RCL Exclusive

Meet Sasha DiGiulian, Climbing Champion

RealClearLife's Kinga Philipps talks to the first woman to free climb the 'Murder Wall.'

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Back in the days of yore making history was like making a sandwich. Pretty easy. You just had to leave your settlement and go a little further than the last guy and BOOM you were a historical figure. These days it’s a little tougher. Less of a sandwich and more of a soufflé … at least for the average pencil pusher. Not so much for the likes of world champion rock climber Sasha DiGiulian who’s made history on several accounts and keeps doing so on the regular.

Here’s a little sampler platter of her record-setting ways. At 19, Sasha ascended the Era Vella in Spain and became the only North American woman to complete the toughest level of climbing ever achieved by one of the female persuasion. At 22 she became the first woman to free climb the invitingly named “Murder Wall” in the Swiss Alps. She’s the first American woman to climb a route graded 5.14d in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. She holds the distinction of being the first woman (and first American) to climb Magic Mushroom, another fantastic name, on the Eiger in Switzerland … where her helmet was destroyed by hailstorms of rockfall and snowy conditions thwarted several of the early attempts.

Sasha DiGiulian
Sasha DiGiulian climbs Pedra Riscada in Sao Jose do Divino, Brazil on july 24, 2016 (Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull)

If you are as unversed in climbing grades as I am, I’ll save you the time spent perusing various charts of numbers that change with each country, and sometimes multiple times within a country itself, and send you to this REI chart I settled on for a better understanding of Sasha’s accomplishments.

For a visually more jaw-dropping perspective, Google the places listed above and gape in awe like I did that a 5’2″ biped of delicate human composition…skin and bones…managed to tackle and overcome such ferocious monuments of nature.

Sasha has been the undefeated Pan American Champion from 2004 to current status, and she’s a three-time U.S. National Champion. She has accomplished multiple first ascents and 28 first female ascents across the world.

Now throw into the equation that she’s a free climber. That means, although she is roped in for safety against a fall, she is doing all the work herself with just her hands and feet … sometimes using only her fingertips for grip.

 

For most, staring up at a thousand foot precipice is a severe reminder of our delicateness.

For Sasha, it’s nature’s sirens song of another challenge that needs to be met.

Her first climbing experience was at the tender age of six. Her first competition at age seven. At 11 she climbed her first 5.13b ….which, according to our handy-dandy REI chart, is very difficult. It would be hard to argue that this gal wasn’t born to climb.

This past summer, Sasha made history again. She became the first woman to free-climb the Mora Mora in Madagascar, a 2,400-foot granite wall. Since being established as a climbing route in 1999, it has only ever seen one prior ascent. Sasha and her climbing partner spent three days living on the rock wall, sleeping on a portaledge … essentially a cliffside cot where you snooze soundly while suspended above the void.

In addition to climbing, Sasha has a regular column with Outside magazine and has been a published writer for a variety of outlets from National Geographic to Self, which is a fitting mélange for a young woman who appreciates pink nails and high heels as much as she does breaking climbing records and cliffside dwelling for days at a time, a feat that brought up a plethora of logistical questions in my mind. Fortunately, I stumbled upon one of Sasha’s insightful columns in which she addressed the exact issue that was plaguing my imagination…going to the bathroom. To satiate the curiosity of everyone else, she informed her readers that you do your business in plastic bags and pee off the side of the portaledge … while harnessed in of course. Then you toss it into something delightfully named a “poop tube” and carry it out with you. Having the sense of humor of a 12-year-old boy I immediately went down the internet rabbit hole of such things and quickly learned that you can purchase a quality poop tube for roughly $60 or make it yourself on the cheap from a PVC pipe. Leave no trace indeed.

Not only is Sasha an outstanding athlete and writer, she is also an accomplished orator, having spoken at Harvard Business School and completed her own TED Talk. She has also offered her voice to the conservation conversation visiting Washington to speak with Congress about the value of keeping public lands public.

Having appeared on over two dozen magazine covers and walked a few miles of red carpets, Sasha is a good reminder that you can be feminine, feisty, elegant and badass all in the same package and anyone who tells you otherwise can bugger off into thin air.

Sasha DiGiulian
Sasha DiGiulian collaborates with students from Pratt Institute on their new gopro climbing designs at Brooklyn Boulders in Brooklyn, NY, USA on September 13, 2017. (Laura Barisonzi/Red Bull)

Congratulations on making history on Mora Mora in Madagascar. That’s a pretty weighty statement, “making history.” And it’s not your first time to have that phrase attached to your accomplishments. How do those words resonate with you?

Sasha DiGiulian: I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude to be able to do what I am most passionate about for a living and have the opportunity to travel and explore cultures and landscapes that I never would otherwise visit. “Making History” to me means defining new standards. This is a motivation of mine, absolutely – to push myself and to realize what it is that I am capable of achieving when I dedicate myself to a goal. If I can inspire other people along the way or set a new benchmark for achievement, this is a bonus.

Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?

SD: I first went climbing when I was six after my brother had a birthday party at a local climbing gym. I didn’t know what “passion” meant; I just knew that climbing I felt good. I enjoyed the process, the control, and my ability to advance upwards. What I put into climbing was what I got out of it. As I grew up with the sport, I realized that climbing had begun this integral part of who I am and what I represent. I am passionate about climbing because I love the experience, the feelings that I have while doing it, the community, and the places that it takes me. I have experienced different chapters within my climbing career – from competitions to single pitch sport climbs, to bigger walls and new adventures. While my journey takes different turns, my love for the sport only seems to increase. I have an immense appreciation for the confidence that I have acquired and the ability to define myself based off of an act of doing what I love.

 

Describe the feeling of climbing using the five senses to someone who might never have the chance (or guts) to do it.

SD: I see an intricate rock face in front of me. I look at the cliff face and I can envision my path up it based on the protrusions in the wall that I can identify. I feel this grainy, rough texture beneath the callus of my finger tips. I hear this calm hum of silence. I smell fresh, crisp air around me. I taste my own lips as I pierce them together, focusing on the movement that my body is doing.

The experience of living hundreds/thousands of feet up on the side of a cliff for days at a time must be surreal. You talk about sipping whiskey and listening to animal noises below at night while sitting on your portaledge. What’s the best part of a typical post climbing evening like for you as you settle in?

SD: Generally by the time that my climbing partner and I reach the portaledge we are exhausted by a long day of climbing. The first, most exciting part of the evening is preparing food. This last trip in Madagascar we didn’t use a stove, so dinner-prep was more like pulling out all the food that we had in our haul bag and coming up with an appetizing concoction. This included bread and canned fish, salami, nuts, and dried fruit, mainly. We also had cookies. Then, just having the feeling of sitting and looking out at this vast landscape, removed from any sort of chaos, just silently there, with this inner sense of satisfaction. I love unwinding after long days of effort, replenishing with food and relaxing.

 

You value your femininity as much as your athleticism. What are the benefits and difficulties of being a woman who enjoys sleeping in a soft bed and getting dressed up in heels whenever she feels like it in what could be looked at as a rugged-manly-man-living-in-a-van-and-not-showering-for-weeks space?

SD: I think that it is fun to do both. There is no reason to not be able to entertain both lifestyles.The thing is, when I don’t need to be sleeping on the side of a cliff and I have the option to be in my house – of course I am going to enjoy my Tempurpedic bed and sleeping really well.

I have found that people can be quick to judge other peoples’ approach to life. But the only opinions that matter are our own, and those that we care about. Being a female athlete, I’ve experienced unnecessary meddling from others in my life – from what I wear, how much I weigh, who I date, to what I buy. Climbing means different things to different people, and I try to refrain from questioning or judging other people’s decisions on how they choose to live their lives. My bottom line is that if someone is overly concerned with mine and chooses to bring negativity into my life, they are not someone I want anything to do with.

I value my family immensely and my close friends are a part of this family. It is always a shame to me to lose trust in people that are in this group, but I do not believe that anyone has the time, nor energy, to deal with insecure actions made by others. I will distance myself from people like this and remove these toxic relationships from my inner circle.

Sasha DiGiulian
Sasha DiGiulian climbs Pedra Riscada in Sao Jose do Divino, Brazil on july 24, 2016 (Marcelo Maragni/Red Bull)

In an article you wrote for Outside magazine about accepting your body as an athlete and a woman you said something that really moved me…

“I live in both worlds: one that puts me in an environment highlighting beauty and femininity; the other valuing strength and grit.

I need to remind myself: these lats that are preventing my dress from zipping up are the tools that I have to do my sport. They are what set me apart; they make me unique. From my crooked, callused fingers to my bunion toes, my body is my own. I do not owe this look to anyone else.”

That is an incredibly powerful paragraph for women to read. What is your best advice for owning the skin you’re in?

SD: We all (well, like, 90% of us) have body image issues. I grapple with my own insecurities daily, and I am a professional athlete who should theoretically be comfortable in my own skin. The truth of the matter is that I will consistently need to have this dialogue with myself, to remind myself what I am proud of what I’ve done, and to take time to appreciate people in my life that bring positive energy. There are some days that I feel more confident in my own skin than others. Though, what is consistent, is that the people that I am with also contribute to this confidence. Having a supportive network of people that you trust is extremely important. Also, I find that the easiest way to be comfortable with yourself is to be open and honest with others.

Most people would be terrified to do what you do. So what terrifies you….if anything?

SD: Sharks. Haha! And, commitment in relationships perhaps. Lol. (Sasha, I will take you shark diving anytime you want to show you there is noting to be afraid of.)

 

How do you mentally prep for a climb? Do you have any lucky items you wear, something you always eat before, etc.?

SD: I always paint my nails pink (or get a manicure). That’s my lucky habit. I also find that leaving the ground in a good mood, smiling, positively affects my performance.

What’s the process of evaluation for a climb? How to determine it’s safe? How to decide where to start?

SD: When I am trying a new climb I will work out the different sections of it individually, allowing myself to rest on the wall, take falls, and learn the movements. This way, too, I learn to trust myself better and also my belayer.

What are some of the stats on places you have climbed? Most interesting? Highest? Most dangerous? Most challenging? Favorite?

SD: Most dangerous: the north face of the Eiger

Most interesting: Rural Indonesia

Highest: North Face of the Eiger

Most Challenging: Mora Mora (big wall) and maybe Era Vella, 9a, in Spain

Favorite: South Africa, Yosemite and Spain

 

You’ve said that you find it insulting when major brands choose fashion models instead of real athletes to advertise their products. What are the pitfalls of this from a professional athletes perspective?

SD: I believe that there is a double standard when it comes to the ways in which athletic brands will choose to use male athletes versus female athletes. Male athletes are seldom replaced by models. On the contrary, this happens often with fitness brands and women. I believe that models have a place within the fitness industry, but my claim is that fitness models should not replace top performing athletes that represent specific sports. For instance, if an athletic brand is portraying a female boxer, use this as an opportunity to showcase your professional female boxing athlete. There is a space within the industry for everyone, though I would like to see more professional female athletes be used in large campaigns and brand advertising.

Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?

SD: Define your own standards, believe in yourself, and create your own authentic path. Strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive, and by standing together and supporting each other, we have the power to overcome gender imbalances. Sports serve as a transformative vessel for life’s lessons, including goal setting, leadership, and confidence. I would like to spread this message to as many people as possible, and to spread the value of living a healthy and active lifestyle.

What other hobbies do you have that people might not expect?

SD: I have been skiing since I was 3. I love to bake, and I make my own nutrition bars. I also enjoy reading, watching TED Talks, and I write almost every night.

What future life goals do you have for the next 5 years?  Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.?

SD: A career bucket list goal of mine is to host an adventure-travel TV show. I would also like to do a first ascent on every continent.

Advice for anyone looking to get into something as high octane as climbing…or your best life advice? From what I’ve seen and read, you’re quite the sage with a great outlook on living fully, cleanly and gently.

SD: Identify what it is that you love doing, and do all that you can to do this more often.

Sasha DiGiulian
Sasha DiGiulian prepares to climb Peace (5.13c/d), in Tuolumne Meadows (Yosemite National Park), CA USA on July 22, 2015. (Christian Pondella/Red Bull)