“While climbing a hard route, everything else fades away. I am only thinking about the movement in front of me, the next sequence, what I am holding on to, and my breath,” says 19-year-old climbing phemon Sasha DiGiulian, seen on Era Bella, graded 5.14d, in the sport-climbing mecca of Margalef, Spain. “These isolated thoughts are part of the thrill of climbing—nothing else in the world matters in that moment.”
On April 26, 2012, DiGiulian reached the top of Era Bella, becoming the first woman to do so, after working on it for more than three days over two trips. The feat was another feather in the cap of a woman who, in the past year, became the first American woman to climb a 5.14d route (Red River Gorge’s Pure Imagination), won the overall gold at the climbing world championships, and captured her third consecutive national sport-climbing title.
Here Sasha talks about the climb, pushing the limits, and starting college in the fall.
Adventure: What were you thinking at this moment?
Sasha DiGiulian: While climbing a hard route everything else fades away and I am only thinking about the movement in front of me, the next sequence, what I am holding on to, and my breath. These isolated thoughts are part of the thrill of climbing—nothing else in the world matters in that moment.
A: Why did you want to climb Era Bella?
Sasha: I wanted to climb Era Bella because it is a challenging, beautiful route!
A: Tell us about the features you encountered on the route? It looks like the rock is overhanging in this picture.
Sasha: The route is about 140 feet of continuous steep, pocketed climbing. The hardest movements are in the first half of the climb, but it is quite sustained all the way to the top! The roof section at the beginning gave me some trouble because there is a big move over the lip, then the following moves on the steep head wall you have to move quickly through and “punch” past the powerful sequences. After this, the climbing remains steep and constant, but not so many individual hard moves.
A: This is considered the hardest climb ever done by a woman. Did it feel notably harder than other climbs?
Sasha: Not so hard when I actually did it, but in trying it, some days it felt especially hard!
A: Did you ever want to give up?
Sasha: Yes—when my hands were bleeding and hurt from the pockets cutting my skin. But I kept going because I knew the experience of doing the route was worth more than a few bloody fingers.
A: Why do rock climbers love this part of Spain so much?
Sasha: Climbers from all over the world travel to Spain to climb in the Catalunia region because of the incredible concentration of hard, beautiful sport climbing routes. We have to be thankful for developers like Chris Sharma, Dani Andrada, and other notable passionate climbers for developing this region so well. Also, with such a focus of strong climbers all in one region, hard routes are developed and established and limits are pushed.
A: What’s the hardest route ever done by a man? How does this compare?
Sasha: Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra have done the hardest routes in the World – 9b (5.15b). As you progress upwards on the grade scale, the limit starts being really pushed and routes in my opinion become exponentially harder. I would love to achieve the next “level” but I remain un-fixated on grades because I know that it’s more important to focus on the challenges in front of me than the number grade associated with whatever it is that I am climbing. A lot of climbs’ grades are subjective too, depending on variables like the general style of the route. For example, a reachy compression route that is an easier grade than “9a,” like an “8c”could be incredibly harder for me than an endurance-oriented, not height dependent “9a.”
A: Do you feel like the gap is closing between the abilities of men and women climbers?
Sasha: Certainly, but again, stylistic variables need to be noted. Men are naturally physically stronger than women, but on routes that involve a lot of fitness and technique, women are closer to men.
A: It took a couple tried to crack this route, right?
Sasha: I was in Spain for three weeks in March which is when I first tried Era Bella. I put in a week of effort on the route and left empty-handed, only to return a month later in better shape and having had a mental break from it, and then I sent it.
A: Tell us about the quality of the rock you were climbing?
Sasha: Spanish Limestone – Margalef climbing is very pocketed and, in general, quite powerful and steep.
A: What’s next for you? This year, and long term?
Sasha: Currently I am on the plane on my way to Japan for an invitational Lead Master in Osaka. This summer I will compete in several World Cups, but my main focus is on climbing outside in beautiful places and pushing my limits on rock. I will probably be in Western Europe again for the bulk of my summer, but then I also start University at the end of August in New York City… Columbia. I am excited about this, too!