Jason Momoa
Jason Momoa
Long before he became a Hollywood superhero, Momoa says, he was a climbing bum. (Photo: Ture Lillegraven)

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.”

Jason Momoa working out on a home climbing wall
Momoa working out on a home climbing wall (Jeff Lipsky)

Tales of adventure and youthful exuberance sometimes lead to surprising places—like a reality-TV project. In January, HBO Max premieres The Climb, an eight-episode series with ten amateur competitors vying for a $100,000 prize, plus a $100,000 sponsorship from Prana, a payout that will enable the winner to try a career as a pro. Developed by Sharma, Momoa’s production company On the Roam, and the Intellectual Property Corporation, an outfit that focuses on unscripted series, the show follows the typical reality format: at the end of each episode, the poorest-performing cast members will be eliminated. At the end of the season, the last one standing wins.

But while the structure of The Climb is predictable, the show is impressively authentic. Partly this is because of Sharma, who cohosts alongside elite competitive climber (and former American Ninja Warrior) Meagan Martin, and he remains the earnest rock nerd he’s always been. Partly it’s because of Momoa, who drops by to bro down with Sharma, the two espousing the virtues of an adventurous life. (“We would just get together, be ourselves, talk about why we love climbing,” says Sharma.) But mostly it’s because of the contestants and the climbing itself. The group comprises an eclectic mix of characters—the old-timer who still believes she’s got what it takes, the gifted athlete plagued by anxiety, the young gun out to prove himself—who attempt to scale a series of spectacular routes around the world handpicked by Sharma and Momoa.

“One of the decisions we made when we got started was, we’re not gonna make a climbing show in an indoor setting,” says Sharma. “For me it’s always been about the connection with nature, feeling like a little speck of dust in the middle of vast expanses. So let’s show climbing in all its splendor.”

Several sequences were shot in Wadi Rum, Jordan, a desert wilderness that Momoa fell in love with while making Dune in 2019. The rest of the filming was done in Spain, where Sharma has lived since 2015 and put up many of his most notable ascents. The first episode takes place on the island of Majorca, which Sharma helped popularize as a destination for deepwater soloing, a discipline that involves scaling seaside cliffs unroped; slip and you free-fall into the Mediterranean. “Sixty feet off the deck and you’re making the most committed moves—it’s a head fuck, dude!” says Momoa. Indeed, if there’s a standout element in The Climb, it’s the fear on the faces of climbers as they push themselves to the edge of their abilities and comfort zones.

“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.”

This is by design. Sharma says that when they set out to create the series, he was “committed to not doing something that I would regret, that my friends would laugh at me for afterward. I wanted to make sure the show is legit from a climbing perspective.” This meant balancing the need to craft entertaining TV. To that end, he brought in his old friend Brett Lowell, who shot the grassroots climbing films that made Sharma famous in the late 1990s and early aughts, as well as Chris Malloy, who directed the 2010 film 180° South, which retraced Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins’s legendary odyssey through Patagonia in the late 1960s.

“One of the biggest challenges was that we’re used to going out documentary-style, with a small crew in the middle of nowhere,” says Sharma. “With a show of this magnitude, you have all these sound guys and assistants and logistics that get in the way.”

Going too big with an unscripted series that depends at least somewhat on attracting an audience of core enthusiasts is definitely a showbiz hazard. In 2021, ABC’s The Ultimate Surfer, which featured competitors riding artificial waves on Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch in central California, fizzled out after a single season. And reality-TV king Mark Burnett’s attempted reboot of the Eco-Challenge, an adventure race that was the basis of a hit show in the early 2000s, was canceled in 2020 after a single season, even with survival icon Bear Grylls as the host.

The Climb would seem to have better odds, given that Momoa alone has the star power to attract a large audience. Ultimately, the show is a product of his very real friendship with one of the best-known and most enterprising climbers of this century. In the past decade, Sharma has opened a climbing gym in Southern California and three more in Spain, created a deepwater-soloing competition that was held at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, developed climbing shoes for Evolv, and consulted for Tenaya. “Chris is such an entrepreneur,” says Momoa. “It’s like being Michael Jordan. You’re getting older, so this is how you stay in the community.” (Momoa has gotten into the product game as well, collaborating with the brand So Ill to launch a line of decidedly upscale climbing apparel, shoes, and chalk bags.)

Ask how the idea of a reality show took shape, and both men give the same answer: It just made sense. “It was kind of obvious,” says Sharma. “We have this deep friendship and passion for climbing, and wherever we go, we always film stuff. It was a no-brainer.”

Close up portrait of Jason Momoa
(Jesse Lizotte/Trunk Archives)

In the years after Momoa and Sharma had their mind meld in Bishop, they fell out of touch. Momoa’s acting career gradually and then exponentially took off. Sharma chased first ascents around the planet. Life got busy.

And then around seven years ago, Sharma was watching Game of Thrones with his wife when Momoa’s character, Khal Drogo, came on the screen. “I was like, ‘I know that guy,’ ” says Sharma. “But I couldn’t place him, because the context was so foreign.” Soon after, Momoa popped up on his Instagram feed, climbing, and this time Sharma recognized his old friend. “I messaged him, and he was like, ‘Dude, I stayed at your house!’”

Momoa was in London at the time, shooting 2017’s Justice League, and during a break, he visited Sharma with his wife, the actress Lisa Bonet, and their two children. (Momoa and Bonet separated last year.) “We rekindled our bond and connected on a much deeper level,” says Sharma. “We were in this new phase of life. He had kids, and my daughter had just been born. We’d both been through so many things.”

Sharma later asked Momoa to be the godfather of his daughter, and the families have since gotten together once or twice a year. Conversations happened, and then The Climb was conceived.

Today, Momoa gets nostalgic when talking about his bygone climbing-bum days. He tells me he still has the minus-20 Marmot sleeping bag “that saved my goddamn life” on a trip. He keeps it in his EarthRoamer overland camping truck. “I love waking up in the dirt,” he says. “I love cooking by the fire. I love eating just sardines and crackers. And I love putting everything on my back and filling up a jug of water and getting lost in the desert.”

As production for The Climb wrapped up, Momoa and Sharma traveled back to Majorca for some pickup shots. They had a little time to spare, so they rented a boat and explored a section of coast Sharma hadn’t seen before. “We were living on the boat, rolling up to the rock, dreaming up these new lines. We’d get on it and just play,” recalls Momoa. “It was the purest thing, and just what I needed in my life. I was going through a lot of hard stuff, and here I was, with my best friend. It was medicine. Just good old-fashioned healing medicine.”