Groundbreaking rock climber Chris Sharma goes back to his roots, literally, in his latest project. To raise awareness for the conservancy of the redwoods near his hometown of Santa Cruz, California, Sharma teamed up with local researchers to make an impressive scale up a giant redwood and gather data on how the trees were responding to the drought. He also ended up making an even more impressive discovery about himself.
"I didn't realize how personal this project would be for me until I was there in the trees," Sharma says. "You can travel the world and be the best, but this was about coming full circle and being a kid again and just climbing trees." We spoke with Sharma about the places and climbs in his career that have led him to back to Santa Cruz, his new tree-climbing video, and how it's shaping his perspective on life.
You've said that when you are climbing, it is a very personal, individual experience. What does it mean to you to be able to share the landscapes, experiences, and the athleticism with people?
This is my passion, and it's amazing to be able to share what I do with the world. Just like creating a climbing route is something new for yourself, the artistic process is about creating something new for others. When I see people out and they come up to tell me that they started climbing because of my video, that means the world to me.
How does your redwood climb compare to your rock climbing projects?
It's not a rock, it's a tree, and that changes everything from a climbing perspective. Climbing a giant redwood was a really new experience. It's just like finding those beautiful lines on a rock when you are climbing and looking up and seeing the crown of El Capitan. The climbing footage is also really unique. You can see around all sides and through the canopy of the trees. I also got the chance to gather research data with climbing skills to help scientists study these trees.
How did the redwoods stack up against your other big climbs?
My other climbs took a lot more practice and preparation. This was not about taking performance rock climbing and applying it to trees. On a tree, you have a very direct line. You can only go up, so it was a challenging route. If you turned that tree into stone, it would be a cutting edge climb, upper 5.14 area.
What kind of research data did you gather?
We teamed up with a biologist and a research team because the redwoods are a delicate ecosystem that you can't just go climbing all over. When we were setting up the ropes, we had to shoot an arrow with a nylon line into the upper branches, and we wanted to make sure we were doing everything responsibly.
While I was climbing, we took samples from different heights of the tree to test how much stress the tree is under. The research found that the fog coming off the coast is giving them massive stores of water, despite the draught in California. A big part of this whole experience was taking care of these beautiful things.
Santa Cruz is where it all started for me. I came to Europe, where all the best climbers were, as a teenager, and I've spent the last 20 years climbing the most amazing rocks, but I never appreciated that home has the most amazing trees. Now when I come back I have such a huge appreciation for how spectacular it is.
Do the redwoods and California still feel like home??
Absolutely. My life is so fast-paced these days, just to be in the redwood forest looking at the ocean sets me in a place that makes me feel like a little ant in this massive forest. It removes you from everything else, and it's a sanctuary that I never had before. Now I always go back into the redwoods to reconnect when I'm home.
And how does reconnecting with home form your perspective on your career and the sport?
It reminds me that climbing is much more soulful than any success on the world's hardest routes. I've never released the grades of my routes, because climbing is so much more than a number, or who's the best, or what's the hardest climb.
How has that mindset helped your success?
I just stay true to myself and enjoy the process, because 99.9 percent of the time, pursuing your goals is going to involve failing. That's how I've been able to stay passionate and motivated. It's not about doing something hard, it's about doing something I am passionate about.
What is it about pushing yourself physically that helps you live the life you want?
Whatever it is you do, whether it's running or climbing or going to school or raising a family, you have to have something to put your energy into. Winning is not the most important thing. It's more important to work hard at something. As you push to get better, the little bit you chip away at — that's where the reward is. It's a precious thing to have something to motivate you to get out of bed in morning.