Sasha DiGiulian: ‘There’s an assumption the male takes the lead in climbing’ | Sport

As plumes of spray from the roiling Yosemite Falls cascaded to their left, Sasha DiGiulian, Jon Cardwell and Marcus Garcia completed the first continuous free ascent of Yosemite National Park’s 1,700-foot Misty Wall.

The feat in 2017 took fourteen-and-a-half hours. The next day, DiGuilian posted dramatic images on her Instagram feed that were liked by thousands of people and used by climbing websites that helped news of the achievement spread rapidly across the globe.

As in other extreme sports, many of the world’s best climbers are slick, brand-aware social media users – a far cry from the pre-digital days when they were closer in status to cult heroes than celebrities. Self-described “dirtbags” lived in tents and cars in Yosemite in the shadow of El Capitan, the sheer granite monolith that stands higher than the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa.

Now about 150,000 climbers throng the Californian park each year and Free Solo, the movie about Alex Honnold’s attempt to ascend El Capitan without ropes, won the Oscar for best documentary feature in February. A once determinedly insular and counter-cultural pursuit will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year, accelerating its move towards the mainstream.

It helps that mountains are optional. The first American indoor climbing gym, Vertical World in Seattle, opened in 1987. Now there are over 500 nationwide, from the flattest states to the craggiest, underlining the health and fitness industry’s embrace of climbing – especially the mental and physical challenge of bouldering. At the same time, the best outdoor climbers have seen their profiles raised in ways that would have been impossible without social media, given that, for obvious reasons, theirs is hardly an accessible spectator sport.

“Climbing has exploded really over the last 10 or 15 years,” says DiGiulian, who took it up in 1998, the year she turned six, at a gym near her home in the Washington DC area. “I never really aspired to be a professional climber because I didn’t know that it existed. And it didn’t, really. You lived in your van in Yosemite and ate granola bars. It was pretty minimalist – and no shade on that at all.”

By the time she was 11 she was winning titles but it still felt like an obscure hobby. “There was this total disconnect from me and my friends at school over climbing,” she says. “I wasn’t really going to show my pictures to my friends. I found that climbing was this other thing that I did, I chose to save my breath from explaining it and didn’t talk about it too much. But social media’s become this window to share not only with your friends and family but people who we don’t even know. We can bring them along on the adventure.”

Now 26 and based in Boulder, Colorado, DiGiulian is one of professional climbing’s biggest names – thanks to her achievements, with more than 30 first female ascents.

She works with videographers and photographers, has started her own production company, Female Focused Adventures, and has more than 420,000 followers on Instagram as well as being active on Facebook and Twitter. Her feeds feature jaw-dropping selfies from precarious ascents in exotic locations, and her posts and videos offer insights into her life and work. She’s also taken a stand against sexism and cyberbullying.

“The way that you used to get sponsored was you did something, like you did well in a competition, or you climbed something noteworthy outside and a climbing magazine would write about you and after that article was written you had this kind of presence that sponsors in the industry would pick up and read and they would approach you, or you would approach them,” she says.

“Now it’s totally different. With social media, companies find out more about you through your social media page than having to flip through climbing magazines. The biggest shift is that you’re no longer reliant on other forms of media to be sharing your news. Social media has become this platform that you have your own voice and you can share what you’re doing and also create a voice for what you stand for. Which is pretty cool.”

While Shauna Coxsey, Britain’s leading climber, hopes to star at the 2020 Olympics, DiGiulian is not interested in competing in Tokyo, where sport climbing will be held in an urban park.

“There’s something about your sport being on the Olympic stage that provides a legitimacy that we all, as climbers, know exists – but maybe it’s kind of cool, gets more kids involved too,” says DiGiulian. “It just wasn’t for me, the format.” Unusually, climbers will be asked to excel in three disciplines: speed (a head-to-head race lasting five to eight seconds), bouldering (scaling fixed routes on a 4m-high wall in four minutes) and lead (climbing as high as possible on a 15m-plus wall within six minutes).

DiGiulian, Savannah Cummins and Angela Vanwiemeersch have just completed an all-female ascent of Pico Cão Grande, a 450m-high needle-like protrusion amid the lush greenery of Sao Tomé & Principe, a tiny island nation off the west coast of central Africa.

“When they look at a woman’s success and she’s with a male climbing partner there’s this assumption that the male took the lead, the woman was not doing as much work. Often it’s not the case. Angela and I are like, let’s just do it, this tower, and just be me and you, no one can reattribute our success to some male partner,” Di Giulian said before the expedition set off.

The all-female media crew included a photographer, two videographers and a director. DiGiulian hopes that documenting her exploits not only boosts her own profile but also encourages the next generation of female climbers: “If you see a woman who’s done something, there’s this inspiration: if she can do it, I can too.”


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Publish date : 2019-08-16 08:00:00

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