Santa Cruz rock climber Chris Sharma set his sights on free climbing a new medium last week – giant redwoods in the Northern California old growth glade.

In free climbing, he was protected from falls by rope and harness, but Sharma used only his feet and hands to scale a redwood in Eureka, CA. The tree measured 252.8 feet high and 25.8 feet in circumference, and was estimated by UC Berkley biologists to be 600-700 years old.

The climb was sponsored by energy drink Red Bull, and its Australian company Red Bull GmbH.

“Growing up in Santa Cruz, even before I started rock climbing, I always played on trees,” said Sharma. “I always come back between my travels to the redwood forest and walk around, and I’ve started looking up and seeing more than just trees, but actually seeing lines that would be amazing to climb on.”

Motivation behind the project was to collect data alongside UC Berkley biologists Anthony Ambrose and Wendy Baxter, helping enhance their understanding of California’s giant Coast Redwoods. Sharma’s data from the Eureka freeclimb was used as an indicator of how the current California drought has affected redwood tree water status.

“We were pleased to see that the redwood tree appeared to be doing well and was not water-stressed at this time,” said Ambrose, one of the UC Berkeley Tree Biologists who helped plan and execute the climb. Data showed a scoring of 1.20 MPa measurement of treetop leaf water potential for the redwood, indicating a low level of hydration stress. Only a year ago, Ambrose noticed high levels of stress on Santa Cruz trees, due in part, he believes, to global climate changes and drought.


Giant Ascent Infographic

The redwood chosen for the climb was a Sequoia sempervirens, cousin to the Giant Sequoias growing native to in-land California. Its location was key – positioned in a city park, with established trails that allowed easy access for Sharma and the team of UC biologists, without unnecessary damage to understory.

Ambrose also noted that, “the lower trunk bark was fire-hardened and the trunk did not support sensitive epiphytes such as lichens or mosses that would have been damaged from climbing it,” making Sharma’s climb low-impact on the tree’s ecosystem. “Chris‘ entire climb was incredibly low-impact and on solid outer bark well below the branch level,” Ambrose said.

Sharma was first recognized in the rock climbing scene at age 14, when he won the U.S. Bouldering Nationals. At 15 he climbed a 5.12c, rumored to be the hardest route ever completed at the time. Sharma has since created other 5.15 routes around the world in France, Spain and California.

“Climbing trees is way different than climbing rocks, they’re living beings,” Sharma said.