Exclusive Interview: Chris Sharma Makes 5.15c First Ascent in Siurana, Spain
After over a year of effort, Sharma clipped the chains on Sleeping Lion, his second 5.15c. We caught up with Sharma to hear more about his process, training, and how he’s managed to balance his family, career, and climbing goals.
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This article was first published by Climbing.
On March 28th, Chris Sharma made the hour-and-half drive from his Spanish home to the El Pati sector of Siurana. Forests spread out before him, blanketing ancient hillsides, outlining sleepy villages. A vestigial castle stood atop an escarpment in the Prades Mountains, overlooking a crystalline river and time itself. It was both surreal and… all too familiar; Sharma has been making the trek on and off for 15 years. His thoughts zeroed in on his new line, Sleeping Lion, and a mix of excitement and doubt sat like a congealed lump in the back of his throat. Spring had officially started, which meant worsening conditions, and at 41 years old, he wasn’t getting any younger. The man who brought 5.15a and 5.15b to the world hadn’t sent anything that he considers “hard” in eight years.
“There was this uncertainty,” says Sharma. “I could potentially let the route slip through the cracks again. That kind of terrified me, honestly.”
Since October 2021, Sharma had been working Sleeping Lion, which traces through an undulating and untouched canvas of thinly pocketed limestone, just meters away from the historic La Rambla (5.15a). The route is hard—V8 to V11 to V11 to V12 to V11, each separated by bad rests—and stylistically various, involving techy heel hooks, punchy dynos on steep terrain, and tenuous face climbing on small edges. But shortly after bolting it, he had to jet off to film the HBO show, “The Climb,” with Hollywood actor Jason Momoa. Filming ate up winter. He returned to the line in February 2022, but wasn’t able to complete it before warmer temps hampered progress. He returned in November with a fire in his belly, a deep and primal passion awakened from within. By March, Sharma had already fallen off of the upper crux—the route’s 54th move—16 times, but he was undeterred.
Quixotic orange and blue limestone cliffs emerged from the landscape. He made the final turns while listening to a reggae song, “Sleepin’ Lion,” by Clinton Fearon.
“Don’t play fish if you can’t swim
Don’t play with fire if you don’t wanna get burn
Life is a gamble, so they say
But what, what shall we win at the end of the day?”
It had been since 2015 that Sharma sent El Bon Combat (5.15b), at Cova de Ocell in Spain, and it had been almost exactly 10 years since he sent La Dura Dura (5.15c), on March 23, 2013. He’d since opened gyms across Spain and the US; he and his wife had kids; he hosted that HBO show; he’d tried really damn hard to keep the flame going. Easier said than done.
“This whole time I’ve been trying to stay in shape, which has been a huge challenge,” he says. “I never wanted to let go of my climbing goals. But as the years go by, you start to wonder, are things going to coalesce? Am I just saying that to myself, that I’m still in shape and ready?”
There had been other projects over the years. He’d come close on Perfecto Mundo (5.15c), in Margalef, a route he’d bolted in 2008, but business and family affairs kept coming up and he kept falling out of shape. The cycle repeated so many times he swore to himself he wouldn’t bolt another line or start another project until he’d ticked some things off. But old habits die hard. After staring at that section of rock in El Pati for so many years, he just couldn’t resist.
“Experience is the greatest teacher of all
No need for defense if we learn our lessons well
Oh, oh, take care of creation, there’s so much to gain
Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, we’ve got nothing to lose”
During the short familiar approach to El Pati, Sharma turned inward. He embraced what it would mean to dig deep, inhaled deeply, and swallowed down the doubt. He thought about the big picture.
“In the lifespan of a climber, it’s really good to do other things,” he told me afterwards. “It complements your climbing, and it gives you a different perspective, and then it makes you appreciate climbing in new ways. … The ultimate goal is to be able to climb 5.15 in life, not just on the rock. So I have this higher-arching goal of climbing at my limit while also being present with my kids, and being present as a husband, and creating these climbing gyms and this TV show. All those other things are way out of my comfort zone, but that’s where a lot of growth and the progression of ourselves comes from.”
It was not even noon before Sharma, after over a year of effort, clipped the chains on what he estimates is his second 5.15c. We caught up with Sharma to hear more about his process, training, and how he’s managed to balance his family, career, and climbing goals. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sharma on one of Sleeping Lion’s crux sequences:
CLIMBING: From what I’ve observed, one of your main superpowers is your mind. You’re so calm, and you maintain such a good perspective on climbing and how it fits into your life. Just the fact that you had all these climbing goals, but then you also had a family and then became an entrepreneur—I think that’s such a testament to your ability to trust yourself and your process. How do you do it?
CHRIS SHARMA: It’s interesting, the conversations that we have with ourselves. You know, trying to stay positive and just enjoy the process. But there were times when I would tell myself that, like, “Yeah, it’s cool, I’m enjoying this.” But really I was frustrated. I was like, “I wish I would have done this thing a while ago, so that I could move on to other things.” I did always enjoy the process, but at the same time, there were moments when I had to also acknowledge that I wasn’t completely happy with everything, and I think that actually helped me process it. Sometimes you’ve got to convince yourself, but sometimes you’ve got to acknowledge how you really feel to be able to work through some of those barriers. I think just some honest conversations with myself, like, “Look, I am a little bit frustrated by not sending this, I am a little bit nervous that I’m going to blow it.” That actually helped me to be kind to myself.
One of the cool things about this experience is the fact that 5.15c isn’t the limit anymore—there’s 5.15d. I wasn’t really competing on a global stage or being competitive with the youngsters out there. It was more this personal goal of proving to myself that I could rise to that level again. Obviously there is some ego involved in that, but it’s more of a personal challenge… If I compare it to trying La Dura Dura with Adam Ondra, vying for the first ascent of the world’s hardest route, there were all these expectations. This time around, it’s just me in my own world on my own creation, just kind of doing it, for the sake of it, because I wanted to see if I still can do it.
It’s very tricky now, how climbing evolves through our lives, or how our relationship evolves with climbing over the years, but I’m just so grateful to have climbing as my craft, it’s my way of tapping into what’s the best version of myself. It’s the way that I can contribute, and it’s what I’ve always done. I started climbing in 1993. So I’m going on 30 years. There’s a lot of wrapped up in this achievement.
So when you’re confronted with that frustration or that failure over and over and over again, you start to have doubts, and then it sets off this very deep process of evaluating yourself—why you’re doing the things that you’re doing. And ultimately, through confronting yourself and that failure, it’s very liberating. It’s a very hard road to go down, where you’re fully committed. It makes you feel vulnerable in a lot of ways. I experienced the full variety of emotions that you go through in a redpoint process. And so to be able to go through that again at this point in my life is very meaningful and validating and cool.
It’s not necessarily about the send, it’s about the process. But clipping the chains is a part of that process, right? And if we don’t do it, then somehow something’s missing. It’s kind of like when you go to school, and you get a diploma, and really it’s about all the things you learned and the experiences you had, but somehow having that diploma is important, too, right? It’s meaningful. It symbolizes the level of effort that you have to give and that you finished something.
And it’s been amazing to have my wife, my friends, and even my kids supporting me. They know how important this is to me.
I wanted to bring up something you wrote about in this magazine in 2020. You were describing how, as a teenager who just won nationals, you had an ACL injury. And you wrote about how after that, you really dove into a spiritual mindset and started meditating. I’m curious if that was a formative moment for you and influenced how you think about climbing and how you’ve gone through life?
Yeah, absolutely. That did shape me in a lot of ways. If I look at this whole experience on Sleeping Lion, it’s been my practice. It’s been a regimen. The way that I’ve approached it, there wasn’t really the question of “Should I go today or not?” I was basically, like, “I’m just gonna go, whenever I have time.” I used to be really spontaneous, but now I have to plan things out a little bit more. So I’d tell my wife, “Look, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I’m going to be there.” Even if I didn’t feel good, I would go; even if it was raining, I’d go. And it’s just like when you’re doing yoga or something—you’re gonna have good days, you’re gonna have bad days, and you have to just go and do your practice. Whatever comes up. You’re going to have ups and downs, but I just try to surrender myself to the practice. It is very meditative in that way.
That early injury did set me off on a different path. I think I was 17, and the world was my oyster. I was kind of a punk, maybe kind of cocky; there was nothing I couldn’t do. But suddenly I couldn’t climb. So it put things in perspective, and it put me in my place. After that, for many years, I didn’t even grade my climbs. It was more about having this personal journey on the rock. It was about how, through this intense level of exertion, you come face to face with yourself. And so I had that approach rather than thinking of climbing as a sport and trying to do the things that put you on a podium or give you a certain status. I really stepped away from that.
There were certain moments later on where I did want to know where I stood. La Dura Dura was an example of that. Could I climb at the highest level if I did become more like a real athlete? Because in the past, I’ve never really been like a real athlete. One of the interesting things about this process with Sleeping Lion is that I did very little training. Ninety-nine percent of it was just climbing on the route. But there were moments with La Dura Dura where I wanted to see if I could play that game, and it was cool to prove that to myself. But after climbing La Dura Dura, it was important to me to embark on this new phase of life.
I think it’s very hard to not get caught up with the performance mindset, the hunger to send hard grades and win comps. Can you explain what you do to maintain your grounding?
When you’re buried under things and never actually achieving things, I like to focus on the sensation of climbing. Like, “How did you feel?” Or, “How did I feel that day climbing,” and I look for that good sensation on the rock. I didn’t send anything for seven years. I mean, I did some deep water solos that were meaningful, but as far as doing cutting edge things, I didn’t achieve anything. And so every day you go out, you have to try to find the small progression, the upside, that sensation when you feel good in yourself on the rock. When you cultivate yourself into your highest level of fitness, it’s like you turn your body into a sports car, and it can turn on a dime, it can do whatever you ask of it, and there’s something amazing about that feeling. And so I try to focus on that more than the external achievement.
I’ve always thought that climbing is about progression. It’s about getting better. But then what happens when you stop getting better? Am I going to fall out of love with climbing? One of the other things that I’ve explored in recent years is how to progress beyond just climbing harder and harder grades. There are a lot of different ways to do that. There are different styles of climbing. But there’s also a more subtle level of deepening your relationship with climbing and the movement. It’s about getting really intimate with that connection regardless of if you’re doing something that’s harder or not. So there are ways to continue to progress and deepen your appreciation for climbing.