Just above the tree line but still short of where the sunlight begins, Sasha DiGiulian clasps onto a sheer sandstone cliff on this winter morning. Well, maybe “clasp” isn’t the word. She’s too poised for that. Too graceful.
Anyway, the agile rock climber has moved on now. She’s never in one place for long, and her attack of Rodan—a route no female has yet completed—is no different. A swivel of the torso, a deft repositioning of her pointed right foot, and a controlled pull on the grips has her another step closer to the light.
She finds new holds with well-practiced hands—pink painted nails on one side, chalk dust and ripped skin on the other.
Practically unbeatable as a junior climber, DiGiulian made her mark on the senior stage when she won the 2011 climbing world championships in Arco, Italy—at the age of 18. She also owns three U.S. national titles and is the world’s top-ranked female outdoor rock climber. But it’s the 20-year-old’s achievements outside of competition that have gained her notice in the rest of the action sports world.
Her taming of the spiked, inhospitable wall known as Pure Imagination in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge in October 2011 made her the first American woman ever to climb a 9a route. How hard is 9a? More than 50 women have been to space; DiGiulian is one of three worldwide with a 9a on her record. She is also the youngest of the bunch.
“I don’t really know what I’m capable of,” she says. “But I like to find out.”
And all of this before entering her sophomore year in college. Around this time last year, she knew exactly what she wanted to do on her summer vacation. She’d heard stories of a rocky playground in South Africa, 180 miles east of Johannesburg near the town of Waterval Boven (“Above the Waterfall” in Afrikaans), known as a climber’s haven.
“You find lots of vast faces and ledges here,” she says. “You also need plenty of really technical footwork. And I’ve never used so many crimpers, which are tiny holes you can only get a few fingers or fingertips into.”
Now on the brown-orange rock line about three miles out of town, DiGiulian has one more maneuver to land before she reaches the crux (the most difficult section). Her 13 years of training and competing mean this is routine. Her petite 5’2” frame almost shimmies up the stone.
As a kid growing up in Alexandria, Va., DiGiulian did everything from swimming to soccer to tennis. But it was another one of her childhood pursuits that convinced her to dedicate herself to climbing.
“At the time I was beginning climbing I was also a competitive figure skater,” she says. “And to practice certain jumps we would wear a safety harness like the one we used at climbing. But I remember every time I put it on, all I could think was that I’d rather be at climbing practice.”
With the African sun cautiously edging down the rock face, DiGiulian has reached a rest point on Rodan. Hardly permission to kick back and take in the view, this is only a momentary pause.
Arjan de Kock, the world-class South African climber playing host and partner on this trip, first saw a 16-year-old DiGiulian in 2009, “doing some really hard climbs” in Spain. “Above all, she’s driven, focused, and very amped for life. Now she also has this ingrained confidence that she can climb at the limit. And her passion means she is taking climbing to a whole new audience, too.”
Following a year-long break after high school to travel and climb exclusively, she got accepted at Columbia University, where she’s majoring in creative writing with a business concentration. “I see myself climbing for the rest of my life,” she says, “but sports marketing has my eye as something I’d like to do one day.” For now she lives a juggling act, keeping her sports, studies, and everything else in the air at once.
In “city girl” mode, DiGiulian bikes and runs for general fitness, and five days a week she hits the indoor wall at Chelsea Piers on Manhattan’s West Side. When her schedule permits, she travels to competitions on weekends. “Sasha’s climbing career seems in no way to dominate her life,” says roommate Ariana Dickey. “I would say that Sasha finds as much time as any other university student for fun. And even during this summer, while she’s been traveling the world, she finds time to check in with me, see how I’ve been doing.”
On this rocky outcrop tucked away in trout-fishing country, not far from South Africa’s eastern border with Mozambique and the reclusive Kingdom of Swaziland, all that seems far away. There’s a reason no female has conquered Rodan before. Her petite build and agility are assets for a certain variety of move, but this next one is better served by height and brute force. Even the potent de Kock struggled here earlier in the day.
And then WHOOOOOSH … and for a moment the world’s top-ranked female outdoor climber is drifting in thin air, 30 feet above a rocky path.
DiGiulian lets the rope harnessed to her waist take the strain, looping her back to the comfort of the rock. She eases the impact with a balletic left leg. Rodan has won this time. But there are other climbs to conquer.
While hiking between routes one morning, DiGiulian spotted what she called “this proud and intimidating black face that was striking. There were no chalk marks, but the rock jutted out like it was asking to be climbed.” She and de Kock consulted with locals and determined that they were looking at a project laid out back in 2008; it carried the standing name “Overlord” but still had yet to be conquered—by anyone. “It looked so aesthetic, I thought, why not try it?”
Overlord is actually a more difficult test than Rodan. Divided roughly in half by a giant overhang, it demands several big reaches, segments of crack climbing, and a long portion of diagonal slithering on a sheer rock face.
For three days the duo returned to pay homage to the Overlord.
“It was a new experience for me,” explains DiGiulian. “When you’re working on an undone route, you’re constantly trying to work out if a rock line does go. In a way, unlocking the sequence is like solving a puzzle. You have to whittle down each move individually and then make links to create one solid line. Each time you’re realizing that the formerly impossible is possible.”
Three days of painstaking progress and “gnarly falls” and at last the Overlord acceded. “I SENT!” (climbing lingo derived from “ascent”) was DiGiulian’s elated proclamation on social media. Following shortly after her with the second-ever ascent of the route was trusty Arjan, and the climbing buddies agreed to rate the line an 8c—technically just short of Sasha’s best, 9a, but on uncharted territory.
Time-honored climbing lore dictates that the first to complete a route has the privilege of assigning its permanent name. DiGiulian used the chance to pay respect to her host nation’s ailing founding father, then lying in a hospital bed two hours’ drive west in a Pretoria cardiac unit. “I named the climb ‘Rolihlahla,’ ” she announces. “It’s Nelson Mandela’s middle name. He’s one of the great men in history, and it’s moving to be here at such a critical period for the country.”
Appropriately, the name translates from the vernacular as “Trouble Maker.” “I really like that spark,” continues DiGiulian. “You’re out there taking big, dangerous falls. You’re making trouble! You’re going up there and causing a ruckus on the wall, defying gravity, defying fear. It’s a new form of rebelliousness.”
As she leaves the area, DiGiulian pauses to cast her eyes over tricky sections of Rodan, the one climb that bested her. “Whether I have time to do it on this trip, I’m not sure,” she says. “If not I’ll do it next time. “A few days later, the perpetually kinetic DiGiulian took off for the steel and glass mountains of Manhattan. She’ll be back, whenever it is, and timeless Rodan won’t mind the wait.
Rock of ages: www.sasha-digiulian.com
Check out the November 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands October 15) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.