How Chris Sharma saved American Climbing
I started rock climbing in 1993. Climbing in America was different then. Commercial crash pads didn’t exist. No one sold “pre-made” quickdraws. The ATC had just come out. And in the world of pure rock climbing, Americans sucked. Not so much from being worse (read: less hard) climbers as a group than Europeans, but by being followers. Europeans had invented sport climbing in the 1980s, and a decade later the US was still firmly following that path and trying to catch up.
It wasn’t all bad, but it was far from good. Chipping and bolting were far more common, or at the very least not condemned and discussed openly as they are today. The sport versus trad debate was very much alive, with relatively little cross-pollination, especially in top level climbers. The media and scene generally were far more insular and engaged in even more navel-gazing than is common today. This has all changed, in no small part because the gyms which introduced climbers like me to the sport increased the number of participants dramatically.
One of the most emphatic, and somewhat unexpected, results of this was that climbing generally and the top end particularly became much more heterogenous. In the early nineties a climber like Beth Rodden transitioning from comp queen to hard trad specialist was unthinkable, even though Lynn Hill had pioneered that exact path. Hard trad is more prominent today than I ever would have imagined. I was drawn to trad immediately, due to my contrarian nature, and when I was starting out knew no one who trad climbed. Back when Miguel’s had bus seats inside and a rickety outhouse, there was little if any cross-pollination between sport and trad climbers in the Red River Gorge. There may still not be much mixing amongst the climbing proletariat, but the frequency hard and often scary trad is mentioned these days never fails to make me smile.
I think Chris Sharma has a lot to do with that, in spite of his not being known for trad climbing. The significance of Sharma cannot be overstated. Not only did he become the best American rock climber since at least Charlie Porter by the time he was 15, but he did it with a disarming modesty and non-chalance which blew apart the self-importance of the previous generation, and set the tone for the future. This ecumenical approach has predominated, from the late 90s through to the present. Peter Beal may be correct that American climbers are still underperforming on the world stage, especially insofar as comps and difficulty is concerned. The comp statement is surely true, and also surely irrelevant. When Adam Ondra, possibly the most talented climber ever, admits that he won’t focus on comps because the specific training required to do well takes too much time away from proper climbing, the matter is put in proper context.
More than anything, Sharma represents the ability of one person, by force of example and personality, is able to shift a whole subculture. And for that we owe him.