Rock Climber Chris Sharma Chases Next 'King Line'

— Video by John W. Poole, NPR

In this video, Chris Sharma tackles a climb rated 5.12d — an advanced route for highly experienced climbers. Climbs rated any higher (5.13 to 5.15, a-d) are the sport's most difficult and are suitable for only a small number of highly skilled and experienced climbers.

Chris Sharma dangles from a rock face in Carderock. i i

Sharma, 26, has been climbing professionally for a decade. He is considered the world's best rock climber. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Chris Sharma dangles from a rock face in Carderock.

Sharma, 26, has been climbing professionally for a decade. He is considered the world's best rock climber.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

Chris Sharma Climbs

From the movie King Lines (requires RealPlayer):

Chris Sharma, seated at Carderock i i

"To be able to have a really intimate relationship with the rock is something really special, I think. That's the heart of climbing," Sharma says. Coburn Dukehart, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Coburn Dukehart, NPR
Chris Sharma, seated at Carderock

"To be able to have a really intimate relationship with the rock is something really special, I think. That's the heart of climbing," Sharma says.

Coburn Dukehart, NPR

Chris Sharma is hailed as the world's best rock climber, a pioneer who has mastered some of the most spectacular and difficult routes in the history of the sport.

"That's my passion. That's my job. That's my life," Sharma, 26, says during an interview at the Carderock Recreation Area in Maryland, just outside Washington.

On a recent morning, Sharma tackles Herbie's Horror, a 25-foot rock wall of gray schist in Carderock. It's named for Herb Conn, who first climbed it in 1942. At the time, it required some of the trickiest climbing moves in the United States.

Moving with agility and grace, Sharma looks like a ballet dancer as his wiry 6-foot, 165-pound body makes its way across the rock.

His toes press hard into the rock; his fingertips search out tiny crevices and nooks.

Sharma is finding his line — or route — up the rock. He makes quick work of Herbie's Horror and doesn't fall once.

Pushing the Limits

But in the new movie about him, King Lines, Sharma falls over and over, as he tries outrageously difficult climbs in spectacular places.

In one scene, Sharma does a solo climb without ropes up the inside of a rock arch over the Mediterranean — falling up to 40 feet into the sea when he misses. In another, he launches himself up an overhanging monster rock face in Ceuse, France.

These are some of the hardest routes anyone has ever climbed.

For Sharma, one of the fascinating parts of climbing is the process.

"When you first try [the climb], you can't do all the movements, but then you start piecing it together and figuring it out," Sharma says.

"When you actually do it, at the end, maybe it even feels easy, because you have it so wired, you're not even really thinking. You're just relying on the muscle memory, because you know it so well by that point."

Climbing: 'Aesthetic, Athletic and Fun'

Sharma's knuckles are huge knobs; his hands are solid and leathery, the result of 14 years spent hanging off rock. The native of Santa Cruz, Calif., began climbing when he was 12 and left school at 16 to climb fulltime as a professional.

"To be able to have a really intimate relationship with the rock is something really special, I think. That's the heart of climbing," Sharma says.

"Climbing is very, very aesthetic. Because of that, it's kind of athletic, artistic, kind of like dance. And, it's really fun."

And sometimes, it hurts — the rock "bites back," Sharma says, and he just has to bear down and scream.

"It's not really something that everybody does," he admits. "You have to be a little 'aggro' sometimes, and I find it useful to yell."

'Standing on Each Others' Shoulders'

Sharma doesn't have a real home. He travels around the world looking for the next "king line," as he calls it: a climb that is at his limit — inspiring and spectacular, in a beautiful place.

He has a half-dozen sponsors — clothing and climbing-gear companies.

And then there's that reputation as the world's best climber.

Sharma says that the passage of time — and how life is different for him now at age 26 than it was at 16 — has made him more motivated than ever.

"Climbing is [an] evolution. Where the standards today are the combination of the efforts of all of us who are climbing right now and all the people before us ... standing on each others' shoulders," Sharma says.

"The hardest thing is to do something the first time. Someone has to have that vision, [to say] 'Oh, that's possible.' And once it's done, then other people can see, 'Oh yeah, it is possible.' And it becomes way easier for other people to do it, too."

Celebrating the Process

Sharma's latest project is high up in the Mojave Desert: a route out of a massive limestone cave at the top of Clark Mountain.

He says it's the hardest thing he has ever tried.

"There [are] a lot of people that maybe focus too much on getting to the top. They just want to get to the top and have that success, which is too bad, because so much of it takes place in the process of working on it. That's the whole life of it," Sharma says.

"But at the same time, it's important to get to the top once in a while, you know? If you never get to the top, then it's kind of sad, too."

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