ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Out in the woods on a crisp fall day, these sounds snap through the rush of the wind through the trees.
Velcro tightened on soft climbing shoes, and the distinctive clank of gear as climbers harness up. Because if you were offered the chance to watch the world's best rock climber do his thing, wouldn't you take him up on it.
Mr. CHRIS SHARMA (Rock Climber): Johnny, you got me on the way?
Unidentified Man: Yes. You're unbelievable.
Mr. SHARMA: The anchor's good up there?
BLOCK: He is Chris Sharma, 26 years old, originally from Santa Cruz, California. He's been climbing since he was 12, left school at 16 to climb fulltime as a professional.
Mr. SHARMA: That's my passion. It's my job, my life.
BLOCK: We've brought Chris Sharma to the Carderock Recreation Area in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C. He's eyeing a rock wall of gray schist about 25 feet high. It's called Herbie's Horror, named of Herb Conn, who first climbed it in 1942.
Back then, it required some of the trickiest climbing moves in the U.S.
Mr. SHARMA: Hey it's cool, a chunk of history.
BLOCK: Hey, well, off you go.
Mr. SHARMA: See how it goes.
BLOCK: Chris Sharma chalks up his hands from a bag at his waist and begins his climb. The ropes are just for safety, in case he falls. He climbs using only his body strength and agility. He's a wiry 6 feet tall, 165 pounds. His toes pressed hard into the rock, his fingertips search out tiny crevices and nooks.
Chris Sharma looks like a ballet dancer as he moves across the rock, and he's relaxed enough to talk to me as he's climbing.
Mr. SHARMA: Yeah, so these holes are pretty - a little bit polished. I guess, people have been climbing it I think 1942. There's been a lot of traffic. It's a nice rock, though.
BLOCK: Sharma is finding his line, his route up the rock, and he makes quick work of Herbie's Horror. He doesn't fall once.
Mr. SHARMA: Nice fun.
BLOCK: But watch the new movie about him called "King Lines" and you'll see Sharma fall over and over as he tries outrageously difficult climbs in spectacular places.
You'll see him do a solo climb without ropes of the inside of a rock arch over the Mediterranean, falling 30, 40 feet into the sea when he misses. Then, watch as he launches himself up at overhanging monster rock face in Ceuse, France. These are some of the hardest routes anyone has ever climbed.
At Carderock, as Chris Sharma is lowered to the ground, I noticed he's already checking out a diagonal rock face to his right, looking for a tougher challenge.
Mr. SHARMA: Just kind of thinking about climbing up this corner right here, just for fun. I'll try climbing it real quick. You got me?
BLOCK: Sharma masters this climb, too, and fast.
How far ahead are you thinking when you're - is it like chess when you're placing your feet and your finger?
Mr. SHARMA: I guess it kind of is, in that way to try to find a new route. But if it turns up that really hard, I could try about hundreds and hundreds of times. For me, that's really fascinating. Part of climbing is like having these projects just at your limit that you'd have to work, you know. Maybe at first try, you can't do all the movements, but then you start piecing it together and figuring it out. When you actually do it, at the end, maybe it didn't feel as easy because you haven't still wired. You're not even thinking, you kind of just rely on the muscle memory, because you know it so well by that point.
BLOCK: Can I see your hand?
Mr. SHARMA: Yeah.
BLOCK: What should I know about your hands?
Mr. SHARMA: I feel these are like ridges right here on my knuckles. Right here.
BLOCK: Wow. You have an enormous - that a callous? What is that?
Mr. SHARMA: It's my bones.
BLOCK: Sharma's knuckles are huge knobs. I pressed his fingers and palm. His hands are solid and leathery.
Mr. SHARMA: They are not. Yeah. I guess they're pretty strong.
BLOCK: I guess so. The result of 14 years spent hanging off of rock.
Mr. SHARMA: To be able to have a really intimate relationship with the rock is something really special. I think it's - that's kind of, the heart of climbing. Climbing is very, very aesthetic. Because of that, it's kind of athletic, artistic, kind of, like dance. And it's really fun.
BLOCK: When you're interacting with a rock like that, is it communicating with you in some way?
Mr. SHARMA: Well, definitely like when you take a hold and you grab it with your fingertips, it bites back, you know? So - in that way, it's communicating, you know? It hurts. Sometimes, to do certain moves, you have to really bare down and sometimes you have to scream.
BLOCK: Were you that loud? And in the movie, you're doing a lot of screaming. And what's the screaming about?
Mr. SHARMA: Well, it's not really something that everybody does, but you have to be a little aggro sometimes, and I find it useful to yell sometimes.
(Soundbite of screaming)
BLOCK: At Carderock, Chris Sharman has finally found a climb that's giving him trouble. It's called Evan's Bolt Ladder. In the '60s, people figured it would never be climbed. Time after time, Sharman makes it most of the way up then slips off a tricky leap of rock.
Mr. SHARMA: Enduro.
BLOCK: The rope catches him. Another climber is belaying or anchoring him down below. So, Chris, what's going on?
Mr. SHARMA: Well, I'm kind of just trying to figure what's going on. I don't really know. I kind of have to figure out what the sequence is here.
BLOCK: And on his next try, he finds a key handhold.
Then he lowers to the ground, takes a breath, and starts up again.
Mr. SHARMA: Okay. One more time.
BLOCK: Sharma's Spanish girlfriend, Daila Ojeda, is also a climber, and she calls up some guidance from below.
Ms. DAILA OJEDA (Rock Climber): (Speaking in foreign language)
BLOCK: Sharma throws in a little bit of aggro to propel himself up. Then to get past that tricky overhang, he stretches sideways across the rock face, one leg across behind the other. And he's done it.
Mr. SHARMA: Okay.
BLOCK: Chris Sharma doesn't have a real home. He travels around the world looking for the next climb, the next king line, as he calls it, a climb that's at his limit: inspiring and spectacular, in a beautiful place. He has a half-a-dozen sponsors, clothing and climbing-gear companies, and there's that reputation as the world's best climber.
Mr. SHARMA: Nowadays, I'm more motivated than ever and seeing that time is kind of finite, like, I'm 26 now - it's a lot different when I was 16.
BLOCK: Do you think about a legacy that you're passing on to the next generation of climbers? I mean, you're only 26.
Mr. SHARMA: Isn't that - you know, climbing is kind of like this evolution, where the standards are today are the combination of the efforts of all of us who are climbing right now and all the people before us, you know, kind of standing on each other's shoulders. For example, like Herbie's Horror, at 5'9 - yeah, 1942, that happened.
The hardest thing is to do something the first time. Someone has to have that vision that, 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.
BLOCK: Chris 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's ever tried.
Mr. SHARMA: There's a lot of people that maybe focus too much on getting to the top, like, 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 that's the whole life of it. 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.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Well, Chris Sharma, it's been great talking to you.
Mr. SHARMA: Yeah. Yeah.
BLOCK: And thanks for climbing for us today.
Mr. SHARMA: Well, my pleasure. Yeah.
BLOCK: You can see Chris Sharma in action at npr.org, where you'll find a video of his climbs at Carderock.