CUTTING-EDGE AMERICAN CLIMBER WITH CANADIAN ROOTS
Sasha DiGiulian is one of the world’s strongest climbers and she’s been at the cutting-edge of female climbing for nearly a decade. Her exploits have taken her around the world, to some of the most beautiful and remote climbing areas. DiGiulian was born in Alexandria, Vt. and has a dual citizenship in Canada because her mom is from Montreal.
In 1998, six-year-old DiGiulian started climbing at her brother’s birthday party, which took place at Sport Rock Climbing Centers in the Washington D.C. area. When she was eight years old, she started competing and from there went on to win a number of national and international competitions. From 2004 to 2010, she was the undefeated Pan American Champion. In 2010 and 2012, DiGiulian won the Adult Pan American Championships. In 2012, she won three gold medals at the Pan American Championships for sport climbing, bouldering and overall champion.
From the beginning, DiGiulian has been a versatile climber having first climbed outdoors at the New River Gorge when she was eight. Only three years later, DiGiulian climbed her f irst 5.13 and before graduating from high school in 2011, she redpointed two 5.14cs at Red River Gorge: Southern Smoke and Lucifer. After graduation, she took a year to climb and travel before heading to Columbia University to study creative writing. During her year off before university, she won the gold at the Arco world championship. After returning to Red River Gorge that fall, she sent Pure Imagination 5.14d, and became the first American woman to climb 5.14d. However, Adam Ondra later downgraded Pure Imagination to 5.14c. But, before he had, DiGiulian sent Era Vella 5.14d at Spain’s Margalef and cemented her place in the history book as the first American woman to climb 5.14d and third woman to ever climb the grade.
Currently studying in her third year at Columbia, DiGiulian has become an ambassador for a number of foundations, including Women’s Sports Foundation, Outdoor Foundation and hera Women’s Cancer Foundation. She is also an athlete representative for the International Federation of Sport Climbing. For her work in the outdoor industry, DiGiulian has won a number of awards, including the American Alpine Club’s Cutting Edge Athlete Award for 2014, and the Arco Rock Legend Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Outdoors.
Gripped touched base with DiGiulian in the spring. Between making difficult sends at France’s Verdon Gorge and f lights from the U.S. to Japan, DiGiulian answered a few questions.
What role did your parents play in your early climbing carreer?
Sasha DiGiulian: My parents were extraordinarily instrumental. They didn’t climb, but they supported me and brought me wherever I needed or wanted to go in order to climb. My mom also learned to belay me when I was little and from then on, even to this day, whenever she can, she belays me. Mombelay is her nickname.
Does one competition stand out from the rest during your junior team days?
The Youth World Championships in Scotland in 2010. I trained really hard for this comp, did my first 5.14b that summer and my sole determination that year was to win. I felt super solid going into the comp and was the leader going into the finals round. Then, my foot popped. I placed fourth, which wasn’t as if it was some devastating loss but it was to me. I felt this ultimate pain of disheartened failure. I remember times when I messed up way more than times when I climbed effortlessly or when comps came easy.
When did you realize you wanted to be a professional athlete?
Actually, there wasn’t really a point in my career where I was like – “hey, I want to make a living off of this.” Perhaps because climbing professionally (beyond being someone like Chris Sharma) was never really a lucrative industry. I didn’t really know what being a professional climber meant. Growing up, professional climbers inspired me, but I didn’t see the business as something that I wanted to make money off of – I just wanted to be able to have the support to go anywhere I wanted to climb. Then, steadily, climbing morphed into this a career and I still can’t wrap my head around it because it’s so magical. When I go to events and people ask me to sign their poster or chalk bags, I’m still thinking, ‘That’s really neat that they actually think I’m cool!’
What was your first 5.13 like?
I remember this so perfectly. Mainly because I didn’t really know what grades meant except that 5.13 sounded like a different league. I didn’t know the grade of the climb when I was trying it until after I did it when the person I was climbing with was like – that was a 5.13 and I was like, “Wait. What. I need to tell my mom!”
How proud are you of becoming the first American woman, and third in the world, to climb 5.14d?
What makes me proud of climbing 5.14d goes beyond the grade. I’m proud of going after a climb regardless of its grade and having the possibility to surprise myself. I learn a lot about myself when I do climbs that I don’t know I’m capable of. I also look at it as a bit of a turning point in the female progression in climbing. The more women there are out there, pushing new grade standards, the more women there will be to follow and set new standards.
My mom also l earned to belay me when I was lit tle and from then on, even to this day, whenever she c an, she belays me.
Mombelay is her nickname.
You onsighted 5.14a. What was your thought process as you got closer to the chains?
I’ve onsighted three 5.14as and each one of them was a big surprise. I think for my first one – Omaha Beach – I had always wanted attempt the onsight, so I saved it for a long time. Then, one day I felt ready for it, I had done my first two 5.14cs a few days prior and I was just like – well, I’ll never know until I try. Then, I think that build up was what made the feeling of being at the top really special. I’m glad I waited and I’m glad I trusted myself to try it when I did. Onsight climbing is really fun because you never know what’s in store until you’re actually climbing and trying to find that perfect rhythm.
How many 5.14s have you climbed and do you have any current projects?
I actually don’t know [how many 5.14’ s I’ve climbed]. At least two dozen. I used to keep my scorecard regularly updated, but then I got kind of tired of it because grades get on my nerves sometimes. They are so arbitrary. There are plenty of 5.14s that feel near impossible for me, and then there are 5.14s that feel like they may as well be 5.13 because they are my style. This summer I have a host of different locations I’ll be travelling to just climb outside and to find and knock off personal projects. My last exam is May 15 and then from that point until beginning of September I’ll be a gypsy travelling the world again. Admittedly, in a luxurious fashion.
Have you ever gone on a trip just to boulder or do you always bring a rope? What is your favourite bouldering problem?
I have been on just bouldering trips, but they few and far between. I’d say my favourite bouldering location so far has been Hueco Tanks in Texas, but I really want to go to Font, too. I don’t have a favourite bouldering problem. To me, bouldering is just a fun social thing I like to do. I guess it’s because I don’t have that same connection with the rock that I do when I climb a route.
How often do you train?
I train six days a week. Two days a week I’m with my coach, Kevin Paretti, doing conditioning and strength training and the other four days a week I’m climbing in the gym. Preferably on weekends I’m climbing outside, but lately I have had a lot of events streamed one after another and I have ended up in the gym more than I would have liked. This summer, I will just be rock climbing. Then, I normally go two days on, one day off.
What’s your favourite pre-climb food and do you like to climb to music?
My favourite pre-climb food really depends on where I am. I eat a lot of jerky and I love trail mix. I really like yogurt-covered pretzels and cashews. When I’m outside I don’t listen to music, I like it to be quiet.
Unlike some strong climbers, you’ve put energy into some hard multi-pitch routes, will that continue?
Absolutely, I’m so stoked to learn how to trad climb better, crack climb and to explore all the different frontiers of climbing. It’s so exciting.
In 2014, you competed at the Ouray Ice Festival. How was it and will you continue ice climbing?
Well, one of the main things was that I am a total pansy when it comes to the cold. I get cold so easily and I hate it. So, this was my way of throwing myself in the ring and learning to manage being cold. Actually, it worked, too. While ice/mixed climbing, you’re moving (except while belaying) and you learn how to keep warm. I also always take a month off in the winter to just ski. That was a family tradition that my dad always had and last year when he passed, I felt like going skiing was a little bit too nostalgic for me. So, I wanted to get out and do something different during the winter.
What was the transition from rock climbing to ice climbing like?
With ice climbing it was very different from rock climbing. But, mixed climbing isn’t too different because while there’s a separation between you and the rock, you notice the significance of body placement and the balance between strength and technique. With ice climbing, I need to learn how to read ice more efficiently and to work on my technique. I have never done any sort of carpentry work and don’t know how to chop wood – so when people explained swinging the ice axe as analogous to that, I was like, well, that’s not really going to help me.
Has your pet cat Pixie ever ventured to a crag with you?
No, she’s too much of a f luffy princess to get dirty. It’s funny. She has this f lat, squished face. She looks permanently unimpressed.
Did you ever consider just travelling as a climber for a few years instead of attending post-secondary school?
I was brought up to value academics and they’re a fundamental part of who I am. I believe in the power of education and while I learn a lot from real-world experiences, I think that having a formal education is equally important. Actually, I don’t even see Columbia as this place to become an amazing intellectual. I see Columbia as this whole different horizon and community of people where I can grow as a multi-faceted person and learn life skills like time management, how to study and learn new things, and to communicate with a diverse set of people that have different interests and passions than I do.
Below: First female ascent of La Cocinelle 5.14,Verdon Gorge, France
Above right: DiGiulian climbs Pure Imagination in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge Above left: DiGiulian climbs Era Vella 9a (5.14d) in Margalef, Spain. She is the only American woman to climb this grade
Opposite: On Radote Joli Pépère! 8b (5.13d), Ceuse, France Right: USA Climbing Team
Left: A young DiGiulian Comp Climbing
Left: DiGiulian after having compling Pure Imagination, Red River Gorge, Kentucky Opposite: Making the first female ascent of Viaje de Los Locos 8b+ (5.14a), Sardinia, Italy