Sasha DiGi­u­lian


Gripped - - FEATURE -

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

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