The need for multiple chalk bags is obvious; after every "splashdown" the wet chalk turns to white paste. Extra dry shoes help too. Otherwise, when we meet up at Majorca's airport, in the city of Palma, our duffels carry just camping gear and a few T-shirts. Sharma is traveling with his frequent climbing pal, Nate Gold, a dreadlocked 22-year-old of lumberjack proportions, and photographer Michael Clark.
Loading our bags into a rental car outside the airport, I see that Sharma's backpack is pocked with holes and held together with string and crudely sewn repairs.
"You'd think a guy with as many sponsors as you would have a decent backpack, Chris," I comment.
"This backpack is a metaphor for my life," he replies.
Indeed, Chris Sharma flits around the world like a vagabond, toting his threadbare backpack from cliff to cliff. I first met him in 1997, when he was 16, at a French cliff called Ceuse. He'd just taken fourth place in the elite Rock Master's sport climbing competition in Arco, Italy; two months later, he won the even tougher World Cup competition in Kranj, Slovenia. Sharma was already known as a prodigy by then, and his meteoric rise as a cutting-edge climber – which started at age 14 – dominated the pages of climbing magazines. At Ceuse, he was trying to be the first to complete a 140-foot-long bolt-protected climb that stood at the threshold of impossibility. He failed, but the climb launched him on a career as the best, most heavily sponsored professional rock climber in the world. (Four years later, he returned to conquer the climb and dubbed it Realization – the world's first 5.15-rated route.)
As we drive out of Palma, heading east toward Porto Cristo, Sharma and Gold talk of their exotic climbing travels, from the monkey-covered boulders of Hampi, India, to a recent DWS sojourn by yacht along the Croatian coast. We pass estancias with dilapidated, Quixote-esque windmills that in centuries past drew water from underground aquifers. An hour down the highway, Sharma tells me to turn right onto an obscure lane lined by crumbling stone walls. Passing olive trees and massive hogs, we park at a dead end, squeeze through a padlocked steel gate, and enter a forest. Ten minutes later we stand before the lapis-blue sea, on a white sandy beach flanked by cliffs the color of blue velvet.
We walk over to a campsite of German and Spanish DWS addicts – friends of Sharma's who are expecting us – and shake hands and trade names. Among the Germans is Toni Lamprecht, a 31-year-old powerhouse who has done some of Germany's most difficult sport climbs. Schoolteacher by day, lead "screamer" in the Munich punk band Anal Steel by night, his six-foot, 180-pound frame makes him someone to avoid in the mosh pit. The sole Spaniard in the crew is a wiry DWS pioneer named Miguel Riera. When I ask what he does for work he tells me he writes a "sex column for climbers" in Spain's biggest rock magazine, 'Desnivel.'
Sharma's arrival has infected the group with an enthusiasm to get on the rock. Everyone grabs towels and gear, and we head to the cliffs. And thus I enter the cult of deepwater soloing.