August 22, 2008

elephant journal: The Internal King Line: A Conversation w/ Chris Sharma

I discovered climbing only four years ago, and it’s been the greatest gift to my physical regimen. I climb at the Spot, the world’s biggest bouldering gym (bouldering is climbing without ropes, lower to the ground). Every time I pull on my beaten Sportiva Katana rubber-soled climbing shoes, I see dozens of mas and pas and their little tykes, climbing like monkeys on problems harder than the ones I can do (at 6 foot 3).

There’s something special about climbing. You can be a man or woman, tall or short, old or young—it doesn’t affect your ability to excel. It’s as cerebral as chess and as physically complete as swimming (every inch of your body is worked over equally). And unlike many forms of exercise, it’s fun. It’s also efficient—you can get a good workout in under an hour. And so it’s my ardent wish that children everywhere get the chance I missed: to discover climbing when they’re still little monkeys.

If only we had a brutally good-looking, modest, affable and explosively talented ambassador of climbing to do the job.

Chris Sharma has been a climbing phenomenon since he was a boy. He’s climbed routes thought impossible, again and again (topping the previously untopped 5.15 rating barrier). His latest movie, King Lines, features his ropeless climb of a rock arch, rising 60 feet out of the blue-green Mediterranean (which Sharma fell back into 100+ times before succeeding). He leads children’s climbing camps. He’s all over Outside, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, ESPN’s X-Games and NBC’s Adventure Sports. He’s the Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan of climbing.

He’s also a Buddhist. Kind of. In one climbing movie I saw, Chögyam Trungpa’s Heart of the Buddha sat on a bookshelf just behind him. He’s practiced Zen meditation, and plays the shakuhachi. He credits his ability to climb with an ability to stay present.

And therein lies a lesson for all of us athletes—and regular folks—if you want to accomplish something difficult (like life) it’s a helluva lot easier if you can avoid getting lost in your own head.

I interviewed Chris at the V.I.P. opening of prAna’s eco flagship retail store in downtown Boulder—and again the next night at our weekly talk show, elevision. Those interviews are combined below. We also interviewed climbing star Lynn Hill, the greatest lady ever; David Kennedy, prAna’s brand guru; and Dean Potter and Steph Davis, daredevil climbing stars. For videos of those interviews: elephantjournal.com. May they be of benefit! ~ ed.

ele: This is Waylon Lewis, for elephant journal dot com, and I am here with Chris Sharma. The Michael Jordan of climbing. For all you climbers out there who don’t know basketball, that means he’s a big deal. And we’re here at the opening of prAna’s flagship store in Boulder, Colorado.

So, you’re an amazing climber.

Sharma: [Laughs] I like to go rock climbing. Yeah, it’s pretty fun. You should try it some time.

ele: Yeah, I have. It didn’t take. [Laughter] When you go to the Spot or the Rock Club, or you [climb] outside as many people do—I’m not very good at being outside because I’m scared of dying—there’s an immense amount of amazing climbers here in the Boulder area who are incredibly fit and talented, have been climbing since they were kids. And I know you’ve been climbing since…

Sharma: For the last 15 years. Since I was 12.

ele: Right. Ladies, that puts him at 26. [Laughter] It’s a hard question, I’m sure, for you to answer because you’re a humble guy—somehow—if I were as good as you at anything, I wouldn’t be. I’m not humble now and I have no talents. [Laughter] What makes the difference between a good climb and a great climb, or a good climber and a great climber?

Sharma: It’s not necessarily dependent on how hard you climb. Those who have inspired me have always been people that just really enjoy climbing. That’s the most important thing to grasp, the true essence of [climbing]. To be outside, discovering something new and having a good time with your friends—those are the things that make a great climber. So I just try to do that: go outside, be in beautiful places, follow my heart and find beautiful climbs. They happen to be pretty hard, but that’s not necessarily the point. It’s to find these beautiful things in nature and experience them.

ele: I was reading a journal you’d written for Climbing Magazine. You were having a hard time with a climbing problem in France. You said, “The rock still has something to teach me.”

Sharma: It’s a process. We’re constantly looking for climbs that push us. That’s the essence of climbing: looking for something just out of reach and struggling to make it happen. When it finally happens, you don’t know what to do with yourself.

It’s a never-ending process: find something, push yourself and struggle to do it, make it happen and then look for the next thing. And the real life, the experience of climbing is in the process, the struggle. What we really enjoy is the fight. You think it’s to get to the top of something—but once you do get to the top you’re like, “Well, now what do I do?”

ele: You jump off in a little squirrel outfit. [Laughter] [Dean Potter, the previous interviewee, has been known to jump off 300 foot cliffs with webbed arms and legs].

Sharma: I don’t. [Laughs] I have a lot of respect for what [Dean and Steph] do. It’s pretty ultimate. Intense.

ele: I couldn’t do the up or the down part. Like you said, climbing is typically about getting to the top. It’s goal-oriented: conquer the mountain. When I’ve seen you on YouTube and in King Lines, your recent movie, which I loved…there’s this amazing problem that you’re trying again and again over these beautiful crashing waves, how far below?

Sharma: Forty to sixty feet at the route’s hard section.

ele: So it doesn’t really hurt when you hit that, hard. [Laughter] When I was 19 I jumped off a 50-foot cliff into a river…the most painful moment of my entire life. That’s when I decided to become a monk—I had no other option.

Sharma: You gotta keep your legs together. [Laughter]

ele: I don’t think I’m going to be that high again. Speaking of…that’s an in-joke for you climbers out there. So, you did this amazing feat: you’re down here, you jump and then…well, can you describe what you do?

Sharma: [Laughs] It’s a move called a “dyno,” where we jump through the air because the next hold is so far away—

ele: There’s nothing to grab [within reach].

Sharma: —so you just have to jump from where you’re holding on to, to the next—

ele: And you’re at an angle like…[leans back]

Sharma: Yeah, about 45 degrees overhanging. It’s intense: you’re climbing over the water, the waves are crashing—

ele: …the camera crew. [Laughter] You’re good friends with Nick Rosen and Peter Mortimer [with Josh Lowell, have worked with Chris on many of his films].

Sharma: Yeah, they are good guys. My friends’ve been filming movies for the last 10 years—it’s our excuse to travel all around the world, having fun. It’s a cool mission.

ele: Right: for those of you who idolize this guy, Chris and the other climbers who have been on tonight are young, beautiful people who paid to travel the world non-stop. So why do we like you so much? [Laughter] It makes me mad! But to touch on that lifestyle, you’re one of few full-time climbers…a professional dirtbag-climber. Is that [the term]?

Sharma: [Laughs] Yeah. I’m fortunate to be able to follow my dreams, pursue these climbs and help inspire people to do the same thing. It’s cool to be able to bring these images to people [back] home who have 9-to-5 jobs. Give them a taste of what we’re doing out there and inspire them to find their own version of that, wherever they are.

The film was called “King Lines.” A king line is [a climb that’s] not only difficult but spectacular—in a beautiful place. It sums up the ultimate ideal of a perfect climb. I had this opportunity to go around the world looking for these amazing climbs. But someone else who is living in one place has to look for that wherever they are.

Some of the best climbing sessions I’ve ever had have taken place in Santa Cruz, [near] my house. There’s a little bouldering cave on the beach. Passing time with my friends, climbing barefoot. It’s important to remember that it’s not the external king line. It’s about finding that internal space when you’re focused, at one with yourself, your surroundings and with your friends. The term “king lines” is about finding something that motivates, that inspires you to improve and take your limits to the next level.

So in climbing and life, that’s what we’re constantly trying to do—to evolve and use what we’ve learned from past experiences to keep finding new, cool, crazy things to do. It’s fun. For me it’s rock climbing—other people it’s through music, art or through whatever…

ele: …selling advertising. [Laughter]

Sharma: Put everything you are—put 100 percent of your awareness into it.

ele: The role of ego and fame and pressure: I just watched a YouTube video of [Sharma at a climbing gym contest]. Every single little move you made, people were shouting.

The pressure and the adulation…it just seemed really intimidating. Like if I were climbing and everyone was shouting like that—which wouldn’t happen [Laughter]—how do you deal with that? I know you have a spiritual background. What is that is for you, and does it help your climbing?

Sharma: I spent several years studying Zen Buddhism. Since I’ve become re-motivated with climbing, I’ve found that climbing is the easiest way I can get myself into that state of mind of just being totally present. Competitions are not really my thing…I go to comps to spread the love, to share climbing with other people. It’s fun. What I specialize in is going to remote places.

ele: In your journal with Climbing, the way you talked about climbing outdoors seemed almost like a meditation—to get away from the fame and chaos, and just go climb. Is climbing a meditation practice—a way for you to be more self-aware?

Sharma: For me, it is. I spent time meditating in a formal atmosphere in the Zen centers. Climbing is a way I don’t have to try so hard—I just go out and climb, and it puts me into that state of mind where I’m not thinking about anything else. Just present.

ele: Right, and [being present] helps your climbing?

Sharma: It helps everything. Climbing’s a sport, but it’s also a lifestyle, a way of interacting with nature and people.

ele: In Boulder, Colorado, there’s a Sensei—he’s almost 90 years old—a Japanese teacher of [kyudo, or] Zen archery. And he always gets angry when students call it a sport and he says, “It may look like a sport, but it’s a meditation-in-action.” Climbing, it’s a practice: the more present you are, the more you’ll hit the target.

Sharma: I agree. Sports are where there are two opposing teams fighting, competing. In climbing…

ele: …you’re not trying to win.

Sharma: You’re competing against yourself, maybe, but really you’re just trying to interact with the rock, have a [conversation] between you and the rock. So it’s not so much a sport, it’s more of an activity—[or] a practice, as you say. It’s a lifestyle—something you can continually improve and take to deeper and deeper levels—it’s never-ending and it’s definitely athletic, but not so much a sport.

ele: Do you find that you’re a better climber, not trying to conquer the mountain or the rock? Like in your journal in Climbing, you said, “I guess the rock still has something to teach me.” That was a surprising way to put it. Do you find that it’s more like working together with the rock?

Sharma: We have these ambitions and motivations—maybe they’re somewhat egotistical—to try to achieve. Oftentimes that ego gets in the way of actually just being totally present in the moment. Working on a hard rock climb, if I have this idea, I want to get to the top, then I’m thinking more about the top than just the present, just climbing. The times I’ve been most successful have been when I’ve just been climbing—not thinking about anything. So I try to have an open mind, not have any expectations, just go to have fun and not force anything, not be too attached to getting to the top. And that always seems to bring about the highest performance.

ele: At the same time there’s a real motivation and a burning—not an anger, but a passion?

Sharma: Yeah, I guess there’s two sides to it.

ele: I saw that one when you jumped, in King Lines, you jumped, you had to jump across— [Wildly gestures] You were shouting: “Arrrgh!”

Sharma: There’s that motivation! You gotta tap into that animalistic instinct. We live in a society where we have everything brought to us on a plate. We don’t have to go hunting to feed ourselves. So we have to invent challenges to make ourselves feel satisfied. Climbing a cliff gives you that challenge. The struggle is where the life is. And climbing’s never-ending: once you get to the top, that satisfaction lasts for a little bit, but you have to look for the next thing. You want something pushing you, driving you to improve and get to the next level.

ele: I’ve seen that [in King Lines], where you are over the [Mediterranean]…you had such a relationship, trying for so long, and when you completed it…

Sharma: Yeah: “What next? What do I do with myself?”

ele: I just discovered climbing three years ago, at the age of 30-, well over what you are now. How are you, as a high-profile climber, trying to get the word about climbing out to children? It’s healthy, a great activity.

Sharma: Well, through videos and interviews. And we take kids climbing in Yo! Basecamp, a summer camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Climbing outside in nature: that’s what it’s all about. Many kids who grow up in the city don’t have that connection with nature. Climbing provides that connection. It opens up their world.

ele: For many of us, the environment is a conceptual, ideological or political issue. For you and Dean [Potter] and other climbers out there, it’s more a relationship. Dean said: “When I climb, the rock is like my flesh. I care about the rock like I do myself.” What’s your relationship with environmentalism? Do you try and minimize your own environmental impact?

Sharma: Well, I think what Dean was saying—the rock is your flesh—nature is something that you love so much. Climbers are some of the best custodians of the land. We want to preserve these places that we’re in because they are so special. It’s a natural relationship: you take care of these environments because they take care of us. Spending time in nature naturally gives you environmental awareness—and self-awareness.

ele: In the last few years there’s been a shift among Big Business trying to go green, talking about being environmentally responsible. Do you find that that’s taken hold in the climbing community, as with Access Fund and Leave No Trace?

Sharma: Climbers are particularly in touch with the environment—so for a company to be successful [with that demographic] they need to be [environmentally] conscious. It’s great that prAna is doing organic cotton and supporting groups like the Access Fund and Conservation Alliance to keep climbing areas open and to educate people to respect the environment. It’s our resource and we have to take care of it. And climbers are more aware of that than anybody else, because we spend all of our time in these beautiful places. We have to take care of it.

ele: So I was asking [elephant & climber] Abbey [Smith] before doing this what I should ask you. She said she thinks about as a climber and someone trying to be environmentally responsible is that she flies, say 20,000 miles or more a year. A huge carbon footprint. Do you ever think about forming an association with climbers to offset that?

Sharma: That’s a good idea. Flying around the world, that’s something that I can’t get away from, these days.

ele: But if you could offset the environmental cost of flying by planting trees, or something—

Sharma: Like what prAna’s doing: powering all their stores and factories with wind energy. Still, using carbon to fly around the world for a good purpose is its own offset, in a way.

ele: You’re 26. You are one of the few [climbers] good enough that climbing is a career for you. Do you ever think about what’s next? A lot of climbers are 50 or 60, and they are still in great shape, climbing great.

Sharma: For 12 years I’ve taken one step at a time. I’ve been fortunate that [climbing] continued to be a career as well as a passion. Maybe someday I won’t want to go climbing, but up to now the motivation has gotten stronger. When the time comes that I won’t be able to make a living being the best climber around, it’ll evolve into something else.

Right now I’m doing a climbing shoe design—

ele: Michael Jordan did that too, in basketball.

Sharma: [Laughs] I’ll look for the natural evolution. It’s not always about climbing for myself, but finding ways that I can help out, like taking kids climbing.

ele: Speaking of climbing as a career: is that a prAna shirt?

Sharma: It is.

ele: Niiice. Why did you choose to work with prAna?

Sharma: I’ve worked with prAna since I was 14 years old—when we were both just starting out. It’s a natural fit. The founder of prAna, Beaver Theodosakis, loves to go climbing and do yoga—and he directs his company through those passions. Dave Kennedy [prAna’s brand guru, also interviewed that night on elevision] was just saying how [prAna’s sustainability initiatives have to be] a natural expression—that we want to take care of the environment by following those passions.

ele: And that’s their slogan: Born from the experience.

Sharma: We were all just [climbing Flagstaff mountain] today. It’s pretty fun to go climbing. And you feel good when you do yoga, so it’s a great thing to spread to people.

ele: elephant’s mission is to get the word out on people whose mission is to try and be of benefit. In preparing for these climbing interviews, starting with the amazing Lynn Hill last week, I was intimidated by the interviews because, [while] climbing is obviously healthy, how is it really of benefit to the world? Someone I was talking with said, “Lighten up. It’s fun, and that’s great.” It has a positive message, it puts you more in tune with yourself and with the environment.

Sharma: It puts you in a good place, it puts you in touch with the environment. It puts you in touch with yourself, and where you are. The times that I’ve been climbing, I feel good. I think that’s a great thing, that can help a lot of people.

ele: Well, thank you so much. It’s an honor. We hope to have you back and um, for more info—is there some web site we should…?

Sharma: Prana.com [laughs]

ele: Yeah, earn your paycheck.

Sharma: [Laughs]

ele: Thank you so much: Chris Sharma!


Check out King Lines or take a lesson at your local climbing gym.
Video: elephantjournal.com


“The rock still has something to teach me.”

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