Nirvana, according to Buddhists, is a place or state characterized by freedom from the pain, worry and tribulations of the external world. Chris Sharma, the world's best rock climber, may have found that place, but getting there requires a journey, as any Buddhist will tell you. The trip twists up a mountain road outside Santa Cruz, trickles down a wooded slope, trundles along a forgotten logging trail and slips into a lightless tunnel.
"Trust yourself," Sharma whispers.
"But I can't see anything," pleads his companion.
"It's okay," Sharma reassures. "Neither can I."
As they emerge from the darkness, a pristine treasure is revealed -- a hidden lagoon. To the left is a 50-foot-high cliff; to the right, a cave, leafy fingers of ferns adorning the roof, its undersides pocked by water and time. A waterfall separates the two. Sharma smiles.
He removes his clothes, tosses them into his pack and wades through the chilly water. Ashore across the lagoon, dressed again in shorts and climbing shoes, he produces a clear plastic bag, inserts his hands and covers them in white chalk. He examines the cave, grabbing here, pinching there. Suddenly he is up, horizontal on the roof of the cave, scaling with a sustained slow rhythm. He effortlessly traverses the damp rock behind the waterfall, then slips out of the cave and onto the sheer towering wall. At six feet and a rangy 165 pounds, he's all looking and moving and holding and twisting and testing and pulling and moving again. He attaches to the rock with a grace as though his body and the hard surface were forming a bond out of mutual respect. There are no ledges or steps, but even when the sandstone arches over the water, Sharma remains on the rock -- impossibly so. Following months of travel tackling the world's most harrowing climbing routes, the 21-year-old Sharma has returned home in late summer to Santa Cruz, allegedly to recharge. Yet here he is, climbing. It is not dangerous terrain, no X Games or Gorge Games or any other event at stake. There's only the beauty of the place and new handholds to find. Minutes later, Sharma freezes. He cranes his neck, but there is no other hold in sight. His feet slip off the wall. Then a hand. Dangling by two fingers, he smiles and plunges into the water. In his world, he hasn't failed, he's discovered something new.
Babaji Hari Dass stared down at the infant Chris Sharma. Omprakash. The bearded Yogi, silent for nearly three decades, wrote the word on his tiny chalkboard. It was 1981, and Gita Jahn and Bob Sharma gazed at their only child, newly adorned with a middle name meaning "sacred light." Gifts abounded. Tools of the body were inherited from Gita, a massage therapist. Bob, a maintenance supervisor at UC Santa Cruz, bestowed a love of the outdoors. Both parents, having been named Sharma by the Yogi when he married them at the Mount Madonna Center in the mountains south of Santa Cruz, provided the seed of spirituality.
It was at the Center, first as a tot and later as a Mount Madonna School student, that Chris first tumbled down the hills, dived into the swimming hole and climbed everything -- trees, houses, rocks and beams. They could hardly get him down for class. Yet when he came down, Sharma was as eager to learn as to clamber skyward -- he earned his high school diploma at 15.
Even today, Sharma, a Buddhist like his parents, demonstrates a balance of mind and body. Take his hands, for example. Kneeling on a white shag rug in the living room of the two-bedroom, downtown Santa Cruz apartment he shares with his father (his parents are separated), he practices the Shakuhachi, a wooden flute played for centuries by monks in the Far East. As he reads Japanese sheet music, his fingers flit across the instrument, delicate movements that generate the most serene sounds.
But look closely. His knuckles are fierce, bulbous, litchi nut-size knobs that allow him to dangle two stories in the air from a hold the size of a chickpea. The knuckles were forged by time, beginning the day Sharma, then a skinny 12-year-old, stepped into the local Pacific Edge climbing gym, turned over his paper route earnings and let the equation of force versus gravity turn his forearms into bowling pins and his back into a topographical jigsaw puzzle. "We knew quickly something was up with Chris," says Tom Davis, who converted an abandoned cannery into Pacific Edge 10 years ago. "At 13, he lifted himself up by a finger."
There's a sportwide belief that Sharma might be the best ever. It's a brash proclamation, too subjective to prove, but there is validation -- lots of it. He has won all the major comps, including the Junior Worlds at 14, a World Cup event at 16 (the first U.S. male climber to win a Cup event), X Games in 1999, Gorge Games in 2002. "I love contests," he says. "They're spontaneous. You must be present at that moment. That sort of pressure is great." He has also freeclimbed the world's most demanding routes -- he was only 15 when he completed a route called Necessary Evil at the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. The route was rated 5.14c, which, until 1999, was the most difficult U.S. route on the Yosemite Decimal System. Routes are rated from 5.0 (a wall with prominent handholds and footholds) to 5.15a (sheer and virtually impossible, a level only Sharma has attained). The first climber up a route rates it. The ratings of those who follow form a consensus. Imperfect, yes, but surprisingly reliable.
Ah, but don't ask Sharma about ratings. The master of difficulty cherishes the sport's purity and feels that numerology taints it. Proof of this is his devotion to bouldering -- climbing house- size rocks without aid or equipment. These climbs are puzzles, or problems, short routes of exceptional difficulty. For decades, bouldering had been considered training for long climbs, but the emergence of phenoms like Sharma, along with bouldering's simplicity (it requires only shoes) and intensity, have created a surge in its popularity.
"Bouldering is about dealing with the rock on an intimate level, examining every crystal of it," says Sharma. "All the energy to climb 3,000 feet you put into 10 feet."
Sometimes climbing requires more than strength. A basic Zen Buddhist precept states that "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." A big part of Sharma's climbing prowess is his ability to shave away possibilities and find the solution. "There's no fixed way to see things," he says. "Once I think I've figured it out, it changes again. I have to be able to adapt to find a path." In February 2000, Sharma returned to a boulder in the Buttermilks, a rugged expanse in the eastern Sierras. The rock's sheer underbelly and slippery overhang had stymied climbers for 20 years. Sharma knew the answer was there, but it put his "beginner's mind" to the test. When he found the solution, he named the route Mandala. "A mandala," he says, "is an object which explains through its repetitive pattern the universe's infinite nature."
Kneel with Sharma in his apartment, and his conversation is sprinkled with Buddhist buzzwords like shoshin, zazen and koans. His voice is smooth and soothing, like the sound of water running in a shallow creek. "Climbing's always come very easy for me," he says. "Natural, fun. Then I got to this place where I needed to learn about myself. I wanted to develop myself in ways other than climbing."
Sharma has made the world his textbook, immersing himself in lessons of life and culture. "Eight months in France, New Zealand, a lot of time in Asia," he says. He met his girlfriend, Jane Numchen, while climbing in her country, Thailand, and he's learning to speak her language. His travels have included a three-month, 1,000-mile Buddhist pilgrimage in 2001, walking from temple to temple through the Japanese island of Shikoku. "I'll climb intensely for three months, then take three months off," he says. He'll spend January in Hampi, India, shooting his fourth climbing video. A lineup of climbing-related sponsors, led by Prana and Five.Ten, pays for his freedom to travel and climb -- and to retreat. Remember, a Buddhist must stay balanced.
July 18, 2001. It rained in the morning at the Ceuse cliffs in the foothills of the Alps in Southern France. But the rain has stopped by midday and a light breeze has dried the rock called Biographie Extension, 130 feet -- 70 moves -- of stunning overhanging limestone, rich blue and mottled beige vertical swaths, flat as still water and smooth as a bowling lane. The climb is broken into two harrowing routes: Biographie, the first, a 75-foot section, and the even more forbidding Extension, whose 55-foot face is secured by a daunting five-move section known as the crux. Over the years, the route has drawn nearly two dozen of the sport's best. Several have completed the first part, but none has crossed the crux to complete both sections of the climb. "I'd love to do it," says Tommy Caldwell, one of the planet's most skilled climbers. "But it's beyond me."
Sharma starts climbing in the afternoon. A toe in a nickel-size crack. Lean left. Focus. Balance. Extend your arm, anchor two fingers in an Altoid-size pockmark. Pull. Ignore the lactic acid searing your arms. Another excruciating hold. Pull again. Repeat. Repeat again. Rest? There is none. Twelve minutes later and 75 feet above the ground, Sharma reaches the top of Biographie. That's the easy part. Next up: the crux, which had knocked him off 26 times during three frustrating trips two years earlier. "I knew I had to be strong, but not overconfident," he now says. "I had to enjoy the climb and be perfect."
The difficulty of this climb was measured only by speculation: 5.15a, some guessed, as the route was more difficult than any yet climbed. Dressed in a red T-shirt and olive pants, Sharma hits the crux. One of the five moves demands an awkward body contortion, with Sharma swinging through the air from one hold to the next. Each of the five requires the precision of a microsurgeon—one millimeter askew with a hand or foot and he's off the rock. But this day, somehow, he nails the crux, then cruises the last 20 feet of Extension. At the top, he quietly beams, then drops his head into his hands. Later in the day, according to tradition as first ascender, Sharma names the route. He calls it Realization.
"I think I had the physical strength all along," he says. "But the mental limitations were holding me back. That's why I called it Realization. I broke through that block." No one has climbed it since.
Climbing is certainly physical, yet Sharma's Realization conquest required freedom from constraints of fear and ego and convention, which, as well as any other concept, explains Sharma's ability. "There are limits to what your body can do," he says. The key to climbing, therefore, is not merely understanding the rock but understanding yourself. His powerful connection to climbing sounds abstract, but it is actually simple. Look not to the top, but find rewards in the process. There is joy at the finish, but it is fleeting.
"Getting to the top," Sharma admits, "is always sort of a letdown."
Back at the grotto, Sharma continues his exploration. The streaming sunlight illuminates the brown and white rock and sandy bottom of the lagoon. To many climbers, this is far from an ideal endeavor. The holds are dirty and there are no routes or ratings. Yet he is suspended on the ceiling with only the symphony of the waterfall in his ears and the thought of an undiscovered move on his mind. Sharma smiles.
This article appears in the January 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...