Jason Momoa’s New TV Series Is a Dirtbagger’s Dream
After more than a decade in the spotlight, the Hollywood star has a new HBO Max project, ‘The Climb,’ that lets him do what he loves most: scale gnarly cliffs alongside climbing icon Chris Sharma
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When Jason Momoa was 15 or so, a group of adult climbers invited him on an ice-climbing trip. Momoa was working at an outdoor shop in Des Moines, Iowa, and after he agreed, the crew packed into vans and headed off. He was thrilled. Growing up in the small town of Norwalk, on the outskirts of Des Moines, he imagined journeys into the mountains. He studied climbing knots and hid books on alpinism inside his math textbook so he could read them in class. On the ice during that outing, Momoa learned some real skills, but he also experienced the downside of risk. Given the chance to lead a section, he fell, and one of his ice tools slit the side of his leg. “I was bleeding all over the place,” he says. He got patched up, then caught giardia. “They built a snow cave for me and stuck me in there. All I could see was the exit. It was horrible.”
But not that horrible. It was, he tells me via Zoom call, the trip that really stoked his passion for the sport. It’s a Sunday afternoon in November, and Momoa, 43, is drinking a Guinness tallboy and recounting his path into climbing. He owns a home in the hills of Los Angeles, but today he’s on the North Shore of Oahu. (“I’ve been consistently a vagabond forever,” he explains.) He’s seated on a covered lanai overlooking the ocean and wearing a yellow T-shirt, his massive arms folded in front of him.
Long before he became a Hollywood superhero, Momoa says, he was a climbing bum. It all started when his mother, Coni, took him to the Needles, in South Dakota, when he was about 13. There a guide introduced him to bouldering. “I just became obsessed—my body felt beautiful,” he says. “I suck at walking and running, but when he put me on a wall, I could move.”
In his home garage, he built a campus board—a tool climbers use to develop upper-body strength—and tied anchors into the rafters so he could work on clipping in. He practiced lead climbing in a tree in the yard. Coni got her belaying certification and drove him to a climbing gym four hours north, in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He took trips to Wild Iowa, the best sport-climbing wall in the state, about three hours east.
As a high school junior, Momoa made a pilgrimage to Hueco Tanks, the state park in Texas that was the epicenter of the booming mid-1990s bouldering scene. There he met fellow teenager Chris Sharma, already considered the best rock climber in the world. Momoa recalls watching Sharma on a route called Slashface—“He was a freak of nature”—but his stronger memory is of Sharma staying inside a Quonset hut above a country store that had become a refuge for climbers, while he camped outside. “All those guys were watching South Park religiously, and I was dirtbagging it in a bivy sack,” he says. “Then it snowed. I got so wet.”
Not long after, Momoa showed up in Arizona for the Phoenix Bouldering Contest, at the time the biggest climbing competition anywhere. “I wanted to take down Sharma,” he says. It was an outlandish dream: nobody was beating Sharma. But Momoa had the advantage of being tall (he’s six foot four) and was confident in his explosive energy. “I loved dynoing,” a move that involves lunging for the next hold. “It was something I knew I could hit.” He never got his chance, though. He hadn’t registered for the event, and the organizers wouldn’t let him jump in. Instead, he hung out with Sharma and other rising stars of the sport.
Momoa recalls watching Sharma on a route called Slashface—“He was a freak of nature”—but his stronger memory is of Sharma staying inside a Quonset hut above a country store that had become a refuge for climbers, while he camped outside.
Momoa was born in Honolulu and lived there briefly before his parents split up and he went to Iowa with his mom. As a teenager, he visited Oahu to spend time with his dad, who is of Native Hawaiian ancestry. At 19, he was living back in Hawaii when he auditioned for Baywatch: Hawaii and landed the part of lifeguard Jason Loane. It was an enormous break, but it wasn’t the life he wanted, so after a two-year run, he took off.
“I got into this weird business of acting, yet I didn’t want to do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to have a fucking phone. I didn’t have an agent. I spent all my money and just bought an Airstream and traveled the world climbing.”
Momoa eventually landed in Tibet, and shortly after decamped for Bishop, California, a climbing mecca in the Sierra Nevada where Sharma had moved into a house with Brett Lowell, a talented young videographer. Sharma was in a contemplative mood, struggling to make sense of his extraordinary athletic success as a kid. Now entering his twenties, he embraced meditation and Buddhism to “discover who I was outside of climbing.” When Momoa arrived, Sharma was reading Circling the Sacred Mountain, the Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman’s account of leading a group of trekkers on a spiritual quest through the Himalayas. The two young men had a lot to talk about.
“Jason and I didn’t quite fit the mainstream mold,” says Sharma. “Climbing back then was for really freethinking people. So we dove deep into life, and the meaning of all these things, and discovering ourselves.”
“He was fighting something and I was fighting something,” says Momoa. “It was just a nice moment to sit and talk about what we were going through.”