Sharma an advantage on routes like La Dura Dura.
Chris Sharma has gained widespread recognition as one of the best athletes that sport climbing has ever produced. In his own words, Sharma specializes in difficult, new routes. In short, redpointing a climb means free climbing it successfully while lead climbing. Generally speaking, climbers who manage to redpoint a route will have practiced it first by top-roping or hang dogging it. Many of Sharma’s most iconic first ascents have been redpoints on walls across Europe and North America.
Deep-water soloing, also known as DWS, is a somewhat niche style of open-air climbing. DWS routes are generally very difficult and technical and are situated above deep water. The water protects the climber from injury if a fall from the route occurs. DWS routes are traditionally over the ocean, but some climbers practice the style over reservoirs or swimming pools. Some of Sharma’s most significant projects have been deep-water solos, including his first ascents of Es Pontas and Alasha in Mallorca.
Bouldering is a climbing style involving shorter, more physically demanding routes that tend to be closer to the ground. When bouldering, climbers do not use supportive equipment like harnesses or ropes. Sharma is perhaps not best known for his successes in the sport of bouldering. However, he has made some fairly significant first ascents of a handful of boulder problems.
One of these is the Mandala in the USA, a V12 route. Since Sharma’s first ascent in 2000, several holds have broken off the problem. This has made the route significantly easier than it would have been when Sharma made his first ascent. Initially, the route may have been as difficult as V14.
Successfully onsighting a route means sending it on the first attempt without prior practice or knowing the beta of that particular route. While Chris Sharma hasn’t exclusively made his name by onsighting, he has onsighted many challenging routes around the world. Some of his most notable onsights include French Gangster in China, Humildes Pa’ Casa in Spain, and T-Rex and Divine Fury, both in the USA.
Notable Climbing Feats
First Ascent of Jumbo Love (5.15b, possibly harder)
Sharma has described his first ascent of Jumbo Love in the Mojave National Preserve as the hardest climb of his career. The route is long at 76 meters, and its difficulty resulted in Sharma opting to skip several clips at a row in segments. As a result of this, Sharma experienced falls of over 20 meters in sections of the climb.
First Repeat of La Dura Dura (5.15c)
One figure who has been a significant part of Sharma’s career is Adam Ondra. A standout prodigy from a young age, Sharma recognized Ondra as one of the greatest talents of the next generation. Sharma mentored Ondra, and the pair teamed up to tackle La Dura Dura; Sharma developed the route in 2009 but didn’t climb it successfully until 2013.
Ondra’s first ascent of La Dura Dura took place in February 2013, and Sharma made a successful first repeat shortly after. La Dura Dura was the first route to obtain a consensus grade of 5.15c, and it has not been repeated since Ondra and Sharma made their successful 2013 ascents. This is a testament to the sheer difficulty of the project, which is one of the most difficult routes in the world.
First Ascent of Biographie/Realization (world’s first 5.15a)
The day Chris Sharma successfully climbed Biographie/Realization in Céüse, France, changed his life and the sport of climbing forever. Jean-Christophe Lafaille started developing the route in 1989, which he named Biographie, but Sharma made the first ascent over a decade later in 2001.
Biographie/Realization was the world’s first consensus 5.15a, which has made the route deeply significant in the history of climbing. However, Sharma’s decision to rename the route Realization did attract some controversy. In France, the first person to bolt the route generally names it. However, the first person to free climb a route typically names it in the USA. Sharma did not realize this then and wished to differentiate the complete route from the first pitch.
First Ascent of Es Pontas (5.15a)
Sharma’s first ascent of Es Pontas saw him climbing ropeless on the route, an arch off the Southern coast of Mallorca. One of the most challenging parts of the route was a 2-meter dyno, which took Sharma more than 50 attempts to nail. Upon Sharma’s first ascent, Es Pontas was, at the time, the hardest deep-water solo route in the world, with a grade of 5.15a.
First Ascent of Alasha (5.15b)
In 2016, Sharma outdid his earlier deep-water solo with his first ascent of Alasha, a route that he graded 5.15b. The Austrian climber Jakob Schubert made the first repeat of the route recently in October 2021 and confirmed the 5.15b grade.
Personal Life and Other Work
While Sharma is famous for his dynamic style and incredible climbing achievements, they don’t tell us much about who the climber is as an individual. He’s more than just an athlete, though; Chris Sharma is also a husband and father. Now based in Barcelona, he’s married to the Venezuelan model Jimena Alarcón, and the couple has a daughter together.
Filmography – King Lines and Stuntwork
In addition to filming a myriad of videos of himself sending various climbs, Chris has also starred and featured in a number of films. Perhaps the most notable is King Lines, a documentary that follows Sharma as he sends some of his most iconic projects, including Es Pontas and Jumbo Love.
He has also worked extensively as a stunt double. The most prominent example of this is likely the 2015 remake of the 1991 crime drama film Point Break.
Climbing Gym Entrepreneur
In addition to his status as one of the best climbers of all time, Sharma has branched out into building his own climbing gyms. He opened his first gym, Sender One Climbing in Santa Ana, California, in 2013. Following a relocation to Spain in 2015, Chris opened another gym, Sharma Climbing BCN, in Barcelona. He has also mentioned plans to open a third climbing gym in Madrid.
Chris Sharma on Meditation
Chris has spoken openly about the meditative quality that he feels climbing has. A former Buddhist, Sharma has now said that he goes climbing rather than sitting down to meditate. He’s said that he finds climbing to be more powerful than traditional meditation as a means of finding inner peace :
‘Climbing is fully engaging… it’s an easy way to access that [meditative] state of mind… easier than sitting down and meditating.’
On Risk Management When Climbing
Climbing is regarded by many as one of the more dangerous sports out there. Chris is well aware of this, and he’s stated that he uses his fear response to gauge climbing routes and lines. In an interview with Wanderlust journal, Sharma said:
‘Fear is a warning signal. I’m always trying to be safe, and really what I do involves a lot of judgment and body position… too much fear is a sign that maybe you’re doing something wrong.’
Aging and Identity as an Elite Athlete
For almost two decades, the climbing world has considered Chris Sharma to be one of its most elite representatives. At the age of 40, though, and while still a leading force in climbing, Sharma acknowledges that his athletic peak is behind him. In an interview with Climbing magazine, he stated that:
‘For the past 20 years, I’ve been told I’m the best climber in the world, and now that’s coming to an end I have to find a new way to define myself.’
Buddhist Upbringing and Philosophy
Chris Sharma is known for his humble, meditative approach to life, which also comes across when he climbs. This is likely due in some part to his lifestyle; Sharma was once a practicing Zen Buddhist. In a 2003 interview, Sharma relayed that, when he isn’t climbing, he made a practice of visiting a local Zen center daily at 5:45 am to meditate.
Sharma’s faith has also led him to travel Asia fairly extensively, where he spent time in Japan and India. Both of these countries are very significant nations within the Buddhist tradition. Sharma has relayed that, between the ages of 17-22, he was battling serious injuries and questioning his choice of climbing as a career. Sharma grew up in a Buddhist household, and would often turn to Buddhist philosophy in times of struggle.
Travels in Asia and the Shikoku Pilgrimage
These challenges influenced him to travel to India and get more in touch with his faith. While traveling in India, Chris met a Japanese man who told him about the Shikoku pilgrimage. The journey involves a trek of over 750 miles and visiting 88 different Buddhist shrines and temples along the way. Sharma has shared that, upon completing Realization, he traveled to Japan to complete the Shikoku.
It took him 6 weeks to finish the trek. He spent the first week learning how to complete the customary rites and rituals that make up a large part of the experience. Then, Sharma took five weeks to walk the 750-mile hike and visit all the temples and shrines along the way. He has since stated that these experiences were deeply transformative and are still a source of strength for him today when tackling adversity.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Chris Sharma still climbs and works with a number of sponsors to produce climbing-related content. He lives in central Barcelona with his wife and daughter.
Born on the 23rd of April, 1981, Chris Sharma is 41 years old.
Chris Sharma is 6 feet tall (183 cm).