We checked in with the indefatigable Chris Sharma, known for rock climbing the hardest routes on Earth. Once a world-wandering rock hound, Sharma has now put roots down in Catalonia, Spain, the limestone epicenter for sport climbing. Far from resting on his laurels, the 30-year-old is quietly training for the world's hardest rock climbing route—a 5.15c—and marveling at the golden age of rock climbing that is upon us. —Mary Anne Potts
Adventure: Are you still deepwater soloing these days?
Chris Sharma: I am here in Mallorca [Spain] doing some deepwater soloing right now. I haven't been here for a while. I've really gotten into sport climbing over the last few years. I actually have some good friends from Santa Cruz, California, who are visiting. I've been giving them a tour. And we've been doing some deepwater soloing. It's really cool for me to come back to Mallorca.
What does Spain have to offer a rock hound like you?
CS: I live in Catalonia, the province of Lleida, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It's a really special place right now. In the 1990s southern France was the epicenter of sport climbing. Everyone around the world would go to the south of France. That was where the best competitions were. That's were the standards were being set.
And now that has moved to Catalonia. That has to do with me living there, establishing a lot of the hard routes. But then, just in general, it's really an international epicenter. Everyone goes there. It's where all the hardest climbs are right now. The grade 5.15, which is pretty much the highest level out there, there are a handful of these routes around the world. But 90 percent of these routes are in Catalonia in Spain.
Why is that?
CS: There's just so much rock in Catalonia. There's so much potential. In the U.S., we are more used to climbing on sandstone and granite, which is an amazing type of rock for trad climbing. But when you want to climb these big overhanging features, you need to find handles. The limestone in Spain and southern France is an amazing medium to be able to do that. Two hundred-foot walls that are super overhanging are also climbable. There's so much rock out there. We can pretty much climb ten months of the year. We are also very centrally located because we are in northeastern Spain. We are an hour-and-a-half drive from France. And in the same amount of time it would take to drive to the south of Spain we could be in Switzerland. There are a lot of things that have come together.
The process of developing new climbs takes a lot of time. Settling down has been a way for me to take my climbing to the next level.
One town that you are in?
CS: We travel around a lot. There are different places to climb all over, within an hour and a half's drive from our house. There's literally 70 different places to climb. Or you can go find your own new place to climb. There's unlimited amount of rock. We're just going into the season right now, so we are excited to get back on the rock and start climbing hard again.
What are you working on now?
CS: I am working on a new route—I always am. It's a long process. I am always trying to push my limits on new climbs. But I am also looking for something aesthetically special. I am always looking for beautiful climbs. Every time I push it a step further, it's that much more work. But I have been working on some new climbs that could be a 15c, which would be a step beyond anything that has been done before. It is a slow process—the dirty work of going to the crag everyday and working on new routes and building your strength and your belief in what's possible. Everyone is reaching for the next grade, but in a practical way, it's something that takes a long time to happen, you know?
I did the world's first 5.15 and it literally took me seven years to push my limits to become a good enough climber to do that 15b. It's an exponential difference. Working on a climb that would be 15c is something that has never been done. And you just have to work really hard toward it. Living in Spain is my laboratory. I have all these different projects near my house. I have an unlimited amount of time to work on them.
I wanted to settle down. I got to this point where I wanted to create a home base. And it made a lot of sense to do it here.
A laboratory with pretty good food and wine, right?
CS: Yes, the food and the wine are super good, super good. You gotta love jamón serrano. Those little pimiento de padrónes. Lots of good stuff.
For me, I've been traveling for most of my life. I've been a lot of beautiful places. But when it has come to the place that I want to call home, it is not so easy. I am used to going to all these different places when it's the best time of year to visit those places. When it comes down to it, every place has its pros and cons. In the end, Spain has been a place where I have felt really comfortable. I've been able to learn the language. I've made a lot of close friends. I feel really comfortable with the people.
We've been following your climbing for so long, how have you seen your climbing mature over the years? It sounds like you are at the pinnacle of your ability now?
CS: I am 30, but I've had a lot of experience. I feel like there's definitely room for improvement. And beyond purely difficult climbs, there's also climbs that I am excited to explore. Taking what I have done deepwater soloing and sport climbing and applying it to bigger projects in the mountains. Or doing multi-pitch climbs. For me I see that as the next step. Everything I have done is a work in progress. It's taking what you have learned and applying it to the next to create something new. For me, whether it's been bouldering, sport climbing, or deepwater soloing, it's always taking everything I've learned and mixing it up to find a new way to apply that to climbing.
When do you think you'll try to complete the 15c climb you are working on?
CS: That's something I am really focused on for this winter. It's right near my house. It should be really cool.
Which younger kids are pretty good?
CS: Daniel Woods is superbly talented. He's super cool and has a good head on his should and is doing amazing stuff. There's this nine-year-old girl, Ashima Shiraishi, she is from New York and she's doing really amazing stuff.
It's great to see the sport evolving and growing. I would have never realized that climbing would be where it is now, and it's great to be a part of that—and to see it evolve as more people get into it. It's a special moment in climbing. It's almost like it has reached a critical mass. It's finally becoming more understood on a mainstream level. And that's good in so many ways, for the professional athletes in the sport. But then it's also great for the people who are experiencing it for the first time. Climbing is such an amazing activity that can change your life in such a profound way, like it has for myself. And people I know. To be in nature and do something that's super active and physical but also just fun, so it's a great thing. The more people who do it, the better.