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.

3 responses to “How Chris Sharma saved American Climbing”

  1. Dave, I started climbing at the same time and the separation between sport/trad was simply vitriolic. “Sport climbing is neither”. Sport climbers were reviled for drilling bolts in the pristine natural settings. All that was ‘pure’ in the risk and reward of trad climbing was lost with bolted routes. New climbers in the late 80’s / early90’s were interested difficult routes with no natural protection while the old school was climbing for the ‘experience’ and so it went.

    Sharma was the literal poster boy for American sport climbing but he is only part of a larger group or generation that blazed their own path in regards to what climbing is and isn’t. This generation eschewed the previous strict doctrine of what climbing was. Sport climbing and bouldering have become accepted and even popular, but what is interesting is how alpinists are using these disciplines in cross-training for difficult alpine routes. You mentioned Beth Rodden, but don’t forget Tommy Caldwell, Sonnie Trotter, Katie Brown and Dave Graham, as well as many of their contemporaries, who as a group and individually changed popular perceptions of what climbing is and could be.

    The vast North American climbing landscape and the thirst for new adventure probably keeps American climbers as a whole behind the Euros as far as grades are concerned. There is simply too much to do and see in North America if you are a climber and most of it isn’t bolted. The quest for adventure in the mountains still has a hold on the American psyche. Beal’s statement… that’s exactly what trad climbers tended to dismiss. It’s about the experience, being out with your friends and not the number. And grades, how many Euros can trad climb Sonnie Trotter’s ‘Cobra Crack’ (5.14) or ‘The Path’ (5.13R)?
    Different styles, different focus. At least everyone’s getting along.

    1. Agreed; I’m quite proud of my generation in this respect.

      In rather ironic fashion, while 14 I set a gym route named SCIN, in tribute to the above slur. It “protected” with nuts and hexes wedged between holds and the wall of the dihedral.

      In retrospect I was fortunate to be able to learn about the Red before the Motherlode (crag) was discovered and the hordes arrived. As a trad climber I got to rediscover some obscure old classics, and cherry pick some first ascents (some of which have probably been forgotten by everyone, including myself). I would like to go back eventually.

  2. I came from this generation of climbers as well, just a couple of years later than you. Though I was most drawn to trad climbing, sport climbing was something that I did quite frequently and, by the time I started climbing (~97), the civil war between trad and sport climbing was seemingly over. Climbers my age didn’t distinguish themselves so much as being one or the other. I fondly recall climbing terrifying trad routes in NC one week and casually falling off sport routes the next. On climbing trips, I might partner up with a traditionalists twice my age for some old school routes in the Tetons one week and climb sport routes with the boom box toting, lingo using gym rats the next week. (Oh, how I miss those glorious days).
    I think all of my trips to the Red were sport climbing trips, though I cannot remember why. -May have been the people that I went there with. I never got into the indoor or comp scene, but I do agree with a comment above that American climbing is best broadly defined as a vast experience of different styles, terrain and settings. In my mind, there was simply too much out there to climb and experience to put singular focus on competing on plastic or even one specific style of climbing.

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