"Sexism was definitely highlighted. I felt like I was being questioned for why I was trying this climb. I was told 'Little girls don’t belong on the Eiger"
On August 29, at just 22, Sasha DiGiulian became the first woman to free climb Magic Mushroom, one of the most difficult routes on the North Face of the Eiger Mountain in the Swiss Alps and one of the most dangerous climbs in the world—it's also known as “Murder Wall."
In the indoor competitive rock climbing sphere, DiGiulian is a three-time US National Champion and 2011 Overall World Champion; outdoors, she's set records that most women haven't even dared to attempt. Most notably, at 19, she became the first and only North American woman (and the third woman of all time) to climb the difficulty grade of 9a or 5.14d—what's recognized as the hardest climb ever achieved by a female—after a historic ascent of Era Vella in Margalef, Spain. (Check out our interview with the record-setting climber from last summer!)
Two days after being helicoptered down the mountain and just days before starting her senior year at Columbia University, we sat down with the Adidas Outdoor and Red Bull athlete to talk about everything from sexism in rock climbing to peeing off of cliffs to how she balances her career as a professional athlete with being a regular college student.
Shape: You just got back to New York City last night—what's the immediate aftermath been like?
Sasha DiGiulian (SD): When I got done, I had this insatiable appetite. We ate so much food. The problem was we wanted to eat so much more but our stomachs shrunk so we got the worst stomachaches afterwards. I got a pedicure today but really haven’t done much—I think right now I’m in sleep debt. Last night was the first time I had slept in a bed since Tuesday night of last week.
Shape: How does it feel to be the first woman to attempt this climb?
SD: Honestly, I’m kind of in a state of astonished shock. It's this state of physical and mental disbelief. Over the course of the 24 hours, I've been at the top of the Eiger and in New York City. I feel like I’m going to wake up and still be on the mountain and I’m kind of scared of that because I don’t know if I could do it again! But it's definitely my proudest achievement of my career yet.
Shape: What made you want to take this on?
SD: If you never try something then you never really know what you’re capable of. With the Eiger, it’s this iconic mountain that I always knew about but didn’t know my ability to achieve it. It's that feeling of success at the end that motivates you. With alpine climbing, there must be this chemical in your brain that enables you to forget about the suffering. The beginning is great, you have this dream and it’s motivating and exciting; at the end, it's this unparalleled state of bliss and the ultimate personal satisfaction. But the middle stuff all really sucks!
Shape: Let’s talk about the middle. What kinds of conditions did you face while you were out there?
SD: The Eiger definitely has the most dangerous conditions I’ve ever dealt with. It’s called the ‘Murder Wall’ for a reason. Initially, I think I was naïve to the danger. It took us a month of multiple attempts to reach the top—we did three-day pushes at a time and would leave the mountain when the snow and ice got bad. The first time we went up, I thought, 'OK, this is going to be dangerous but we can assess the risk and take all of the safety precautions necessary.' And the second time we went up, one of the main imminent dangers was rock fall. There were two climbers climbing parallel to us on an easier route and we left because there was an impending storm, and they stayed. And the next day they were carried out in body bags. So then it was like ok, this is real. This is really dangerous.
Shape: How did you mentally face the fear of the situation after that?
SD: So much of the process was full of doubt, fear, and uncertainty until the actual moment we were on the summit. Saturday morning, I woke up and still had two more climbs until it was considered done. I was so physically exhausted that I didn't know it was possible. That’s where your mind has to take over your body. There was never a state when I was fearless. But you learn to exude a confidence in your climbing. If you're climbing and can't fall in a certain place, you have to just think that you aren't going to fall. I would literally say that to myself out loud. I would say 'It's all good. I'm not going to fall.' Let go of the fear inhibiting you and you won't be paralyzed by it.
Shape: Walk me through the preparation leading up to the actual three-day ascent.
SD: I spent a lot of time climbing outside a lot and hiking at altitude, and I would spend days at the cliff. Immediately beforehand, I was at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite and doing some of the harder climbs there. You need to prepare your body to perform at higher elevation. But the best preparation we did was simply arriving at the Eiger and going for it. We had a month total there—that’s how long it took us to finally reach the top after multiple attempts with logistics and weather. We did the final climb in three days and slept on the cliff—you have to dig out rock to form a ledge and tether yourself to the wall with a rope in case you move in your sleep. It's more like rest. I wouldn’t consider it sleep so much! I would wake up and make sure I wasn't too close to the edge and then try to fall back to sleep.
Shape: What food did you bring with you to stay energized throughout the climb?
SD: When you're up there, you want as calorically-dense food as possible. We also didn't want to just survive off energy bars since I’m not a huge fan of them. They get tiring quickly. But everything about the food was pretty disgusting! For breakfast, we'd have really concentrated oatmeal and put half a cup of peanut butter in it and try to swallow. For snacks while we were climbing, my partner made these rice cakes with rice, maple syrup, bacon, and peanut butter. Not the best meal! We'd have powdered soup for dinner because that was really light, and chocolate every day—for morale.
Shape: What’s the hygiene situation like?
SD: Usually I'm pretty grungy. Today, when they put makeup on me [for an on-air appearance], I was like, I haven't worn makeup in a month! I brought my hairbrush and a change of underwear, but you wear the same clothes because you can't carry up a wardrobe. And I brought face wipes to clean my face.
Shape: And going to the bathroom?
SD: You dig a hole on the ledge and if you have to go number two you bury it. If it's just peeing, you can go off the side of the cliff.
Shape: What's the dynamic like between you and your climbing partner?
SD: You and your climbing partner get really, really close. For a multi-pitch climb, it's really about teamwork. We're literally entrusting our lives to each other every time we go, so the dynamic needs to be really good. If you aren't getting along, that's going to affect your climbing performance. Carlo [Traversi] and I were together basically 24/7 for a solid month and there weren't any issues, which is pretty remarkable. I've known him since 2008 through the pro-circuit and we're both Adidas athletes. You can't have drama on the wall. It would be life-threatening if you don't trust your partner. That's one of the most important factors with climbing with someone else—being able to trust them.
Shape: You first began climbing at six years old. When did you realize you could pursue this as a career?
SD: I started at an indoor climbing gym at my brother's birthday party when I was six. I just really liked it. It was my hobby. I was also doing figure skating competitively. I had been dabbling in a lot of different sports, including skiing since I was three. But the more I started climbing, the more it took over my life and everything else fell by the wayside. When I was eight, I walked into my local climbing gym one day and they were holding a youth regional competition and the gym was buzzing with kids. From there, I got into the competitive realm of climbing. In the last five years, I've really started to transition my career away from the competitive realm and more towards the adventurous side of the sport. In its most authentic form, climbing is an outdoor adventure sport and a lot of the benchmark achievements happen outside.
Shape: What kind of training do you do throughout the year to stay at the top of your game?
SD: Climbing is a really ab-focused sport and very upper-body driven as well. To train for climbing, you do a lot of pushups and pull-ups for the antagonist muscles and lots of abs workouts. Climbing overall is a holistic exercise—it targets so much of your body—so the best training is really doing it. You're outside all day—usually two hours of hiking and then 10 hours of climbing, so by then you don’t need the gym!
But during the school year when I'm here in New York, I go to the gym about six days a week to train with my coach. We do a lot of high-intensity interval training. Typically, I'll warm up on the erg machine to work my shoulders and abs and then I'll do 12 different exercises—like pull-ups or box jumps for coordination—at a fa-pace over the course of 90 minutes, broken up into three circuits. A lot of climbing training is strength-to-bodyweight ratio exercises since you have to pull yourself up the mountain. (See these 5 Strength Exercises for Rock Climbing Newbies)
Shape: What about injury prevention?
SD: I always travel with a foam roller and resistance bands. Foam rollers are amazing. Pro-Tec has my favorite one—they have contortion ones that really get into the knots. I also use an Orb ball to roll into the knots in my back and I do a lot of rubber-band exercises to prevent injury. I also use Powerfingers once a day—it's a little rubber band form of finger exercise. You put your fingers into each hole and open and close your hand at resistance. It helps work the antagonist muscles in your forearms to help prevent tennis elbow—elbow tendonitis—which can happen when you're constantly closing your hand in a fist formation. I also do scapular raises for my back—squeezing my shoulders together to help improve posture and keep my shoulders from caving since I'm always hunched over like a monkey.
Shape: How do you balance being a Columbia student and a professional rock climber? Based on your Instagram account, it looks like you're jet-setting every weekend!
SD: It's definitely a weird juxtaposition. I only had one weekend in New York all of last year. I would typically travel Thursdays through Sundays and this year I’ll be taking classes Tuesday through Thursday and then traveling Thursday through Monday. I keep the two worlds—my climbing career and my student life—pretty isolated from each other. I've really enjoyed the experience of being at Columbia and being in a sorority and meeting all these talented people who are passionate about different things that I know nothing about. But sometimes it's a little frustrating. I was taking a social media class, which was kind of ironic because I was had to miss class to go to this sports marketing event for espnW and my teacher was giving me a hard time about it. I was thinking, "You're going to depreciate my grade for missing class when I'm doing the real thing?"
Shape: I'm sure you get this all the time as a college senior, but what do you have planned for after graduation?
SD: I want to really hone in on professional climbing full-time. My next step is establishing first female ascents around the world and delving into the different facets of the sport, from ice climbing to mixed climbing to big wall alpine climbing. I'd like to free-climb El Capitan in Yosemite next.
But I don't want to have a single-track focus. As a professional athlete, I've had really neat opportunities to work with different companies and have a unique lens into sports marketing. Right now, I'm developing a signature shoe with one of the companies I work with, and I'd like to write a book sharing my experiences. I've also been getting more involved with public speaking. Every time someone asks me what I want to do when I'm done climbing, the ultimate answer to that question is I don't know! It's exciting to see where climbing takes me day by day. It's this really unique and beautiful passport to see the world in the most remote locations. Climbing serves as this global language—wherever you go in the world there's this community you can connect with and experience and learn about different cultures.
Shape: At 5'2'' and 105 pounds, people must constantly be surprised when you tell them you're a professional rock climber.
SD: I'm so used to people not associating me with being a climber. ‘Rock climber’ sounds like this dirtbag, living-out-of-a-van macho man. It's definitely not the first thing I say when I introduce myself. It's sort of a fun game for me when I meet someone at school to see how long it takes for them to find out I'm a climber.
Shape: You continue to break down barriers for women in this sport. What's your take on the gender gap in rock climbing?
SD: Right now, I think that with the development of the sport and of climbing gyms, women and men can come to this intersection where they are performing at equal levels physically. What limits a lot of women is a lack of a willingness to try. In order to excel you have to put yourself on the line. I consider myself just an average climber who's willing to try just about anything that could be a cool adventure and risk to take. As soon as you put yourself in the arena, you have an opportunity to succeed.
Shape: How often do you encounter sexism and how do you handle it?
SD: The best way to prove haters wrong is simply doing your thing and showing that you can. With the Eiger, it was this really unique experience for me, because more so than any other time, the sexism in alpine climbing was definitely highlighted. People would ask me why I was there and when I said ‘the Eiger’ they’d say ‘no really.’ I felt like I was being questioned for why I was trying this mountain. I received comments like, 'little girls don’t belong on the Eiger.' And it’s like, well, now I'm at the summit, so I guess you’re wrong!