Rock Star: Sasha DiGiulian knows how to make it to the top.
Sasha DiGiulian is a world champion climber who currently divides her time between rock and asphalt. When she’s not climbing some of the most astonishingly beautiful rock walls around the world, she’s finishing her undergraduate degree at Columbia University in New York City. Sasha is the first and only North American woman to climb the grade 5.14d, which is recognized as the most difficult sport climb ever achieved by a woman.
How did you realize that climbing was your passion?
I was a competitive figure skating and did ballet. It was my mom’s dream for me to be a figure skater. It’s really cutthroat! I also played soccer and was on the swim team, but then my brother had a birthday party at a local climbing gym when I was six, and I just really liked it. The gym employees told my mom, “You should bring her back. We have this junior team program that she can join, and we practice each Saturday morning.” It was basically a group organized thing for kids who liked climbing, so I started going every weekend.
When did you know that you were good at it?
One Saturday morning, I walked into the gym and they were hosting a youth regional championship. In order to qualify, you were supposed to have done three local competitions. I just wanted to climb. So the organizer was like, “Yeah, sure she can climb. She just can’t move on to the next round.” I competed in the 11-and-under category, and I randomly won my category. I was like, “This is really cool!” I realized there was a whole “sport” element to climbing, which I loved because I’m a naturally competitive person. And there were all of these other kids doing it, so I really loved the camaraderie.
What about the sport do you love?
I really love how it’s this convergence of mental and physical ability. You have to be good at problem solving, which is reading the rock and figuring out the sequence of what your moves will be. But physically, in order to succeed, you need to be completely present. And often you surprise yourself with what you’re actually able to do. You’ll try something and think that it’s impossible, until you figure out that if I move my foot a little bit left and twist my hip, then all of a sudden, what I couldn’t do, I can do. Plus I love the whole outdoor element to it. I just feel so much more fulfilled being outside, which is ironic because I live in New York City.
How do you reconcile living in New York with your love for being outdoors?
I go to school at Columbia University, where I’m studying non-fiction writing and business. The first two years at Columbia, I really enjoyed it. It was like I had these two separate identities. I can be someone who loves the outdoors and has a whole community of climbers and experiences and traveling, and then I can be this student who is in this urban environment. I haven’t had a weekend in New York in months because I normally travel Thursdays to Sundays. For instance, I was just in Zion climbing this route called Moonlight Buttress and we slept at about 1,500 feet up on the wall! And then you come back to the city and sit in the library, and it’s so bizarre because everyone who is sitting in the library has been sitting there for the whole weekend. So I think now my love for the outdoors is beginning to crush this feeling of wanting to be in the city. I’m feeling a bit caged. I’m pretty ready to be finished with school now, but it has gone really quickly.
What would you say are your greatest strengths on the rock and off?
To be a great climber, a lot of it comes down to having the will to try. If I had doubted myself initially, I would never have put myself into the arena and gone for it, and would never have had the opportunity to surprise myself. A lot of climbing experiences come from stepping outside of your comfort zone and being willing to accept a challenge, but also come from not limiting yourself mentally. What’s both good and bad about me is that I’m a bit headstrong. I’ll think that something’s possible and then be really stubborn about it. I don’t like to say, “This isn’t possible” until I’ve completely failed. The moments of climbing I remember most vividly are the times I’ve failed, because you just feel really raw in that moment. You can feel like “this is what I need to work on” or “this is why it wasn’t possible.” Another weakness would be that I tend to say yes to a lot of things. When there are these cool opportunities, I’ll say, “Yeah I’ll come to this! I’ll come to that!” And then it’s whittling down that process and realizing, “OK, this is what I have time for, and this other thing can wait.” Carving out what is really essential is tough.
As a rock climber, how do you push yourself to achieve new things safely?
The type of climbing I specialize in is called “free climbing.” The difference between free climbing and “free soloing” is that in soloing, you don’t have a rope. In free climbing, you have a rope, and you’re placing gear into the wall. Each time you place gear and establish a new anchor point, it becomes the last place you would fall to. Whether it’s a long fall or a shorter fall, it depends on how far you go from your last anchor point. So there’s actually a lot of room for failure because when you fall, you’re just falling into the rope. It’s not like free soloing where if you fall, the fatality risk is almost certain.
What determines the degree of difficulty of a climb?
There’s a scale in climbing from 5.0 to 5.15, and essentially, the higher you go numerically on scale, the harder the climb gets exponentially. After 5.10, it breaks into sub categories of a, b, c, and d. It’s based on all these layers of technical elements and the power and endurance it takes to get to the top. What changes about the route is the quality of the holds, so what you’re gripping onto could be this little credit card shape that’s protruding from the wall, which is really small and hard, or you can have a big bucket that you’re putting your hand onto and pulling up on, like a ladder. So it’s more about figuring out how to climb on things that are like little credit cards protruding from the wall. Or how it is that you can put your body in a position to scale something that seems completely blank. That’s where the failure comes in. You’ll fall 99% of the time, but the times you actually succeed are what makes you keep coming back and wanting more.
Those critical moments when you challenge yourself and fail, is it more a failure of what your physical capabilities are? Or is it more a failure of mentally unlocking the puzzle of the rock?
I think it’s both. Obviously, I’ll fall a lot, because I physically need to be in better shape or stronger. But as soon as your mind gives up, your body gives up. And your mind has such a larger capacity to keep going. When you are scaling something, and you say to yourself, “I’m tired,” or “This is too hard for me,” you’ve given up. You may have a lot more that you are capable of physically, but if your mind gives up, you’ve already fallen. When I’m climbing and I’m trying to get to the top of something really hard, I can’t be thinking about falling. All I can be thinking about is the present and what move I have next, rather than what could go wrong.
Has rock climbing given you a disproportionate sense of what you can achieve in life? If I can climb this rock, I can do anything!
I wish! Climbing is such a metaphorical word for so many other things. You can climb and conquer your dreams. Climbing has taught me what hard work and dedication can lead to, and I’ve learned a sense of satisfaction and personal success—things like goal setting, how to be determined, how to work for what you want to achieve. It’s never going to come easy, like anything in life. You may have an innate talent for something, but if you don’t activate that talent and put in the hours, then even the most naturally talented climber in the world isn’t going to be scaling things that other people can’t. You also have to learn from those moments when you fail. You can either be upset and think about everything that’s gone wrong, or you can figure out what you need to change, and how to move forward.
Is it hard for women to become pro climbers?
There is so much more negativity attached to female athletics than to male athletics. As soon as you achieve some sort of success, there are going to be people trying to derail that success and dismissing why you achieved it. I’ve definitely heard people say, “Oh, she was able to do that because she’s only 100 pounds.” As if to say, “Well, if I was that light, of course I could do it.” But why couldn’t it be that I did it because I’m an athlete who was at the gym every day, training for it? That all gets shifted to the side, and it gets clouded with this fog of negativity. People try to attribute your success to some factor that you didn’t control. Moments like that are when you need to have those core inner values. These are my friends. This is my family. This is what I value, and this is my sense of personal success. Whatever anyone else says isn’t going to faze me.
What’s the scariest moment you’ve ever had?
I was in the Dolomites in Italy climbing an alpine route with my partner. We were about 1000 feet off the ground, but were still about 200 feet from the top. We had veered off track from the intended line and ended up in a place where no one had climbed before. We were looking for spots that we could place gear, or where there already was pre-placed gear, but the rock was pretty malleable, and there was no place for the gear to go. So we were faced with this situation where we couldn’t keep going and we couldn’t descend.
What did you do?
At that point, we only had a couple of options. We could simul climb, which means that my partner and I would attach ourselves to each other and climb to the top at the same time. If one of us fell, there would be a slight chance that the other person could catch them and stay on the wall. Or, more realistically, both of us would fall. The only other option was free soloing, which meant climbing the rest of the way to the top without a rope. We essentially had to decide to free solo.
That sounds terrifying.
I was climbing, and my left hand and left foot ripped from the wall—the rock fell off. It was this moment of seeing a wisp of gravity as the rock plummeted into this vast sea of blackness below. My body reacted instinctively and did whatever was necessary to stay on the wall. There was this moment of realization that you can’t complain, because you have no one to complain to. You can’t do anything about the situation, other than be in that moment and figure out a way to get to the top, because it was essentially do or die. So that was a big turning point both in my climbing career and as a human being. I’ve even applied it to school. It’s like, ok, I have this big test that I have to take in two days and I haven’t done any of this reading. So what do I do? You can either dwell on what you haven’t done, or you can jump right in and just start figuring out what you have to do to get to the best-case scenario.
What climb is your Moby Dick?
I’m still trying to figure that out. I don’t want to be too fixated on the difficulty of the climb. In an ideal world, I’m climbing the next hardest climb that’s aesthetically inspiring as well. It would be a physical and mental pursuit of something I didn’t know was possible. I don’t have one big project in mind yet, but I’m sure that I’ll figure out what the climb is that I’ve been dreaming about – whether it’s becoming the first woman to climb a 5.15 or doing some big alpine climb that uses all of the new skills I’ve been acquiring. When I finish school, I’ll be focusing on climbing professionally again and being in an environment where I can set these big goals. More holistically, I would like to inspire as many people as possible to discover what I’ve discovered, which is the extent of what happens when you’re living a passion. Especially for women, climbing is such an empowering sport, because it is this transformative vessel for so many other things such as determination and goal setting and feeling the benefits of what participating in any sport can bring.
You’re an Ambassador for Right to Play, a nonprofit that uses the power of sport to make a difference in the lives of kids around the world. How did you get involved?
Right to Play matches everything that I believe in and what my values are. I got involved back in 2008 and once I realized what the organization was about and what it stood for, I started doing a lot more work with them. It’s amazing that Right to Play’s whole emphasis is on the power of sport. There is nothing else in the world as empowering as the feeling you get from accomplishing something you’ve worked hard to achieve. Sport is that foundational tool we all have to experience these things. I would love to go work on location with some of the programs that Right to Play has in Africa and actually experience bringing sports to kids who don’t have the opportunity to play. Spreading what you learn, whether it’s teaching a clinic or speaking about it, still isn’t quite the same as seeing how people experience sport and seeing how lives can be changed. This summer is going to be a little busy—I’m going to be climbing in Japan, Vail, Spain, Wyoming, China and Norway—but I’m hoping to make it to the field in the very near future.