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Interview: Sasha DiGiulian on Completing the Rocky Mountain Trilogy

The Rocky Mountain Trilogy: Three 5.14 big walls in the Canadian Rockies in a single season. Only Sonnie Trotter had completed the feat before DiGiulian.

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Back in February, Sasha DiGiulian came across the newest issue of Rock and Ice, the cover of which was a Tim Banfield photo of Sonnie Trotter on Blue Jeans Direct, a 5.14 big-wall route he established on Mount Yamnuska, in the Canadian Rockies. “The photo jumped out at me,” DiGiulian told Rock and Ice. “It just looked like a really cool climb.”

She began the Trotter’s feature story within, called “Three Big Fish,” about his years’ long goal of creating a Rocky Mountain Trilogy—a trifecta of 5.14 big walls in his backyard of Canmore. Trotter wanted to author a Canadian version of the classic Alpine Trilogy in Europe—Des Kaisers neue Kleider (5.14a, 9a pitches), Austria; Silbergeier (5.14a, six pitches), Switzerland; and End of Silence (5.14a, 11 pitches), Germany.

In the piece, Trotter details ups-and-downs, the successes and setbacks he experienced as he gradually established three big routes and then, in one season, sent them all to realize his vision. When she got to the end of the article, the wheels started turning in DiGiulian’s head: She was in need of a project, the Rocky Mountain Trilogy seemed adventurous, difficult, beautiful—why shouldn’t she take a crack at it?

Six months later, DiGiulian was staring down the crux on Blue Jeans Direct—just as Sonnie had on the magazine cover that started her on this wild quest. It was the final of the three big walls she needed to bag to become the first person to repeat Trotter’s Trilogy. She climbed the bouldery pitch just as she had rehearsed it, clipped the chains and—even though there were still a few pitches to go—knew then and there that she had done the Rocky Mountain Trilogy.

Rock and Ice caught up with DiGiulian via email to get the first in-depth interview with her about the quick work she made of this new-age Canadian link-up that is bound to become a sought after goal by hardmen and hardwomen everywhere.

Q&A with Sasha DiGiulian

Can you give a bit more background on what precisely the Trilogy is?

The Trilogy is three 5.14 big wall climbs up three distinct mountains which are really well known in the Canadian Rockies: War Hammer (5.14a, 16 pitches) on Castle Mountain, The Shining Uncut (5.14a, 13 pitches) up Mount Louis, and Blue Jeans Direct (5.14a, eight pitches) up Mount Yamnuska.

How did it move from, “Ok this is a cool idea,” to “Let’s do it”? Any hesitation in committing to it?

Pretty simply, actually. I had been ice climbing for the month of January, and coming back into my season for rock climbing, I just switched gears and realized that this would be a cool project to train for.

DiGiulian had a good crew to project the climbs and trade belays with, including Mike Doyle. Photo: Peter Hoang.

At that point I had about five months to prepare. I knew that the project would require firing low-end 5.14 climbs quickly and also require big days with lots of volume. I had a consistent dialogue with Brandon Pullan (who bolted as well) and Sonnie Trotter, and they both helped me plan the trip out.

I thought that the objectives would take about three weeks each, so I planned for a nine week period in Banff. I figured I’d drive since it was a 20-hour straight-shot up from Boulder, passing really beautiful locations along the way. Sonnie did Blue Jeans Direct at the end of October, so I knew that it would be the most difficult in the summer months if it was hot— Mount Yamnuska is south facing and collects a lot of sun—though otherwise, July and August seemed prime.

What kind of climbing is it—trad? sport? a combo? Looks like some of the routes have some scary rock, eh?

It’s all bolted, sheer limestone faces. So I packed up a boatload of draws, mainly Petzl Ange draws which are really light weight and stack really well, 200 meters of static line to set for the videographers/photographers capturing the climbs, and three dynamic ropes (Petzl 9.2 Voltas) since I knew the rock would be sharp and if there was any wear-and-tear on the ropes, I’d be alright for the next route.

The approaches were pretty full-on. On Louis it took about five hours just to get to the base of the diamond climbing, since there was a two-and-a-half hour trek in, then a long solo climb to the base (which you could theoretically place gear on, but I just ended up soloing).

Did you talk a lot with Sonny going into it? Was he there during the project at all?

Sonnie was so helpful throughout the project! He actually came out and filmed War Hammer, and throughout the project I checked in with him on some specific beta. Actually, on Blue Jeans Direct the crux pitch is like a consolidated, really tough boulder problem, and I sent him a video of me doing the crux section to see if I was doing it correctly. Turns out we climbed portions pretty differently just based on height; however, his memory is really impressive! Sonnie also helped with the topos to find the base of the climbs.

What kind of support network did you have with you to help you get this done?

Originally I was going to do the Trilogy with one single climbing partner. That fell apart in June… kind of a personal decision to go about the project alone. When I got to Banff, I quickly developed a network in the local community, along with Sonnie Trotter and Mike Doyle, who I’ve known for a long time.

Mike and I did War Hammer together, both free climbing the crux pitch on lead, and swapping leads on the other pitches. Then with Shining Uncut, Mike supported me as I sent the climb. On Blue Jeans Direct I had four good friends from California who came up, and my friend Devon belayed me and jumared through each pitch.

I met such amazing people through the course of the trip though: Peter Hoang was my support when I sent The Shining before returning to do the Uncut, and I climbed with local crushers some days working the pitches, like Dexter Bateman and Alex Fricker.

So War Hammer. What was that route like: Hardest parts?  How long did it take you? Did you do it quicker/slower than you expected?

War Hammer may have been the easiest of the three, but it was super exposed and an incredible line. It essentially has one crux pitch— the seventh. That pitch follows this insane arete, which includes really gymnastic movements high above the valley. I did the climb much quicker than I planned. I did it from bottom to top my fourth day. Actually, all the climbs I did way quicker than I expected… the total project took me about five to six weeks, including a ten-day sabbatical to heal my injured shoulder.

DiGiulian on War Hammer. Photo: Sonnie Trotter.

Speaking of that shouldering injury—did that start on Warhammer or after? How did that affect your approach/mentality/nerves throughout the project?

I sprained my AC Joint in my left shoulder. The day after sending War Hammer I launched right into trying The Shining on Mt. Louis. I think it was this combination of being really tired from the long days on Castle Mountain, to then another really long day without rest on Mt. Louis.

I went up with someone I had never climbed with before and felt super gripped. I was kind of chicken winging and over gripping. There are a lot of powerful yet technical gaston moves and on one of them I felt a weird twinge that lingered.

As the day progressed, I couldn’t lift my arm. For the next week, I struggled to lift my arm up. It was a grade 1+ sprain so not game-ending, but fortunately I linked up with a really incredible physio—Fabienne Moser, who reached out to me via social media, and is a physio for the Canadian Ski Team. I saw her religiously every day. I did mobilization exercises and rehab for it. I proceeded to do this for the rest of my trip on every day not on the mountain.

Now that the project is over I have to actually concentrate on not just putting a bandaid over it, and focus on bringing it back to 100%.

Did the smoke from all the fires present any problems or challenges?

The smoke from all the fires really affected me on the third climb, Blue Jeans Direct. It was the shortest of the climbs but presented the most difficult singular movements of the three. It was really condition dependent, and since it’s south facing, with the heat of the sun and the humid, trapped air from the smoke, the conditions were really tough to deal with.

The smoke was also affecting my sinuses a lot. There’s this application(I forget the name of it!) which showed the smoke content in the air in comparison to smoking cigarettes, and it showed that being outside in those smokey conditions was essentially the equivalent to smoking six to eight cigarettes per day. Some days it would feel like I had a really bad migraine. The days before sending Blue Jeans Direct I had to recover from the smoke by not going outside for two days. Cabin fever!

Route #2: The Shining Uncut. How did working this one compare to working War Hammer? Harder or easier?

The Shining Uncut was definitely the most full-on mentally of the three. It includes an 80-meter crux pitch of 5.14a pitch on really really thin, technical edges. Any point you could slip off. And managing the rope drag was a pain.

I developed a system in which I climbed the first portion with one rope, while tagging another 80-meter dynamic rope on my harness. My belayer managed both ropes, and by the midway part, I switched from the rope I had been using and clipping into draws to the other one, which I clipped into three separate draws on the previous three bolts (along with the first one rope to their own draws) to minimize rope drag.

By the top of the pitch, the rope definitely weighed at least 25 extra pounds and clipping was a crux because I had to pull the rope up on these tiny little credit card-like holds with foot smears. When I got to the anchor, Mike Doyle’s end of the rope was completely stretched out. He could hardly even get the Grigri off the rope.

DiGiulian on The Shining Uncut. Photo: Peter Hoang.

One of the more interesting things about this project is how big it is– three long routes. What are the mental process and mental challenges like for something like this versus, say, a single hard sport climb?

The most difficult mental challenge of the process was staying focused through the duration of the project. When I sent the first big wall, it was like I was elated by that success, but also still had this pressure looming over me about the next climb. Same for after sending Shining Uncut.

By the time I made it to Blue Jeans Direct, it felt like I had been repeating this process of day one three times over… I mean I really was… haha. It was stressful, but also I had to just enjoy the process—no matter what happened in the end.

The routes were all very different styles, too, which was a challenge. Going from War Hammer which was this steep, powerful yet endurance-like arete, to nearly dead vertical technical climbing was a big shift. Then, from that, to essentially a 5.14 route that gets its grade from a boulder problem up a steep bulge… I used different shoes on each of the climbs. For War Hammer I used the TC Pro’s for the beginning pitches, then the Solutions on the crux pitch. For Shining Uncut I used the Katakis. Then, for Blue Jeans Direct, I used the Skwamas and the Solutions.

Route #3. Same questions as for the first two. Go!

The first day I went up to Mount Yamnuska was a really really hot day, so I just hiked to the top with a 200-meter static line. My friends, Ryan Sheridan and Justin Olsen, were there helping rig, and we brought up two portaledges, too, to set below the crux pitch and also below the tough 5.13 pitch before the 5.14. That way we could be comfortable while I worked on the pitches.

I rappelled down, setting static the entire route. The climb starts with a 5.12b then there are two 5.12ds, then a tough (in my opinion) 5.13a that was just really not obvious to figure out, then the 5.14 pitch, and then easy pitches to the top.

After setting the static, I waited on the temperatures to drop a little, which didn’t really happen at first, and then started hacking away at finding holds, chalking them up, figuring out my beta. Then, I gave ground-up pushes until my fourth day of climbing, when I did it from the bottom to the top, freeing all the pitches. Throughout the whole project, on my redpoint pushes I never fell! That was a cool bonus. I hate falling on big wall climbs since then you have to start over on the pitch and it adds up!

DiGiulian atop Mount Yamnuska, the east end of which is home to Blue Jeans Direct. Photo: Priscilla Mewborne.

How did it feel to finish? Did you ever doubt that you would do it?

Oh my god, so amazing! This was a really lofty goal for me which I had no idea if I was capable of achieving or not. I kind of put it out there, recognizing that telling my audience about what I was trying would add some pressure, but that if I failed to accomplish it, hopefully it could inspire people to set big goals for themselves as well, regardless of success or not.

I opened myself up to failure, and I really didn’t know whether or not I’d manage to do it until I sent the crux of Blue Jeans Direct. Coming to Banff, Canada, I didn’t really know what the climbing was like, what the routes were going to feel like for me, and I had pretty minimal information. I just kind of dove right in. It was personally a really satisfying experience, and an amazing summer to spend in one location—not traveling or doing anything else other than focusing on my project I set for myself, getting to know the community, and enjoying long days outside in a beautiful place!

You’re probably best known as a sport climber, but these past few years you’ve branched out to all sorts of things: trad climbing, big walling, ice climbing. Where does this fit into that trend and desire to try new things and push yourself in new ways?

I would just like to be the most well-rounded climber that I am capable of being and I have a curiosity for more types of climbing than just single-pitch lines. I am excited by new challenges and whether they are meaningful to other people or not, I hope that my personal journey can inspire other people to try out new experiences as well, and push themselves too.

What’s next for you?

I am now going to really focus on healing my shoulder, then I am taking off for Europe for two weeks, then on to Jordan with Alex Huber and Magnus Midtbø in October. Afterwards I am hosting a retreat in Greece (Kalymnos) for a week, then running the New York City Marathon! In November I’ll either be in Yosemite or Venezuela!

DiGiulian on the Shining Uncut. Photo: Peter Hoang.

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