This September, world-class professional climber Sasha DiGiulian made history when she led an all-female expedition to successfully climb Rayu, which is part of steep, 12-mile mountain range in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. The Picos are also known as one of the hardest and most infamous rock formations in the world.
DiGiulian, along with her climbing partners Matilda Söderlund of Sweden and Brette Harrington of Canada, accomplished the 2,000 ft. climb, marking the first time an all-female team has achieved a 5.14b big wall, considered super elite by professional standards.
DiGiulian, 30, grew up in Washington, D.C. She’s won nine gold medals in international competition, including three gold medals in the USA Climbing National Championships, and five Pan-American Championship gold medals and IFSC World Championship.
She said that her climb last month in Spain was a special one, and as important as any of her other accolades.
“With Rayu, it was really special to mark history by building a team of women to achieve the most challenging big wall by a team of women,” DiGiulian said in an interview this week. “Rayu was this climb that jumped out at me as a dream to climb because it presented a myriad of challenges in a beautiful location.”
Off of the mountain pass, DiGiulian is an athlete representative on the board of the International Federation of Sport Climbing, and runs a nutrition food company called Send Bars, that sells vegan and organic superfood bars for both athletes and the everyday health-conscious person.
And in 2019, DiGiulian produced and released a documentary film called The Trilogy, which recounts the story about how she became the first female and second person to climb three Canadian Rocky Mountain big walls within one season, in 2018. DiGiulian spends much of her time in Boulder, Colorado, and is also a vocal activist on the issues around climate change.
This week I connected with her, to find out more about her recent achievement and rock climbing as a profession and lifestyle.
Andy Frye: You started climbing at age 6. How did you get into it?
Sasha DiGiulian: My brother had a birthday party at a local climbing gym, Sportrock, when I was six. I loved it so much that I joined the local junior team program at the gym; Wednesday evening and Saturday morning practices. No one in my family climbed or really knew anything about it, but it was a hobby that I loved, while also skiing, figure skating, and playing more traditional sports like soccer.
AF: Climbing for recreation is one thing, but what made you decide to pursue it competitively?
DiGiulian: About a year after I became interested in climbing in 1999 (I was 7 at the time), I walked into the gym for a junior team practice and the gym was closed for a competition – Youth Regional Championships. I didn’t know that climbing was a competitive sport until this, and the organizers let me compete in the 11-and-under category, and I won. Afterward, I started looking more into joining the youth competition circuit. I began participating in local, regional, divisional, and eventually, national youth championships, and in 2003 I won my first North American Championship in Mexico City.
VIDEO: Official Trailer for “The Trilogy” (2019)
AF: In rock and mountain climbing, we hear a lot about North American and Asian peaks. What made conquering Rayu special?
DiGiulian: I first learned about Rayu when I was lying in bed, recovering from my second hip reconstruction surgery. It was September 2021 and I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to return to the level of climbing that I had reached before. With my entirely new hip structure to counter chronic hip pain from my dysplastic hips, the surgeries were to essentially reverse the instability of my femur head moving in and out of the socket.
The Pou brothers, who I’ve known for about ten years, shared their first ascent of this 2000+ ft climb in Spain’s Cordillera Cantabrica region of Picos de Europa, naming it Rayu (lightning) – and the challenge was clear — 5.12 – 5.14 adventurous traditional climbing on a staggering, intimidating limestone mountain peak.
Also, the hardest big wall accomplished by a woman to date is 5.14b — I reached this benchmark nine years ago in 2013 when I climbed Bellavista and then in 2017 Mora Mora (8c/5.14b) in Madagascar.
AF: You are very involved with promoting sports for girls and young women. Could you tell us a little about that?
DiGiulian: I feel it’s my duty to use the platform that I have built to inspire, to use my voice beyond the rocks, and encourage more girls and young women to see a place for themselves in climbing and in sports in general. Climbing in particular is a traditionally male-dominated sport, and the outdoor industry is, in general, very white and very male. It can be tough to feel like you “fit in” or “look the part.” I’ve questioned my own place in it throughout my career. But there is a place for everyone within climbing and I want everyone to feel welcome.
I believe that climbing is one of the most empowering sports someone can partake in; it’s full of setting personal goals and going after them. Climbing is all about overcoming fears and pushing through to the other side. Your true opponent is yourself. There’s a lot of problem-solving and development of life-related skills like believing in yourself, handling failure, and literally falling over and over again only to get back up and try again. I have found I can apply much of what I have learned in the mountains to my pursuits outside of the sport, like founding my company, Send Bars.
AF: What athletes (women especially) have inspired you in your athletic pursuits, and why?
DiGiulian: Billie Jean King — the pioneer, leader, and advocate for women in sports that she is. I am really proud to be on her board at the Women’s Sports Foundation, and just being in her presence brings a palpable, inspiring energy to the table. She is a true icon.
Serena Williams — for being unapologetically herself and a true champion for women in sport, on and off the court. I admire her strength, resilience, and ability to span beyond being just an athlete with all of her business ventures and iconic sense of fashion.
Lynn Hill — I grew up with a poster of Lynn on my wall. It was a poster of her climbing the Nose on El Capitan. There was a quote on it — “it goes, boys!” Lynn was the first to free (with a rope but without the assistance of aid) this climb, which is arguably one of the most famous rock climbs in the world. I related to her in the way that she is this small, unassuming woman — at 5’2,” she redefined the standard of what women, and climbers in general, were capable of achieving.