This article was is featured in Rock and Ice Issue 214/December 2013
Sasha DiGiulian, 21, doesn’t need an introduction as America’s best female climber (of all time). You know that. Unless you were a castaway for the past three years, you also know that she was the first American woman to climb 5.14d. That she won at Psicobloc, is the reigning Arco world champion and in September became the first female to repeat Alex Huber’s 2001 10-pitch Bellavista (5.14b) on the Cima Ovest, Tre Cime di Lavaredo, in the Italian Dolomites. This loose and spicy shiverfest gets a nod even from Mr. Messner. You know as well, after your daily trolls to her website, that she’s 5' 2", tips the scales at 97 pounds and attends Columbia University.
So, instead of reciting yesterday’s fishwrap, let us read what we do not know. About a month ago, Sasha DiGiulian sent Rock and Ice her thoughts on the state of affairs of American climbers. American climbers as a group, she wrote, don’t climb nearly as hard as Europeans. The news was bitter broth. How could this be? We’ll let her answer that in her essay and a follow-up Q/A session.
I first traveled alone to Europe when I was 16 years old. I went to Spain with a group of climber friends—Andrea and Gabor Szekely, Magnus Midtbø, Felipe Camargo, and Jakob Schubert. Prior to this trip, I had been to Europe to climb, but always with other Americans, and the trips were centered on competition itineraries, with a bit of rock climbing fit in around the events. On this trip I was just going to climb outside, in the Catalunya region of Spain with motivated climbers around my age from different parts of the world (Hungary, Norway, Brazil and Austria). For the first time in my life, I watched 5.14s sent with ease.
Spain opened my eyes to a new level and perspective on climbing. There are basic differences between the climbing scene in Europe and the distinction was rooted in the mentality toward climbing and the base level.
Whether for the warm up or the project, expectations in Europe—Spain, France and Italy, mostly—are higher than in America. At many areas where we climbed, the easiest route at the crag was 5.12. So, that is the warm up. The domingueros (weekend warriors) in their caravans climbed 5.12 or 5.13.
In 2009, six months after my first trip to Spain, I returned to Spain prior to competing in my first World Cup, in Barcelona. While there, I found a project—Botanics (then 5.14a, now 5.13d), that I was really motivated to climb. The route was located in Las Ventanas, one of the main sectors at Rodellar. Las Ventanas offers an incredible concentration of routes of 5.13a to 5.14d lined up across a magnificently steep overarching limestone wall that is dripping with tufas. Botanics included new moves I had never thought of doing before like knee bars through bulging tufa sections and heel-toe jams through
the cruxy roof section. My European friends encouraged me to try the route. The fact that it was a new level of difficulty intimidated me, but it was a classic climb and a new challenge, so I decided the worst that could happen by trying would be falling.
A Russian couple was climbing at Las Ventanas. The two were also in Rodellar to prepare for the World Cup. During the day, they would do hard onsights—my project, for example. Then they would run laps on hard routes for endurance. I had never seen a female climb 5.14, and here was a woman attempting to onsight one. And I was going to be competing against her in two weeks!
In the U.S., there are few areas with such a heavy concentration of hard, beautiful routes all at the same crag, and you often need to drive or fly long distances to climb many difficult routes. Areas that are exceptions include the Red River Gorge, where there are stacks of 5.13s and 5.14s. In Europe, it is also common to find at least one 5.14 at a crag, but in America, 5.14s are still relatively rare.
This leads to the main discrepancy in Europe versus the U.S., which is the bar of expectation. Because climbing 5.13 is more a part of the norm in Europe than in the U.S., European climbers try harder routes, expose themselves to higher grades sooner, and therefore achieve them more often. “Why not try?” is the mentality I learned in Europe.
Whether you succeed at climbing doesn’t depend on any teammates. Improving at this sport is an input-output system—the effort you put into climbing directly correlates to success. For the American climbing scene to rise to that next level, we need to take that next fall, and then fall again and again … until we send.
For the American climbing scene to rise to that next level, we need to take that next fall, and then fall again and again … until we send.
RI: Are you saying that the average European climber performs at a higher level than the average U.S. climber?
SD: I think that overall, the entry-level climber in Europe climbs harder graded routes than the entry or weekend climber in the U.S. My point is not that Europeans are necessarily stronger than Americans, but that the average level of climbers in Europe is higher because they try what is beyond their “comfort level,” abandoning any personal expectations that may limit trying harder routes. For example, I will never climb a 5.15 if I never try one. I need to find a line that I am passionate about, and expose myself to the movements, to the level of difficulty, and to the possibility of falling a lot of times. Without failure, there is no room for new accomplishments.
RI: Does the European lifestyle contribute to climbing harder?
SD: Perhaps. Sport climbing has deeper roots in Europe than in the U.S. The Spanish lifestyle, for example, is very conducive to the climbing lifestyle. The workers—if you have a job, unemployment is staggeringly high in Spain—have reasonable hours, live close to the rock with world-class climbing, and imbed the outdoor lifestyle into their daily regimens.
RI: If Europeans climb harder than Americans, what explains Chris Sharma? And how do you account for your success? You and Sharma are two of the world's top climbers, and both of you are American.
SD: There is a handful of world-class American climbers; however, all of them have traveled the world to pursue this professional climbing dream. I do not think that in order to climb hard, you need to travel internationally, but you do need to expose yourself to the cutting-edge facets of sport climbing, which happen to be dominant in Europe. Therefore, it is much easier to excel and to push beyond mental and physical boundaries by immersing yourself in environments that have higher concentrations of challenging routes. Also, by traveling through Europe, climbers can learn new styles and techniques from other climbers around the world and diversify their own skill sets.
RI: When European routes graded with the French scale get translated into our YDS system, do the grades tend to become softer? For instance, do more people in Europe climb more 5.14s because a European 5.14 is easier than a U.S. 5.14?
SD: Conversion should not make the route softer—it should not change the grade at all. There are more 5.14s in Europe because there are more people developing routes at that level. There is currently more of a drive to search and find new areas of hard, concentrated sport routes in Europe.
Click Next Page to read the rest of the interview.
RI: Does the World Cup circuit, which is almost all in Europe, help fuel the sport there and contribute to people climbing better?
SD: The World Cup circuit is quite separate from the outdoor climbing scene. The climbers in the circuit train on plastic and a lot of the teams have organized support from their federations. Certainly, competition climbing encourages training harder and advancing to new levels in climbing, but I think that competition climbing and outdoor climbing are very different. My point is more focused on the accessibility to harder sport-climbing routes outdoors and the comparison between Europe and the U.S. For example, Europeans have more access to World Cup competitions. The U.S. Climbing Federation provides no financial support to their athletes, who have to fund themselves. When I have competed in World Cups, I go to registration and to the technical meetings, and I warm up in isolation alone as “Team U.S.A.” In contrast, a team like Austria has a hired person to go to the technical meeting for the team, arrange the travel and hotel accommodation, and ensure that the competitors are comfortable and ready to compete. That's why I think that more climbers from Austria (in this example) are going to be motivated and prepared to compete in World Cups than climbers in the U.S.
Americans who want to excel in the World Cups need to go and compete in the World Cups. A big part of doing well at these competitions is learning how to do well, and this comes from first-hand experience. Becoming accustomed to variables like the format, holds and setting are all crucial. The athletes crushing the World Cup scene compete routinely in the series, know what it takes to do well, and train accordingly.
RI: There are more climbing-equipment companies in Europe than in the U.S. Does this make a difference?
I think that climbing being included in the 2020 Games could have been fabulous for mainstream publicity. With more exposure, there is a trickle-down effect that augments the community as a whole.
SD: I think that this difference highlights the point that climbing has a richer history in Europe than here. As climbing continues to grow and the sport gains popularity, I foresee climbing companies becoming more profitable, growing, and new outdoor companies forming. Likewise, as climbing gains more popularity in the U.S., I think that the level of climbers will increase, as there is a higher concentration of hard sport-climbing development. A prime example of this is the Red River Gorge, which is a unique U.S. sport-climbing destination due to its vast number of high-quality, difficult sport climbs. Each year, too, there have been new developments in this region. The Red River Gorge is one of my favorite climbing areas in the world.
RI: Are there other sport crags in development that could boost the U.S. to European standards?
SD: Absolutely. I am excited to travel more throughout the Western U.S. and climb in areas like Southwest Utah, Wyoming and California. We have the potential areas. I would like to have more of an influential role in development as well!
RI: You competed in and won the Psicobloc competition in Park City in late July. Psicobloc was the first deep-water soloing contest held in the U.S. Did you find this format more challenging or more unnerving than roped or bouldering competitions?
SD: Lately I have been much more motivated to focus outdoors than on competitions, but the Psicobloc was an easy competition to be motivated for. Before Psicobloc I was climbing outdoors in Spain, then South Africa, so unlike in the World Cups, where you need to be focused primarily on training on plastic, for Psicobloc I was able to come from these outdoor environments and do well. This is because the Psicobloc route was more straightforward and similar to real climbing—there were no specific technical sequences that involved maneuvering on unfamiliar volumes or anything like what you experience in World Cups. The climbs were crowd-appealing and sequentially simple, set by the climbing fanatic himself, Dani Andrada. The route was not so hard [reportedly mid-5.13], but strategy and endurance were required as well as strength to just climb. The Psicobloc was the most fun competition I have competed in due to the crowd energy, all my friends being there and competing, and the sheer execution of an incredible idea under the leadership of Chris Sharma.
RI: How did the competitive field of Psicobloc stack up against that at a World Cup?
SD: The competitors at Psicobloc included climbing legends and outdoor superstars. There is not much of a comparison in their skills to those from World Cups because the field was different. The climbers at Psicobloc climb outside primarily. The World Cup competitors are predominantly indoor climbers who train and compete on plastic during the seasons.
RI: Could Psicobloc advance competition climbing in the U.S.?
SD: Certainly. The competition was a big show. The elements of difficulty, speed and “extreme” all contributed to an exhilarating perspective on competition climbing.
RI: Roped competition climbing did not make it to the Olympics. Were you disappointed, and would the Olympics have pushed climbing into another realm?
SD: I think that climbing being included in the 2020 Games could have been fabulous for mainstream publicity. With more exposure, there is a trickle-down effect that augments the community as a whole. When more funds are infused into the sport, professional climbers have more opportunities to aspire to their dreams and to inspire others to chase theirs, too. Also, there is more funding for outdoor development to areas previously inaccessible due to issues including private ownership. That said, just because climbing is not included in the Olympics does not break the future of the sport. There is still incredible growth yearly, and great potential remains. Ultimately, my goal is to inspire people to find their passion—ideally an active outdoor passion like climbing.