HBO's The Climb shows true climbing culture
Chris Sharma, Jason Momoa, and an epic Spain climbing competition? Yes Please.
I may be spending the winter months working and kitesurfing in Mexico, enjoying the sun, living in the moment, drinking cervezas from my rooftop deck and all that living my best life stuff, but I’ll be honest—with each new group of episodes that dropped for HBO’s The Climb, I stopped everything, sat down on the sofa and watched TV. I plugged my laptop into the widescreen television in the apartment and watched until there were no more episodes to watch.
Yesterday, the last two episodes aired—and though I’m not in the habit of reviewing TV shows here, it seems this one was made for me.
Or, it kind of was.
The Climb attempts to straddle a middle ground between appealing directly to climbers and being accessible as entertainment to a broader audience, to the merely climbing curious.
It’s a challenge, and I can certainly relate. I write a lot about climbing here—but as I’m aware most of you don’t climb, I try to write in a way that communicates to non-climbers what exactly is so special about the pursuit, and why those things are important to me. This piece (gated) and this one are both good examples.
The Climb does the same, and it can be a bit awkward. There are a lot of times when Sharma and co-hosts dumb down the language and over-explain the more technical aspects for the benefit of viewers who don’t have any exposure to climbing. For me, it’s mildly annoying. But I get it—and it’s worth it for all the amazing things about the show.
Ultimately, Sharma and the entire show faithfully communicate a lot of what is special about climbing (which is more than I can say for the crazy-stupid Olympics format). In a world where many of the media representations of climbing are either highly sensationalized, far outside the norm, or outright wrong, The Climb lovingly respresents many of the qualities that make climbing special. Well done team.
Ok, five things I loved:
1. The camaraderie in climbing is real, even among competitors
The Climb purports to be a competition show—the winner gets a $100,000 prize, plus a sponsorship from Prana worth another $100,000. But from the camaraderie on display throughout the series, it was easy to forget the climbers were actually in competition with each other.
I assure you, this is a very real reflection of what it’s like out at the crag. Climbing can be competitive, but that is far from its essence. More than anything, climbing is a test of you against yourself, and every climber knows it. Even at the highest, most elite levels of competition, climbers are friends, supportive and encouraging. Climbers share beta (information on how to do specific moves), discuss strategies about how to approach climbs, and celebrate every time someone sends, or finishes leading a climb without any falls.
The same happens on The Climb. It wasn’t at all surprising, but it was heartening to see it on display so prominently. Even when facing elimination, the climbers are unfailingly supportive. When one is eliminated from the competition, it’s sad even for the climber who narrowly eliminated them, because everyone is aware the community itself is diminished when one of them has to go home.
And that is a huge part of what makes climbing so, so special: the community. It’s a sport that naturally lends itself to it, and there are generally very few assholes around (they tend to have difficulty finding climbing partners).
With incredibly rare exception, what climbers want most is for everyone they’re out at the crag with to do their best, try hard, push boundaries and conquer whatever fears or demons are holding them back—seriously, it’s that cheesy. But it’s very real, and you see it in the show.
2. The climbers were good, but not elite good
As soon as a show announced these climbers were competing with each other to go pro, i.e., get the Prana sponsorship, I was concerned that I’d be watching a bunch of semi-pro climbers who were so far out of my league that it’d be tough to relate to the challenges (see Honold, Alex).
Thankfully, that’s not the case. The climbers are all good—definitely better than me—but not that much better.
In the second-to-last episode, the four remaining contestants climb a four-pitch, 5.11c. It’s a climb totally within my range, although, I’m sure they all did it much faster than I could. In the last episode, the winner of the competition essentially on-sites a 5.12b (climbs it on the first try, with no falls). I’ve never done that, but also I have climbed a 12b—it just takes me a bunch more tries.
The point is, the show is about very good climbers trying to get better—not super elite climbers to whom it’s difficult to relate. It was super refreshing to see since it’s in stark contrast to a lot of the recent climbing documentaries, namely Free Solo, The Alpinist, and The Dawn Wall.
3. Men, women, and trans all together, in one competition
It’s clear the producers aimed to get a diverse group on the show: men, women, old, young, black, white, and trans. What’s cool about the sport of climbing is that this actually works as a competition, and in fact, it’s not that big of a deal, or really even a factor. Not to give too many spoilers, but I assure you that none of the details of a contestant’s gender, race, or age are much help at all in predicting the outcome.
This is part of what I love about climbing. I can show up to pretty much any gym in the world, and it won’t be surprising to see both a 13-year-old girl and a 50-year-old man climbing harder than me. Race, gender, age, and sexual identity just don’t have much to do with performance. Ok maybe age—but age still pales as a factor in comparison to technique, strength, mental toughness, and other factors.
Granted, it is good to be tall most of the time, but then certain moves also lend themselves better to shorter people. Maybe it’s good to have a lot of upper body strength on some kinds of climbs, but I’d trade strength for better footwork any day. You can see this on the show, with the super muscly guy having problems in some places, but thriving in others, and the woman with a good head game excelling where others who might be stronger or have better technique struggle.
It’s good to be lean and lithe, and to have mental toughness and good technique—but it just doesn’t necessarily help to be any particular gender or identity.
I think that’s pretty cool.
4. They showcased all the different kinds of climbing
This perhaps is one of the greatest services the show did for the sport. As he mentions a few times, Sharma’s intent is to find the best all around climber, which means exposing them to as many different styles and types of challenges as possible.
So we get to see almost everything: hard bouldering problems, sport climbing (even projecting), a long multi-pitch, a heady trad lead, and even deep water soloing. Sharma takes us on a tour of everything outdoor climbing has to offer, and every style, from low-angle slab, to overhanging jug hauls, to crimpy, cruxy beta-intensive faces, and my favorite: a long, skin-punishing, masochistic crack climb.
I say outdoor climbing, because the show rarely goes into a climbing gym, thank God. This, despite the fact that all modern day climbing competitions take place on fake, plastic holds, and also despite the fact that Sharma himself owns two gyms. There is one brief sequence where two climbers facing elimination have to outrace each other on a standard speed route up an indoor wall in Sharma’s Barcelona gym, but aside from those few minutes, the show remains blessedly, gratefully outdoors.
And why not? Spain is utterly gorgeous (At one point, a sweeping opening arial shot even captured a specific crag I climbed on in Siurana last November). They also go to Wadi Rum in Jordan for a few episodes, a nice detour to get some limestone and other geology into the show.
Whereas I’ve run into more than a few civilians who think climbing is about free soloing because they saw Free Solo, The Climb shows the actual diversity of the sport’s many styles, and how each can challenge different climbers in different ways.
5. Chris Sharma represents the best of climbing and climbers
Cards on the table: Chris Sharma is my climbing hero. I already think he represents an ethic and a lifestyle worth paying attention to, whether or not you climb.
Last November, my son and I happened to ran into Sharma in Siurana on our last day of climbing. My son even took a selfie with him. It was the perfect cap to an amazing trip.
Later, I wrote that part of what I admire about Sharma’s approach to climbing is that he pursues routes not only because they’re hard, but because they’re beautiful and inspiring to him personally:
Aesthetic lines. Arches above the ocean. Perfect cracks. Overhanging cliffs inside cathedrals… Sharma eventually coined the term King Lines— “iconic routes that inspired him to spend the months and even years needed to climb them.” Today, Sharma embodies a kind of zen ’d-out, intrinsically-motivated, guru-like love for the sport.
In The Climb, it’s evident the other climbers feel the same way about him as I do. He is not just guru, but coach, mentor, tour guide, and friend.
There’s a telling sequence in one of the early episodes, when a climber who has already qualified for the next round decides to jump off a deep water solo climb, rather than waste more energy pushing to the top. It’s the kind of strategic gamesmanship that in other sports, or in other settings, would be totally expected of a competitor to get an edge. Par for the course.
But Sharma has none of it. Later over dinner, he calls out the climber in front of the entire group for not giving the climb his all, for not trying his hardest. In his usual “just one man’s opinion” totally chill voice (but also the voice of a climbing legend they all look up to), Sharma admonishes him to respect the show, his fellow climbers, and the sport itself by always trying his hardest, always giving it his all.
The scene is emblematic of why climbing is more than a sport, and the show is more than a simple competition. Climbing really can be a way of life, and if it’s a way of life, you need to decide how to live it, and by what ethic: not half-assed or simply to beat others, but to find your own limits, to know in your own heart you tried your hardest, to be sure that you took the highest possible advantage of every opportunity given to you.
Anyway—he was a good guy, the climber. But from then on, neither him nor anyone else would dare do anything to disappoint Sharma. Moments like that—and shows like this—are how ethics get communicated from one generation to the next, and it was wonderful to see.