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The Making of a Climbing Prodigy

Fifteen-year-old Ashima Shiraishi is on the fast track to becoming the sport’s greatest athlete



Hisatoshi (“Poppo”) Shiraishi and his wife Tsuya moved from Tokyo to New York City. Poppo, a modern dancer trained in Butoh, a style of Japanese modern dance featuring dancers covered in white body paint, soon became known in the East Village art scene and founded his own troupe. Tsuya paid the bills by working in sales, and sewed the troupe’s costumes on the side.


Against all odds, and after a decade of trying to conceive a child, a 50-year-old Tsuya gives birth to Ashima, the couple’s first and only child. “The doctors said she was a miracle baby,” Poppo said.


While playing at a playground in Central Park, a six-year-old Ashima becomes fascinated with the sport by watching people boulder on Rat Rock, a chunk of black schist-granite adjacent to the playground that’s popular with Manhattan climbers. Her parents buy her climbing shoes and a chalk bag, and she’s soon climbing indoors at gyms every day after school.


From ages 8 to 10 years old, Ashima starts turning heads for her quick ascents of extremely difficult boulder problems, culminated with the V13-rated “Crown of Aragorn,” at the time the highest grade achieved by a female climber of any age. Older climbers start dismissing her achievements, reasoning that her small fingers and light body make the problems easier for her than for others.


An 11-year-old Ashima climbs “Southern Smoke” (5.14c) at the Red River Gorge, making her the youngest person ever, male or female, to climb that grade.


Ashima climbs the V14-rated “Golden Shadow,” in Rocklands, South Africa, making her the second female ever to achieve that grade in bouldering.


Ashima knocks off four more V14s, establishing herself as the most dominating female boulderer ever, despite being just 14 years old. She also proves that she has what it takes to climb on a rope as well. During a spring break trip to Japan, she climbs “Open Your Mind Direct” (5.14d), the hardest sport climb ever achieved by an American female climber.


During spring break from ninth grade, Ashima breaks new boundaries by becoming the first female to climb a V15 boulder problem with “Horizon,” located on Mt. Hiei, a Buddhist enclave in southern Japan. A few months later, she climbs another V15. To put her stats into perspective, the number of V14 problems that other women around the world have climbed is just five problems, completed by only three other women climbers. Ashima, meanwhile has personally climbed seven problems that are rated V14 or harder. And, at 15, she’s only just getting started.

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