Late on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2011, in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, Sasha DiGiulian started up the rock face of an absurdly difficult climbing route called Pure Imagination. The fading light stuck on the features of the grey-brown sandstone as the 5-foot-2, 95-pound climber sunk her fingers into small pockets in the rock and latched onto the smallest folds of stone. After 75-feet and about 13 minutes on the overhung wall, she reached the top.
“Oh my god… no way!” She exclaimed, as she held up bloody fingers for the video camera. “Dude, I’m so stoked!”
At 19 years old, DiGiulian had surprised the climbing world with her breakout performance. She was now the first North American woman to climb a 9a route – a line of incredible difficulty.
DiGiulian, now 20, began climbing when she was just seven years old in her home town of Arlington, Virginia. From the beginning, she clearly had the knack. After taking first place at a small local competition, she went on to win the Junior Continental Championship six years in a row.
After her now-famous Kentucky climb, DiGiulian received the Golden Piton Award from Climbing magazine and the Arco Rock Legend Award, and spent a year traveling the world as an Adidas-sponsored athlete, trying the hardest routes possible with other elite climbers.
DiGiulian was at the top of her game as the best female sport climber in North America and arguably in the world. Paid to spend her days challenging herself in some of the most beautiful places on the planet, she had achieved a climber's dream.
But then came her next surprising move: She quit her full-time climbing career to move to New York City and begin her studies at Columbia University.
On a dreary fall evening just about a year after Pure Imagination, DiGiulian met me at Café Lalo in the Upper West Side to talk about her transition, and what it’s like to balance cimbing training with the demands of an Ivy League university
As DiGiulian walked in, she appeared a polished New Yorker with the radiance of youthful athleticism. Her pink sweater, jeans and high-heeled boots masked her incredible physicality. If you were to see her on the city streets, you'd never guess how much power this woman has from her toes to the tips of her exceptionally strong fingers.
We sat down, ordered some tea and got started.
People would expect a climber to go to school in Colorado, Utah or maybe California. Why New York City?
I’m a city girl and I’ve always loved the energy here. You walk down the street and it’s palpable. I train at Chelsea Piers and Brooklyn Boulders, so I still have places where I can maintain my climbing shape. I recently climbed with (11-year-old climbing prodigy) Ashima Shiraishi, who also lives here. I posted a picture of us on Facebook, and it already has 900 likes.
Did you consider not going to college at all, and just climbing professionally instead?
No. My parents always stressed the importance of academics above athletics. I also tried being just a professional climber after high school and found that it wasn’t enough for me. I want to be academically challenged, too.
I did think about less rigorous schools because it would be easier to maintain climbing and I would have less academic work, but at the same time, I’m really inspired by being around such interesting people.
You’ve just started at Columbia, is the plan still to study business?
I am studying creative writing with a business concentration. Studying journalism and how to communicate with an audience can help with any facet of work, and I also find that writing is a fun outlet. I started keeping a blog in the summer of 2011. I write about my experiences on climbing trips and my climbing career.
What surprised you most about college life?
I wasn’t expecting so much work and I don’t want it to pile up and create a snowball effect, especially because I’m trying to find the balance between school and training.
How is that coming?
Right now it’s a struggle.
Initially I just didn’t sleep, but that died quickly. Now I drink coffee like a sponge, wear makeup and try to run on four hours of sleep.
At this rate, I find that I’m still awake in my exercise. The problem is that I’ll come back from training and I need to study, but all I want to do is eat and sleep.
I think I’m coming closer now than I was last week to finding the sweet spot, but I still need to work out my groove. Hopefully next spring I’ll have the perfect balance so I can study hard and still be at the top of my game climbing.
What does your average day look like?
On most days, I bike down to Chelsea Piers, which takes me about 30 minutes, and then I’ll train for 2 – 3 hours and bike back. I spend the rest of my time in class or in the library.
You say you like to do short workouts consistently. How often do you climb and cross train?
I’ll bike or run for an hour to cross train and I climb about five days a week. My climbing workouts consist of different endurance and power routines (laps, bouldering, 4x4s), as well as pushups, pull ups and abdominal workouts.
What do you do to make your hands so strong?
I climb consistently.
You took September off after you ruptured the A2 pulley in your hand. What was that like?
Even though I had extra time during my day, I was actually less productive. I procrastinated more and I didn’t feel fulfilled.
I like to be moving, and I can’t focus if I’m not. Now that I’m back, I feel like myself again and I better understand my goals—being forced to take the time off made me want to excel even more.
The outdoors are an important part of climbing culture and climbers’ souls. How has being in New York influenced you so far? How about your psyche?
I’m already looking at tickets to the Red River Gorge because I miss climbing outside. It’s fun to be a true New Yorker, but I feel refreshed if I can go out to the park. I’ve been out biking every day for the fresh air. It’s not the same air as in the RRG or the Gunks, but so far I’m thriving.
What crag feels most like home and why? Is it the smell of the rock? The community?
The Red River Gorge feels like home to me. I haven’t spent much time there, but it’s where I excel most. The rock is sandstone and I like that because it’s never too reachy. It is really dirty, though, so I look like a total dust-ball after climbing every day.
If you go this time of year, the colors are beautiful. The leaves turn bright gold and red and it’s a kind of paradise. I also love the ambiance at the campground near Miguel’s Pizza and Rock Climbing Shop. When you get back at night, you can get whatever you want on your pizza and there are so many climbers from all over the world.
You say you have a big sweet tooth. How do you balance eating sugar with being an extreme athlete?
In general, I like eating a healthy diet. I have a sweet tooth, but my meals consist of vegetables and lean protein because I like how my body responds to that. I’m gluten intolerant, which can make things difficult, but I sometimes cheat. Also, fortunately, when you’re exercising a lot, there isn’t really a calorie restriction.
What’s your current guiding principle or mantra for climbing?
When I’m climbing, I’m thinking about the movement in front of me. Other than that, I set limitless boundaries for myself. It’s like that saying: If you shoot for the moon and you fall short, you’ll still reach the stars.
Despite the growth of climbing culture, it’s not as popular for young people as other sports. What would you say to a young person who is interested in climbing but weighing the social cost?
My closest friends are climbers. It’s an incredibly social sport and the climbing community is very accepting. When I was traveling in China, I was completely alien to the culture there, but the locals and I connected through climbing. It was an overarching passion we shared and a language we all spoke.
Even though the school year just started, but do you already know how you’ll spend the summer?
I’ll be traveling and climbing, probably in Western Europe.
And, finally, what’s the best pick-up line you’ve heard since you started college?
“Maybe we can go running together.”
It’s not the most romantic date, but it’s how I met the person I’m dating now.
So it worked?
Yeah, I guess so. We had a good run.