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Climbing La Dura Dura

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Like seconds ticking on a clock,
each move comes into existence for one perfect moment,
then passes as the next one arises,
all flowing into each other.
Through this reconstruction of each note,
we begin to hear the maestro music.

Preface: Ten Minutes of Zen

Sport climbing is known as a casual, fun subset of climbing. For most, it means no pressure; it’s all about spending a day playing in the vertical with your friends. But as sport climbs get harder and harder, the whole thing gets more mental. And much less casual. Of course, climbing is just a fun, meaningless game. Nothing to take too seriously. But when rock climbs get so hard that they’re right at our own physical limits, that’s when climbing becomes more than just a game. In fact, it becomes the very embodiment of life itself and its entire struggle. By pushing ourselves to become better, stronger climbers, we practice and learn how to become better, stronger people.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-03Look no further than any photo of a climber clinging to blank beautiful stone by the tips of his or her fingers to understand the sport’s physical appeal. But capturing what really drives and motivates these climbers to take on their own big projects is much more difficult. So much of climbing takes place within the mind, and demands its elastic evolution over many months, even years. When you see great athletes, like Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra, two of the best climbers in the world, executing beautiful flowing movements on an overhanging rock face, it all looks so graceful and easy. But you can’t see what’s taking place inside, nor fully appreciate the long journey and profound learning experiences those climbers went through to get there.
 
It actually only takes about ten minutes to climb from the bottom to the top of a route without falling—which, in climber jargon, is called the “redpoint” or the “send.” Often, after a hard redpoint, climbers typically remark on how surprised they are that this once impossible route now feels so easy.
 
Why is this? Climbing your hardest isn’t about brute strength and biceps; it’s a matter of climbing perfectly, all without any thoughts or feelings of attachment to yourself or success. Somehow, the mind always needs to catch up to where the body already is.
 
It’s all very Zen.
 
In climbing, attaining those ten minutes of Zen can be frustrating and humbling. As you practice the moves on the route by climbing on it day after day, ultimately striving to one day link all the moves together without falling, you begin to feel like you are at war with yourself. Before each attempt you may feel nervous; then, your foot slips on an easy section and you fall. You may find yourself distracted and drawn away from main goal when you begin measuring yourself up against others. You fall again. The scariest part is when you begin to doubt yourself and wonder if you might never be good enough. You fall and fall and fall again while trying to untie each and every one of these mental knots.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-06In order to survive this experience, it’s important that you learn to just enjoy being up on the rock, pulling with your fingers and toes, and trying really hard even if you do fall. Just as yogis may not achieve perfect form every day, they still stretch, just because stretching feels good. Same with climbing. It just feels good to climb. Simply getting out on the rock can be its own type of success, perhaps even more important than the one of actually sending the route.
 
And once we enter this space of just enjoying the stripped-down act of climbing for no other reason than we love it, we suddenly find ourselves open to learning some valuable things. What true passion means. How to recognize when your motivation is external and false, and when it genuinely comes from within. How to confront ourselves honestly, change for the better, release our attachments to success, and let go of our egos.
 
When we’re least attached—to our egos, to outcomes, to our projects—that’s when we perform our best.
 
Typically, the whole process of dreaming up, taking on and ultimately completing any Big Project unfolds in five stages: Inspiration, Purpose, Humility, Perseverance, and Mastery. Here, as told in five corresponding essays, is a story that could be any of our stories.
 
But it just so happens that this is a climbing story about Chris Sharma and his five-year journey to do the hardest rock climb in the world.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-04
 Inspiration
 
How steep, how blank, and how difficult does a rock face need to get before it can’t humanly be done?
 
These are the questions today’s top sport climbers are trying to answer. This year, thanks to Adam Ondra and Chris Sharma for their respective first and second ascents of La Dura Dura, that inquiry continues.
 
La Dura Dura is located in Oliana, Spain, on a cliff face that has more hard routes than anywhere else in the world. “La Dura Dura” essentially means the “Hardest of the Hard.” Chris Sharma—the Santa Cruz-born climber with surfer good looks who has been pushing climbing standards for the last 15 years—first installed the protection bolts, which are necessary to begin climbing on the wall, on La Dura Dura five years ago. But after he realized how hard and sustained the moves were, he wrote off the route as something he’d never be able to send.
 
“I figured it would be for the next generation,” he said. He showed the line to the up-and-coming Adam Ondra, a bespectacled phenom from the Czech Republic. Soon these two top rock climbers, with drastically different physiques and climbing styles, found common ground by working together to figure out how to redpoint this one route.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-08Meanwhile, the climbing world waited with bated breaths for updates from Oliana to see who would get the first ascent. La Dura Dura became more than just a hard route. It became symbolic of a claim to the title of world’s best rock climber.
 
Ultimately, Ondra, 20, got the first ascent on February 8th. On March 23rd, Sharma, 31, did the second ascent. Today, with a rating of 5.15c, La Dura Dura is considered the most difficult rock climb in the world.
 
Those are the basic facts. But they only comprise the surface of the story.
 
Some five years ago, La Dura Dura didn’t exist other than as a simple, vague desire within Sharma to progress as a climber. In 2008, at 27 years old, Sharma had just sent Jumbo Love, thereby establishing the first rock climb rated 5.15b. This was actually the second time Sharma had advanced the world standard; in 2001, he climbed Realization, the first 5.15a. By many measures, Sharma had proven himself to be the best climber of his generation. It was something he had been told all his adult life, too—flattering hype that always made him uncomfortable, if not wary. But it wasn’t until he completed Jumbo Love that he realized one of the reasons why.
 
Sharma looked within and realized he’d been climbing for 15 years and, thus far, he hadn’t really had to try very hard to be the best.
 
“Up until that point, in a lot of ways, I’d been just riding on my talent,” says Sharma. “I thought, ‘OK, enough of this. Let’s see what happens if I really dedicate myself to sport climbing. Let’s see how far I can push it, if I give everything to it.’”
 
It’s not always necessary to know exactly what your Big Project is or looks like from the get go. We may not even know it exists. A better first step is to recognize what you are most passionate about. Then follow wholeheartedly that pure inspiration. That’s what will steer us toward the most meaningful projects of our lives.
 
After climbing the world’s first 5.15a and 5.15b, the next step was obvious. 5.15c. But what does that even look like? Where is it? How do you begin?
 
Realization and Jumbo Love were both originally discovered and bolted by a previous generation of great climbers, and were given to Sharma as projects. Now, in the wake of their completions, Sharma faced an absence of known projects that might yield that next step in difficulty.
 
If he wanted to progress as a climber, he would need to create an entirely new way to do so.
 
“That’s the thing about being on the cutting edge. You have to invent it. First, you have to have a vision and imagine what it might look like. Then you have to be able to use that vision, see what the next step is, seek it out, and create it.”
 
Despite not knowing exactly what he was looking for, Sharma set off to Spain for its concentration of steep, high-quality and untouched rock, hoping to find a route that would be beautiful, inspirational and, above all, really, really hard.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-05Purpose
 
Finding La Dura Dura wasn’t an easy or obvious process.
 
Sharma chose Catalunya because he knew it offered a high concentration of steep limestone walls with futuristic climbing potential.
 
“I climbed at Santa Linya, Margalef, Siurana, but none of those places had the potential I was really looking for. Then, I went to Oliana, and I was like, ‘Wow, this place is amazing!’”
 
To be clear, it wasn’t as if Sharma went to Spain just to climb something he could rate 5.15c. In other words, attaining that grade wasn’t the main goal, necessarily. It was more about searching for that one big project that would give him a sense of purpose in its formidable completion.
 
Besides, upon arriving in Spain, Sharma had only done one 5.15b; he’d need to do at least a few more before he could realistically understand what 5.15c might feel like. He climbed routes rated 5.14d, 5.15a and 5.15b at Santa Linya, Margalef, and Siurana. Each of these routes took many months to do, and almost all of them were first ascents.
 
Virtually all over the rock-studded region of Catalunya, Sharma had sub-projects. It was motivating, though overwhelming. The “Catalunya Syndrome,” as locals call it, is a grievous affliction upon the psyched climber who takes on so many projects that he ultimately spreads himself too thin and ironically never gets any of them done.
 
Though he didn’t know it at the time, all these routes—with names such as Golpe de Estado, Neanderthal, and Catxasa—were preparing him, driving him headlong toward La Dura Dura.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-02If we are in a rush to get to the top of that one big goal or project, we may find ourselves unprepared when the time comes. Pyramids aren’t built by beginning with the capstone. Instead, each block, unglamorous and painstaking, must be first laid below. But in laying that foundation, we discover a sense of purpose that drives us upward and onward
 
Oliana was virtually unclimbed when Sharma arrived. To an artist, the blank canvas can be terrifying. Same with a blank wall. Where are the routes? Where the holds? Is this section of wall even possible? A rock face that looks hopelessly blank may, in fact, have finger edges and toe holds. A climber begins sketching in a potential line by first installing fixed bolts. The bolts allow you to actually get up on the wall and see, brush, touch, and breathe life into the holds. Some of those holds might only be the width of a fingernail. Rock is strong. Even a tiny edge can support body weight.
 
If there are holds, then perhaps one can discover a sequence of hand and foot movements to link them. If that sequence goes from the ground to the top of the wall, theoretically you have a route.
 
At Oliana, Sharma bolted the two most obvious lines: Pachamama and Papichulo, both clocking in at 5.15a. Then Sharma bolted La Dura Dura because he was drawn to its aesthetic quality: it was a beautiful, if blank-looking, streak of blue and white limestone.
 
“To dedicate a year, or five years, of your life to any route, for me it has to be beautiful,” he says. “That’s what I’ve always looked for in rock climbs: not just a physical challenge, but something beautiful to look at and climb.”
 
When Sharma tried the moves on La Dura Dura, he was almost horrified by how difficult they were
 
“Originally, I didn’t think La Dura Dura was for me,” he says. “I did all the moves on it. But each move seemed so ridiculously hard that I couldn’t ever imagine doing them consecutively. I never saw myself being able to climb it.”
 
La Dura Dura is distinguished as the first route of Chris Sharma’s life that, at first, he didn’t believe he could do. He knew it was possible for someone, but thought it was too hard for him.
 
How this belief, or lack therefore, factors into the completion of any climb, especially when it comes to a climb that’s never been done by anyone before, makes so much difference.
 
Vision is everything. We need to have that vision, an unshakeable optimism, in order to walk that impossible path ahead. But that belief doesn’t always have to come from within. Sometimes, we can rely on the vision of others to help get us going.
 
Chris Sharma was born in Santa Cruz, California. He started climbing in a local gym, one of the first gyms in the country, when he was 12. It was immediately obvious that he was gifted. He won national competitions and repeated various hard routes easily.
 
Around that time in the mid-1990s, Boone Speed was the top sport climber in America. For Speed, there was one particular route that seemed on the verge of being impossible: an unclimbed project called Necessary Evil. Located in the Virgin River Gorge, this rock climb with barely-there holds, would be the hardest climb in the U.S., should someone ever do it. Speed showed a then 15-year-old Sharma the project. In Necessary Evil Sharma found, for the first time in his life, something to sink his teeth into. For the first time as a climber, he had discovered how a project can completely order your life and give you a sense of purpose.
 
“Boone’s vision gave me the head start I needed,” says Sharma. “It was super valuable for my progression as a climber.”
 
Necessary Evil was a beginning for Sharma, a catalyst for the ensuing 15-year chain reaction, sparking, all driving him inexorably toward La Dura Dura.
 
“That route jumpstarted my career, jumpstarted my own personal vision. One of the hardest things is having that vision – seeing something that has never been done. Once you see it and you do it, you’re like, ‘OK, maybe there’s room for something harder.”
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-09Humility
 
“At the beginning I didn’t even consider that I was going to be able to do La Dura Dura. And that was a really cool place to be because there was no pressure. I was just having fun climbing with Adam.”
 
Adam Ondra is a prodigy, a phenomenally talented climber from the Czech Republic. He started climbing at 6, and by the time he was 13 years old he’d already done a climb rated 5.14d. Since then, he’s been on a mission to repeat every hard rock climb in the world. And, incredibly, he has more or less easily achieved that goal.
 
Sharma invited Ondra to try La Dura Dura. They took turns belaying each other, all while discussing the best methods for doing every move. In some places on the route, they deemed one particular sequence of hand and foot movement best. In other places, they differed in their technique. In his typical dynamic style, Sharma found it easier to jump to a distinctive ball-shaped hold. Ondra, however, relied on his lanky flexibility to ascend that section. They were encouraging and it was all fun.
 
Sharma knew it was only natural that one day there would be much better climbers doing much harder things. Of all the young up-and-coming climbers, though, Ondra was heading the pack by a large margin.
 
After working on the Dura Dura project for a few weeks in the spring of 2012, Ondra finally left Spain. He spent his summer in the enormous Flatanger cave of Norway. After five weeks there, he claimed the first ascent of Change, the world’s first 5.15c.
 
5.15c had been established… surprisingly, not by Sharma. But instead of being jealous, Sharma felt like a burden had been lifted. He didn’t have to be the one pushing the world standard. Ondra had arrived.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-07There will always be someone better than you, even when you’re the best. Ultimately, we derive greater motivation and more lasting strength out of humility than superiority.
 
A couple of interesting things happened. First Ondra decided that La Dura Dura was actually harder than Change. Maybe not 5.15d, but certainly hard 5.15c. Change took Ondra only five weeks of work. He had already spent at least that long trying La Dura Dura, yet the first ascent still felt elusive.
 
“He knows more about hard routes than anybody,” says Sharma. “He’s repeated all the hardest routes in the world, so he has more of a perspective than anyone.” Then Sharma started climbing really well on La Dura Dura. On certain days, he was making even better links than Ondra.
 
“At the beginning I just surrendered to the fact that Adam is the future—he’s arrived, I’m on my way out and it’s all good. It’s the natural order of things. When I started actually doing well on it, I realized that I might be able to do it. And then, yeah, all those thoughts crept in. Maybe I can do this first and hold on to my ‘title,’ or whatever. That definitely crossed my mind.
 
“And that’s when it started getting more mental.”
 
In climbing, there is no Super Bowl or World Series. Climbers prove themselves on the rock. La Dura Dura was so exciting because never before had two climbers of such high calibers competed to be first to do a hard rock climb.
 
Yet by climbing together, they seemed to be making quicker progress on La Dura Dura than they might have otherwise, climbing alone. With that quick progress came attachment, too.
 
“I realized I had something to gain,” says Sharma. “And something to lose. That’s when I started wondering, ‘Why do I really want to do this route?’ Is it because I want to hold onto that title and image? Or is it just because I like climbing and this is what I want to be doing?”
 
During the life of every big project, you begin to question why. This usually occurs once you begin to see that you might actually complete the goal. You become attached, more self-aware, more self-absorbed. You put pressure on yourself, and by doing so, actually push yourself further from ever attaining the goal.
 
Finally, after nine weeks of effort, spread over five different trips over the course of a year and a half, Ondra finally got the first ascent of La Dura Dura. It was February 8th, two days after his 20th birthday.
 
It was a milestone for climbing—the hardest rock climb in the world had been completed, and with it, a new champion had emerged. Ondra had rocked the climbing world, much in the same way that Sharma had back when he was 20 and he finally climbed Realization, the first 5.15a in the world.
 
But a question remained. Now that La Dura Dura was complete, would Sharma still be motivated to continue trying it?
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-10Perseverance
 
Ondra had proven that he was now the best climber in the world. That it didn’t come easy, without a good fight, made it all the more meaningful. He wasn’t just given this coveted torch. He earned it.
 
“There’s this Buddhist text about rejoicing in the success of others and being selfless,” says Sharma. “For me this was an opportunity to practice that. Really, it was the only option if I wanted to be happy. Embrace all those negative emotions and then let them go. And by letting go of my image, and being genuinely happy for Adam, I found that that gave me so much strength.”
 
Negative thoughts and emotions are enormous drains on energy. Only by releasing those egoistic self-absorptions and attachments to success are we ever truly free to give 100 percent of ourselves, which is what every Big Project demands.
 
Having let go of his attachment to doing the first ascent, and to holding onto that title as world’s best climber, Sharma suddenly found himself in a curious position. He realized those superficial aspects had never been motivating forces. In other words, he was surprised to realize that he was more psyched to climb La Dura Dura than ever.
 
During this emotionally tumultuous period, Sharma, who was just a few months away from turning 32, began viewing La Dura Dura as a symbolic doorway leading him to a new place in life. The route wasn’t just another tick; it was a culmination to a five-year period of pushing the limits of sport climbing, an apotheosis to that great inquiry into how hard can hard get before it becomes impossible. And in that sense, he needed to do La Dura Dura before he felt like he could ever move on.
 
Inspired by Ondra, he drew renewed energy to meet that goal.
 
“Adam totally lit a fire under my butt,” says Sharma. “He made me realize that I probably wasn’t trying hard enough either. For 15 years I have been the best climber out there without even really having to work that hard for it. When there’s no one around to push you, it’s hard to push yourself that extra bit.”
 
Just as Sharma had discovered mentorship in Boone Speed all those years ago, he was now realizing that mentorship can appear even in those much younger than you.
 
By bolting La Dura Dura and showing him the line, Sharma had paved the way for Ondra. In return, through his talent and perseverance, Ondra was now teaching Sharma about how to progress.
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-13“Here was this 19-year-old kid, working his ass off,” says Sharma. “Look how hard he’s trying! I should be trying at least as hard as him if I want to be doing this. I always say, if you want to do the hardest thing you’ve ever done, you have to commit trying harder than ever before. And this was a total wake up.
 
“Working together on La Dura Dura just accelerated the evolution of the sport. Everyone out at the crag was all pretty aware of it, how special it was. We were two climbers, a generation apart, and we’re working together to put up the hardest route in the world. In that sense, there really wasn’t much shame in not doing it first. Look who I’m climbing with.”
 
In the wake of Ondra’s first ascent, Sharma discovered a motivation he never knew existed. He trained on his home climbing wall. He did sets on a campus board. He ate well, slept well, rested well.
 
Yet at the same time, he remained unsure that he would ever actually send. Already he had missed a couple of opportunities to send. In December of 2012, he had come really close. But then, he had peaked and the opportunity passed. He started falling lower and lower.
 
It took nearly two more months of work just to get back up to his high point.
 
“At a certain point, I was like, damn, it might not happen this year,” says Sharma. “This route always felt just so far beyond my limit. I realized that I am either going to catch one of these windows of opportunity. Or I’m going to have to raise my limit to where this route was below it. And that’s kinda what happened.”
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-11Mastery
 
“When I moved to Spain, I had this dream, as shallow as it sounds, to commit myself to becoming a master. Take my climbing to that next level. It’s hard when you’re already at such a high level. It’s not like a typical staircase where each step is the same distance. Each step is ten times higher than the last. So the increments of progress become harder and harder to achieve.
 
“I had to change. I had to really hone in. I couldn’t be just the free-flowing spontaneous guy. I had to be disciplined. Focus and prioritize my life and what I really wanted.”
 
In sport climbing, you never know when it’ll be your day. The combination of good weather conditions, strong finger-tip skin, high psyche and the necessary strength and fitness all need to align, with near celestial improbability, for you to climb a route at your limit.
 
You often go out to the crag, try your project once, fall, and feel so completely drained by that effort that you don’t have enough energy for even one more attempt.
 
“There were so many times I went to the crag and didn’t do it,” says Sharma. “It became this normal thing. Well, how do you keep finding progress or satisfaction in that? I began to think of going climbing as a routine. It wasn’t some big important thing. Rather I treated it like I was just going for a run. Or doing a daily yoga practice. Climbing is my routine. Go to the cliff, give 100 percent, and whatever happens happens. I was just satisfied that I got to go climbing.”
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-12In March, Sharma started getting close to the redpoint again. He was climbing up to his high point reached in December. The window of opportunity was opening. He had fallen twice in the upper section. One day he climbed through the most difficult moves and did not even feel tired. He told himself, OK, this is my time to do it.
 
Then his foot slipped.
 
He had taken his mind out of the moment, out of the present tense, and was already envisioning his minutes-later future self at the top of the climb.
 
“The next time I went back,” says Sharma, “I felt that pressure. I knew I could do it. This should be my day.” On his first attempt, he fell on the first big dyno move. “I could’ve spent another 15 days just trying to get through that one move.”
 
He sat at the base, hoping he didn’t miss yet another window. He wasn’t sure when he’d be able to climb next. The heat of summer was just around the corner. If he didn’t send it that day, he’d have to wait until next December for it to be cool enough to give serious redpointing efforts. By then he’d be half a year older, maybe even two pounds heavier.
 
The possibility that he might never do it existed.
 
It was March 28th. Earlier that morning, Sharma had met a climber from Brazil. They were talking, and the Brazilian climber gave Sharma some advice.
 
“He said, ‘Go out there to play, but play perfectly.’ That was the mentality. Play. Have fun. But play perfectly.”
 
chris-sharma-la-dura-dura-14The failure of that first attempt somehow allowed Sharma to detach from the goal. “It got me back into that mindset of going out to do my yoga practice, my ritual, and my daily exercise just to feel good. That’s why I climb. To feel good about myself.”
 
Sharma tied in and thought, play perfectly. He started climbing.
 
Sharma continued climbing. He held no thoughts of redpointing. He wasn’t concerned about being the first to do this route. The world wasn’t watching him; it was just him and his friends, even including one of his first mentors, Boone Speed.
 
He was just there, happy to be out climbing and spending a day playing in the vertical with his friends.
 
“That was a trippy thing. I just forgot about the goal. I was just using this time on the route as my training. Not training for something. Training just to be a master of your own body, a master of yourself.”
 
In that open mental space, Sharma was surprised when, ten perfect minutes later, he found himself at the top of La Dura Dura.
 
“Maybe you’ll never be at your limit—you’ll always be climbing a little bit below it. But when I did it, that day I felt certain that I was capable of doing something harder.”
 
Big Projects always seem to lead to a culmination of sorts, perhaps no different than when the sun reaches its zenith during the solstice.
 
But in that moment of ultimate celebration, it’s important to return to the understanding that no crowning moment is permanent. Yesterday the sun was still waxing; tomorrow it will be waning. The time of greatest achievement is only a barely perceptible point along this great continuum.
 
Yet from there, a new cycle always begins.
 
~ Chris Sharma, prAna Ambassador

~If Chris Sharma’s story has inspired you, please share this post with others and pay your inspiration forward…

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