My Perfect Adventure: Sasha DiGiulian

Arguably the best female climber in the world tells us what makes her suitcase so heavy, why she loves heading to Spain, and what scares her while she’s climbing

Sasha DiGiulian.     Photo: Reinhard Fichtinger

You probably wouldn’t expect to find America’s best female rock climber taking notes in a lecture hall at Columbia University, her fingernails painted with pink polish, but Sasha DiGiulian has never liked sticking to expectations—at least not when it’s possible to exceed them. The 20-year-old freshman has won the past three U.S. National Championships, last year’s World Championships, and many other international competitions, prompting The Washington Post to describe her as “arguably the best female rock climber in the world.”

DiGiulian, originally from Alexandria, Virginia, has been turning heads since she started climbing at the age of seven. In a gap year before starting college in New York this fall, she made history by becoming the first woman to climb the 80-foot Pure Imagination in Kentucky and the 140-foot Era Bella in Spain, both at grade 5.14d. Now her challenge is balancing life as a professional athlete and a full-time student. Despite her rigorous academic load, she says she still finds time to train three hours a day.

Here she tells us what makes her suitcase so heavy, why she loves heading to Spain, and what scares her while she’s climbing.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I wake up at a reasonable hour, probably 8 or 9 a.m. I have a leisurely breakfast including lots of bold coffee and steamed milk. After breakfast, my friends and I hike to the crag. The sky is a crystal clear blue, the sun warms the ground, and there’s a slight breeze. The colorful autumn leaves flutter from the ground. Next I have my harness on, and I’m tying in to the end of the rope with my good friend standing there, ready to belay me on my latest project. We climb all day and eat lots of trail mix and fresh Honeycrisp apples. At the end of the day when the sun is setting, we walk back down from the crag and have a warm hearty dinner over laughs and red wine. Then we have cookies to celebrate our day’s hard sending. We look down at our hands and compare the day’s battle wounds.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Greece is at the top of my bucket list because the whole ambiance seems incredible—amazing climbs to try, rich culture, tremendous food, and a tranquil environment. Many of my friends have traveled to Greece to climb at Kalymnos, though I don’t have any particular climbs in mind; the entire area just sounds and looks amazing. Also, Greek food is my second favorite cuisine next to Japanese, so I’d be sure to eat lots of yogurt and fresh honey.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
One of the best places I’ve ever visited is the Cataluna region of Spain because the amount of rock to climb is endless; there is always a plethora of strong, motivated climbers there; and the lifestyle is positive and relaxed. No pasa nada; the Spanish know how to live!

I first visited Cataluna in 2008. There was just so much limestone and so many strong climbers in the region. I think they go there both because of the Mecca of rock, and because climbers like Dani Andrada and Chris Sharma are there, establishing hard, world-class routes. I usually spend two weeks at a time there, and I’ve gone about six times. Hopefully I’ll be back in January if it’s not too cold!

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
I would have lunch with Reinhold Messner because he’s such a charming, humble pioneer. I first met him last year at the winter trade show for the Outdoor Inspiration awards, and he’s also on Team Adidas. He has accomplished so much, yet he remains interested in the present and is so modest about his past.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
This is 100 percent materialistic, but my iPhone, because I’m constantly using it to check my email, take pictures, and keep in contact with my friends and family. I also often travel with my blender, a BlendTec, because I love fresh juices and smoothies, although it does get a bit bulky to carry. At three horsepower, it’s a monster.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
Typically if it’s for a climbing trip, and it basically always is, I’ll read a climbing guidebook and decide where I’d like to go climbing. I also like to eat the cuisine that’s local to the destination.

What motivates you as a rock climber?
I’m motivated to push my own personal limits and see what I am capable of. I’m also inspired to get other people passionate about climbing because what I feel when I climb is unparalleled to any other feeling I’ve experienced—it’s simply cathartic.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My dream job was to professionally climb, to be honest. I first fell in love with climbing at the age of seven, and that was all I wanted to do, so I guess I never really gave up on that dream. Prior to that I wanted to be an author/illustrator because I loved to read books and draw pictures. I still enjoy writing and doodling, and I love keeping a blog.

When and how did you first start rock climbing?
I first started climbing in 1999 after my brother’s birthday party at a local climbing gym. My brother is 14 months older than me. At this party, I was seven. It was all boys from his ice hockey team there and me. I wasn't scared at all—I was exhilarated by moving higher and higher up the wall. I loved the feeling of defying gravity. The party walls were about 40 feet, so not very high, but high to me at the time. Climbing isn't pure strength—I was a little girl who happened to love playing on the monkey bars and had good strength-to-body weight ratio in my favor. I excelled past the physically stronger and more athletic boys in the birthday party. I think being better than my brother prompted my interest, too.

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring professional climber?
Believe in yourself and the possibility of realizing any overarching dream that you dedicate yourself to. Don’t be fixated on grades—they are just the guiding spectrum to mark progress, nothing else. Climb what inspires you and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and to fall ... a lot.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My friends are my greatest inspiration. I look up to the individuals who surround me because I believe everyone has a unique characteristic and some attribute to learn from. For example, my friend Andrea Szekely works incredibly hard. I grew up climbing with her and her brother, Gabor, and their mom, Eva, an Olympic gymnast. Andrea currently goes to Stanford, and she values education and climbing. She trains harder than basically everyone else I know—she just works so hard. This is inspiring.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Be yourself and be confident in who you are and what you want. If you do that, you’ll be successful because you’ll be happy.

Have you ever made a mistake or experienced a near accident while climbing that made you think twice about going out again?
I have injured my ankles a lot while bouldering, and that makes me hesitant sometimes about falling from high points because I don’t want to land poorly and reinjure myself. With bouldering, when you fall you land on a crash pad (like a gymnastic pad), and as long as you land well, you’re absolutely fine. The way to overcome my fear, which I’m still overcoming, is to do exactly what scares me: falling.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I would be involved in sports and the outdoors still, but maybe I’d want to be a professional athlete of another sport; I used to figure skate and I still think it’s a beautiful sport, so maybe I’d try that. Or, since ideally I’d still like to work in conjunction with climbing, maybe I’d have a role in marketing and media communications involving fitness and the outdoors. I strongly believe in the benefits of exercise and the necessity of living a healthy, active lifestyle, so I’m really interested in advocating this belief to others.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Bolt and climb my own route.

Travel and climb in Greece and Thailand.

Become president. Just kidding. Bake an apple pie that turns out as amazing as my grandma’s pies always do.

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