Sport: Why Is This Kid Grinning?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
News from the Field, December 1996

Sport: Why Is This Kid Grinning?

Because 15-year-old Chris Sharma is the future of American sport climbing
By Todd Balf

"I think most people are past the age thing," says Chris Sharma, 15, after another day of hanging from dime-size holds at the Pacific Edge gym in Santa Cruz, California. Well, maybe not everyone. Despite Sharma's impressive streak of seven 5.14 routes in three weeks last summer--a flurry of top-grade climbing unmatched in this country--World Cup officials aren't cutting him any slack. As the international sport-climbing title is decided on the 15th of this month in Graz, Austria, America's top-ranked male climber is still unwelcome. Why? He's underage.

In response, Sharma has adopted a don't-get-mad-get-even approach that will take him to some of the most challenging venues in the western United States just as the World Cup season is building toward its climax. He'll start with a second ascent of Sonora, California's Motherlode, a 5.14a route that's earned a reputation as one of the most difficult in the country, and end with an ascent of Boy's Town, a 5.14b at Texas's Hueco Tanks, the winter training ground for many of the nation's most notable climbers. "I'm bummed I can't compete in the World Cup, because I know I'd have a decent shot," admits Sharma. "But this'll give me more time to see just how hard I can climb."

Sharma first made headlines in 1994, only nine months after picking up the sport, and within a year secured the top spot on the men's open circuit with a win at the 1995 National Championships. Last June, he threatened to upstage a field of seasoned international climbers, finishing eighth at the X Games despite spraining a wrist just before the finals. Injury aside, his 5.14 blitzkrieg began less than a month later, starting in Utah with Logan Canyon's Super Tweak, a 60-foot wall averaging 45 degrees of overhang that had been climbed by only three others before him--and never in less than ten days. "When I heard he did it in 48 hours, I knew we were in trouble," says Boone Speed, who made the first ascent of the route. "Watching him, you realize the sport is still in its infancy--literally."

Does this mean the only thing standing between Sharma and big-wall stardom is a learner's permit? Perhaps, though the elite European sport climbers, with their precise footwork and methodical stategies, might disagree. Unconventional by classic standards, Sharma's muscular, explosive climbing style is long on power and short on patience. Still, there's a lot to be said for his unbridled teenage energy and phenomenal strength. "He has better technique than people give him credit for," says Hans Florine, executive director of the American Sport Climbers Federation, "but most importantly, he just doesn't know what can't be done."

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