Year of Wonders: The Sasha DiGiulian Profile
A white dry-erase board hangs over Sasha DiGiulian’s desk at her family’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.
The town house is, as she says, “really tall and really skinny,” a seven-story structure in the cobblestoned Old Town area of riverside shops and restaurants, and in her “fully pink” room is a huge (as in, bed-sized) stuffed dog named Penelope, posters of penguins and of Chris Sharma climbing Biographie, and a closet overflowing with “stripes”—clothing by Adidas, with which she signed a contract last summer.
Toward the end of every year Sasha writes a list on the board of what she wants to achieve in the next annum.
Recorded in the waning days of 2010, her goals for 2011 were, she recalls, “to get into college, onsight 13d and redpoint 14c. And [to] podium in an international event.” She took a calendar and worked out a plan for all the competitions and outdoor climbing she wanted to do.
The first goal on the list materialized late in the year. She was accepted “early decision” to Columbia University, which received a record number of applicants and admitted a miniscule 6.93 percent.
In July Sasha gained the podium at not just any sparkling international event but the celebrated World Championships, in Arco, Italy, attaining second in bouldering and making the lead finals to win the overall gold for combined events.
On rock, a spectacular yearlong ascendancy began in March, when in one week she onsighted the Red River Gorge’s Omaha Beach (confirmed 5.14a after holds broke), then climbed the 5.14c Southern Smoke in only six tries. She closed her trip to the Red with a quick six-try redpoint of the powerful, reachy Lucifer (5.14c).
“I had no intention of trying 5.14c,” she says. “But I belayed Magnus [the Norwegian climber Magnus Midtbø] on Southern Smoke, got on the moves and said, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad, I like these moves.’ The second [try] it felt sendable. A big part of it was I didn’t know what 5.14c would feel like. It isn’t a whole new world. You need to look beyond numbers. That changed my whole perspective.”
At this point Sasha has onsighted so many 5.13s that when asked the sum, she says, “Off the top of my head I don’t know.” A look at her 8a.nu log as of this writing shows her onsighting 33 out of a total of 86. She has climbed a solid 16 different 5.14s.
It was a year in which she was hailed by the IFSC as “the brilliant American,” and dubbed “sensational” by 8a.nu and “astounding” on the official Arco website. In her first season on the circuit, Sasha made the finals of each lead World Cup event she entered. Considering that in today’s landscape of elite World Cup athletes, whose training is very regimented, only a fraction climb outdoors regularly, her rock record is even more emphatic.
Even Sasha acknowledges that she “had a much bigger year than anticipated.”
She has just turned 19.
Four years ago, in autumn 2007, this magazine published a story on promising young climbers that featured a cheerful-looking, gap-toothed 14-year-old.
The ninth grader had already sent Bazooka (5.13b/c) in Maple Canyon, onsighted up to 5.13a/b, and at 13 flashed Zero Zero (V10) in Squamish.
We asked most of the featured youths questions such as, “What is the Hinterstoisser Traverse?” and recorded their hilariously varied answers.
“Pardon?” was Sasha’s response. “Is that a book?”
Of the dozen kids featured, aged 13 to 18, only one wrote us a thank you, and it was she. After expressing appreciation for her inclusion, Sasha added,
I would just like to make one correction; it is stated that I am the National Champion for Junior Bouldering in 2006, and that is a mistake. I did not win that competition. I am the National Champion for Difficulty (2006) and the North American Champion for Difficulty (2006). I would hate to take credit for someone else’s accomplishment.
P.S. Mount Everest is not 29,000 kilometers as I said; I meant feet! And the Hinterstoisser Traverse is on the North Face of the Eiger. It’s named after Andreas Hinterstoisser—one of the guys who died trying to get the first ascent … Right?!
She’d gone away and looked it up. We thought that was pretty good.
DiGiulian, a sprite (5’2” and 95 pounds) in turquoise Adidas warmup jacket and white pants, sits at a table at Vic’s Coffeehouse in Boulder, having arrived way more fresh than should be expected after travel from a comp in Puurs, Belgium, the previous weekend. It is Friday, and tomorrow will bring a weekend lead World Cup in Boulder, the first on U.S. soil since 1990. She was driven here by Emily Harrington, whose counsel she seeks and values. Emily, 25, a pro athlete and a onetime world champion who just this summer climbed two 5.14b’s, pulls out a computer and seats herself at a table just around the corner.
Sasha and Emily were already in line and had purchased bagels and coffee when I arrived early for the meeting. Both of them were soon to leave for China on a Petzl RocTrip. When asked, Sasha counted off that, for climbing, she has traveled to Switzerland, Italy, France, Spain, the Czech Republic, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Ecuador, Mexico and Canada.
Sasha is courteous and contained, yet forthright; she answers questions fully and attentively. She maintains an ebullient website that celebrates (with writing often in big pink letters) companions, travel, aesthetic routes, and chances to practice her Spanish.
Upon high-school graduation in mid-June, she headed to the training hotspot of Innsbruck, then climbed and competed in Europe until October, though flying back to Salt Lake City to appear at the Outdoor Retailer trade show. Ducking out from that to Maple Canyon for a getaway afternoon, she walked up and did Millenium (5.14a) on her first try (not onsight due to a try three years ago), did Wyoming Sheep Shagger (5.13d) second try, and onsighted Toxic Turkey (5.13c).
She entered five major comps: the World Championships; three lead World Cups on the 10-stage circuit (she placed eighth in Chamonix and sixth in Puurs, and would be seventh in Boulder); and the European Youth Cup, which she won, in Imst.
In September, over 20 days in Spain, she climbed 20 routes of 5.13d or harder. During a single day at Rodellar, she onsighted Maskoking (5.14a), Eclipse Cerebral (5.13d) and True Crime (5.13b); she did four 5.14s at the area.
Terming the tour a “rampage,” the website 8a.nu observed, “She sits with Charlotte Durif [FRA] as being the greatest female onsight climbers in history.”
At our October 7 meeting, Sasha says one of her goals for 2012 is to climb 9a (5.14d). She is, however, to achieve that goal only eight days later, on October 15, with Pure Imagination in the Red River Gorge, done in her apparently custom six-try style.
In a video of the redpoint, she says at the chains, “I can’t believe that just happened.”
The grade, a magic number, has been reported as climbed by only two other women, Josune Bereziartu (who has clocked two 9a’s and one 9a/9a+, meaning 5.14d/5.15a) and Charlotte Durif. Though Durif, 21, is clearly a world-class climber, some of her ascents have been disputed, in part because her only witness has been her father, and when she was a teen the father apparently misunderstood the definition of onsighting.
In the world in which she travels, Sasha hears all the opinions. When I ask about the issue, she replies in measured tones.
“If she is lying I just find it a little heartbreaking that someone would do that to the sport,” she says. “If she’s telling the truth, maybe I can just do my best to climb a 9a and then a 9a+. I can only care about myself and achieving what I’m capable of and pushing my own limits.” On her blog Sasha credits Charlotte, and calls herself the third woman to climb the grade. She is also the youngest.
In Outliers: the Story of Success, the bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell identifies an “ecology” of elements that allow talented people to achieve super success.
“It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like,” Gladwell writes. “It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
The conditions he explores begin with hard work, and he identifies a 10,000-hour rule for the amount of sheer practice required for great skill in anything. In Sasha purposefulness is innate. Vadim Vinokur, a former coach, while also praising her composure, cites “an incredible level of tenaciousness” as Sasha’s greatest asset.
“She never gave up, always tried to figure something else out,” he says. “She was always working and working and working, and only when she was totally spent, when she had no strength left whatsoever, would she fall.”
Other key elements, according to Gladwell, are familial, economic and situational. They include access to education or coaching, and even pure chance. Bill Gates was brilliant and he also succeeded because in eighth grade he went to a private school in Seattle that had a computer terminal in an era (1968) when college students lacked them. He also lived very near the University of Washington, which allowed use of its mainframe at certain hours.
At age 7, Sasha attended a birthday party for her brother at the local climbing gym, Sport Rock II. She grew up in the D.C. area in a family that valued academics first but also athletics, and put time and resources into them. Sasha’s father, John Anthony DiGiulian, owns a marina in Dundalk (Baltimore), and a rock and marble quarry in Tennessee, and her mother, Andrea, stayed at home and was willing to shuttle two young athletes—and belay one of them—near endlessly, and to travel with Sasha to Europe about twice a year. The parents were athletes themselves: Her father played football in high school, and Andrea, who is from Montreal, swam, ran and did gymnastics. Andrea’s whole side of the family is made up of skiers and skaters.
“I’m the misfit,” Sasha jokes.
Her brother, Charlie, grew up playing hockey, and young Sasha figure skated competitively until age 10. Charlie, now 20, is not only a hockey player at the college level, he plays at McGill University in Canada, land of hockey love.
Only 14 months older, Charlie was her primary athletic influence: “We were always really competitive in everything,” Sasha offers. “Who crossed the street first? Who got the perfect seat in front of the TV? When I was figure skating and he was playing hockey, we would race each other around the rink. Every December we have a two- to three-week ski trip. It’s never just a simple family vacation, it’s intense competition. My parents just try to stay out of it and make sure we don’t hurt each other.”
The two were in school together until 9th grade, when her brother went off to prep school at Phillips Andover in Andover, Massachusetts. Sasha remained at the Potomac School, a well-known private preparatory school, located on a 90-acre campus three miles outside of D.C. It has graduated such alums as David Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, and Rory Kennedy, documentary filmmaker and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy.
Once Sasha started climbing, she was hooked, and her various other sports faded in importance. She joined the gym’s junior team and climbed once or twice a week until the day she found out about competitions, walking into the gym on a Saturday morning only to see a JCCA regional comp underway. Simply wanting to climb that day, she asked permission to participate, and won her category.
In 2001, the autumn she turned 9, she began working with Claudiu Vidulescu, who is head coach for the National Junior and Adult Team, and lived in the area at the time.
He recalls, “Right before Christmas she climbed her first 5.10 and she came to me with a very serious face and said, ‘I climb double digits now!’”
Asked for an assessment, he says, “I think she is by far the most determined and committed climber I have ever worked with. She has always been a very happy and joyful athlete, but when it came to work she was all business.
“If I would have to sum it up, I will always call her an outdoor climber,” says Vidulescu. “She always climbed better outside, which makes me very proud.”
Sasha says, “Claudiu and [later] Vadim [Vinokur] introduced me to the European climbing level. From the beginning, Claudiu made me aware of what the top level was and helped me learn how to achieve and strive to be the best. It was never a matter of making it to regionals or some smaller U.S. competition … The goal was always to excel at an international level. I think that the bigger you dream, the more room you have to grow and to learn.”
She qualified for the National Junior Team at 11, winning her age group at the North Americans, and at age 12 traveled to the Serre Chevalier International in France. “That was the year Emily [Harrington] won. I always looked up to Emily. She was really a big inspiration to aspiring youth comp climbers.”
By her young teens Sasha was competing in local comps, regionals, divisionals, nationals and youth world championships. She won four consecutive titles in the Junior Continental Championships, held every other year, starting in Mexico City in 2004 and ending in Ibarra in 2010. She also won the Junior PanAmerican Championships in Ecuador, and, in Boulder last April, the SCS (adult) Open National Championships for the second time.
Right now Sasha has taken a gap year to climb, deferring admission to college until next fall. Students used to have to move South or West if they wanted to climb, but in today’s Manhattan are the climbing gyms Chelsea Piers and Brooklyn Boulders, already familiar locales to her. She began intermittent but regular coaching sessions with Vinokur in New York four years ago, driven the five hours each way by her mother.
In the summer of 2010, at age 17, Sasha spent three months climbing in Europe with her then boyfriend Magnus Midtbø, sending Welcome to Tijuana (5.14b) and Philipe Cuisinere (5.14a), and onsighting up to 5.13c at Rodellar. Aside from another 5.14a in Rodellar in 2009, her other 13 5.14s were all in the blowup year of 2010. She and Midtbø broke up last spring, and she went to Europe on her own—quite an undertaking for someone too young to rent a car.
“I used to travel with my mother,” she says. “Now I just travel.”
In high school Sasha ran track and cross-country; she also played field hockey. Asked how she managed, she looks a bit comically resigned. “It was tiring. I don’t think it was the best idea. I’d have school until 3, then cross-country until 5 or 5:30, then climbing and homework and dinner. Two dinners–one before climbing and one after.”
She used every spare moment to climb: “I didn’t have the biggest social life,” she says. “On Friday I’d rather be resting or getting my school work done to be able to go out for the weekend.”
Did she ever feel left out?
“I kind of have the mentality of what happens, happens,” she says calmly. “I never really cared. I’d come back and my friends would be talking about some crazy party. I would just think, well, that’s cool, I was just in Spain.” Her tones carry no snippiness. “I think I would just pretend to be interested.”
We live in an era in which overwhelming demands are made of high-school students; even parents wonder when teens are supposed to hang out. Yet Sasha appears to have thrived in high school. She was curious and diligent, with a knack for time management.
Sasha pulled all A’s throughout high school, and gained tip-top SAT scores. “I just bought one of those hideously thick SAT books and worked on the practice tests during the summer  when I was in Europe … Taking the practice tests on my rest days!”
Now backed by Adidas, she is traveling the world climbing, momentum building on itself. Still, she maintains the college plan.
“My parents always said education comes first, and their beliefs have kind of become mine,” Sasha says. “I see other pro climbers just climbing, [but] I think I would need something else. Especially if I got injured. Then what? Also [it’s] a little exhilarating to have so much going on.”
Emily Harrington observes of her, “Sometimes I watch her climb, and I think, ‘Oh, man, she’s not going to pull it off,’ and then she just stays on. She has the ability to recover really well on the tiniest of holds, so it doesn’t matter if she messes up a sequence, she’ll just pull through it and rest on a micro-crimp.”
Asked her strengths and weaknesses as both a climber and person, Sasha says her climbing weaknesses are dynamic movement and power. Her best suit is long, enduro, crimpy routes on rock with some intermediates.
“As a person,” Sasha says, “I put too much stress on myself sometimes and can be rather overbearing on myself. I have trouble being content and there’s always something I could have improved. I guess I’m a little high-strung and a perfectionist. I try not to stress other people around me but I’m easily stressed out.” In which case, she says, she responds with action: “I think I kind of take a deep breath and start getting things done.”
Like climbing, comps are addicting, she says. “But they’re more addicting after I mess up. I say, ‘OK, I’m going to train really hard and redeem myself.’ I’ve kind of learned to manage being upset in that way. It’s really easy to get devastated.”
One prize that eluded her was winning Youth World Championships, though she was close three times. In 2010 she topped out in the first two rounds, but her foot slipped in finals and she finished fourth. “I came down with this blank stare and had to go home and do college applications. I didn’t have a comp for a while, and no fall trips, but my motivation was more than ever. All I did was train.”
In spring she went to the Red, and cruised Omaha Beach, a longtime goal. (For the record, she says onsighting Last of the Bohicans [5.13d] afterward actually gave her more trouble.)
Harrington says, “I think she’s gained a lot of momentum recently, and has a strong mind as a result. She’s confident and not afraid to try. Right now, she doesn’t seem to place any boundaries on herself, which is a really good thing. … She’s still really young, though, and has thus far only gone up and achieved success in her climbing. Her challenges will come when she experiences a low point, a lack of motivation, or has to work hard on something that may be considered ‘easier’ than she’s already accomplished. It’s not a weakness, just a necessary process, and she’ll be better for it.”
We all know the enduring enticement of climbing, because it is beautiful and exhilarating—and progress is measured for us minutely. If someone climbs 5.14c almost by accident, and is observed to make it look like 5.11, how could that person not want more?
As slated, the lead World Cup circuit starts in Paris in September, when fall semesters start.
“What are you going to do?” I ask her.
“I have no idea,” she says. “I know I want to be at the World Cup. Do you know if Columbia ever lets you start in January?
“I’m already [looking at] missing the first week. There’s the Arco Rock Master, a host of comps I would want to do. Ideally I would be able to defer a little longer. If not”—and she laughs—“I’ll miss a lot of school. It’ll be like high school all over again, doing it on the plane, getting it all done in advance.”
Being visible means observed, and this year a series of comments on the internet asked whether her slenderness was extreme.
Given that eating disorders are a serious concern, open discourse may overall be healthy, especially considering that they are found primarily in girls and young women. But to her the public notion was a new kind of surprise, one she called hurtful and, as a role model, worrisome. She denies it soundly.
“I like to eat healthy,” she says. “I don’t like not being active. I started seeing people saying, ‘Oh, she’s too thin,’ [but] if you’re active and eating healthy then you’re going to look fit.
“Food is fuel. You need fuel to perform. Anorexia in climbing is something I’ve never understood. You can’t not eat and climb … If you’re burning more energy, you need more energy. If you’re hungry, you need to eat. Right now I’m at a level that feels natural. I would never want to go under that. I’ve never monitored my weight on a scale. I’ve just monitored my weight on how I feel.”
Today she has ordered a bagel sandwich with salmon, though a two- to three-hour interview is hardly the place to be able to eat a bagel (she tries). “I like fish a lot,” she says. “When I’m at home I eat a lot more meat than when I’m traveling. Because my dad’s Italian and he loves his girl. When I came home from Europe I said, ‘OK, Dad, cook me a steak!’”
The night before a comp, she says, she eats pasta with red sauce, and some form of protein such as chicken or meatballs. For breakfast, she likes simple carbs such as cereal or oatmeal—or a Belgian waffle. “I like fruit and nuts a lot. I will go around with a huge bag of walnuts. And chocolate. Dark chocolate.”
This year Sasha can have been expected to write on her white board again. Climb 9a+ [5.15a]. Onsight 8c [5.14b]. Podium in international events. “Academically, stay on top of things,” as she puts it.
Asked about specific routes, she demurs. “Of course I would like to push my boundaries and try whatever next hard route inspires me. I would absolutely love to try a 9a+ but I would also love to do more 9a’s. It’s important to try everything and build a strong foundation of climbs overall.”
She also wants to learn how to bolt and to establish a bolted route (and, someday, learn how to trad climb). “It’d be really cool to start developing routes outside and making a contribution.”
For 2012 she intends to train bouldering, attend ABS and SCS nationals, take a trip out West, go to Europe for bouldering and lead World Cup events, and climb in France and Spain.
Fall will bring a new phase, the daily life of a college student at a demanding university. It is the obvious potential speed bump, or detour.
“It really just depends on what she wants to do,” says Vinokur. “If she wants to compete, I think she can win World Cups. I’m not even sure if it’s going to be so much more training as much as getting more experience. And the big problem is that most of the comps are in Europe, and the routesetters are there.”
The thoughtful Harrington says that, while certain Sasha will continue to excel, “I hope she is able to embrace all the new experiences there and grow as a person, even if it means sacrificing some of her climbing goals. You only get to be an undergrad in NYC once in your life!”
Having been another major talent who was also a top student, Harrington sees something of herself in Sasha. “I was the same way: driven, hard-working, and [with] high expectations. But I was also a bit lost at that age. Unsure if climbing was really my passion, or if I just did it because I was talented. I think Sasha really is passionate about climbing. She’s far more lighthearted and easygoing than I was. I think she has more fun. She can combine lightheartedness with her climbing and school.
“I went to college, but was still 100 percent focused on climbing. I never made any friends or had any social life, and I think my personal relationships suffered. She asked me if I regretted all that. I said yes.”
Sasha herself says, “I think I can do both. I don’t really see any reason, other than time, why not.”
Alison Osius is executive editor of Rock and Ice.