Why This Professional Rock Climber Free-Climbed a Giant Redwood Tree

Chris Sharma, one of the world's best rock climbers, tackled a new challenge.

— -- Climbing a California Coast Redwood tree from the ground to its lush canopy was a feat never before attempted, which was part of the allure for a guy who conquers mountains with his fingertips.

Chris Sharma, 34, is considered one of the world’s best rock climbers, but even for him, ascending a giant Redwood tree was a mind-blowing challenge.

“It’s definitely climbing, but it’s definitely not rock climbing,” he said.

Using only his hands and feet, Sharma completed an unprecedented free climb last week when he ascended a California Redwood, which was 252 feet tall and its trunk was almost 26 feet around. During his trek, Sharma collected tree samples for the U.C. Berkeley Tree Biologists.

Sharma’s climb was a year in the making and took him thousands of miles from his home in Spain back to his roots in Northern California, where he used to climb as a kid living in Santa Cruz.

“For me it really is super close to my heart, this whole process,” he said. “And it’s much more than climbing a tree. It’s a way of paying homage to this whole amazing ecosystem and also where I’m from and kind of literally coming back to my roots.”

Each climb comes with its own set of challenges and Sharma carefully prepared for this one, using a rope and harness only to protect him from falls, but not to make upward progress. But he said even his family and friends didn’t understand at first why he would want to climb a Redwood tree.

“Everyone is kind of like, ‘huh?’” Sharma said. “I’m so trained to find new climbs, that’s really what I specialize in, is doing first ascents ... and imagining a way to go up it.”

But even with his years of experience, Sharma said he felt like a beginner when he faced the Redwoods. Instead of the rock crevasses he’s used to, Sharma only had chips of bark to grip. To ensure the tree wasn’t harmed, he wore special footwear he designed himself.

“It was just kind of like a blank stare at the wall where I'm trying to find the hand holds and I couldn’t focus on anything because there’s nothing to stand on,” Sharma said. “Everything is there but it is a really challenging climb.”

The pressure was on because the team of tree biologists from U.C. Berkeley were there studying the impact of California’s historic drought on the Redwoods, which are an endangered species. They put Sharma’s climbing skills to work, having him collect data along his climb so that they could assess the health of the Redwoods.

“They are amazing, resilient trees,” said biologist Anthony Ambrose. “These trees have lived here for thousands of years, individuals, and they’ve dealt with pretty severe conditions in the past, so we’re pretty optimistic that they’ll be able to deal with this.”

Since the Redwoods are endangered, climbing them is illegal, but Sharma and the team got a scientific research permit for the climb.

There was also a full production crew from Red Bull, which sponsors Sharma, on site to capture his record-setting attempt. They had rigged 2,000 feet of rope, mounted seven cameras and even built a cable-cam to capture angles from an adjacent tree.

As he worked his way up the trunk, Sharma marked his track in chalk, and like a giant endurance puzzle he begins to piece the climb together. The higher he climbed, the harder the bark was to grip.

Finally, after numerous attempts, Sharma made it into the Redwood tree’s canopy.

“It ended up being a lot more difficult than I thought,” he said afterwards. “But in the end we were able to climb all the sequences, but yeah it was super humbling and it was a huge reminder of how all powerful nature is.”