Athletes & Celebrities

Interview: Sasha DiGiulian on Free Climbing 700-meter Mora Mora and Being a Total Badass

DiGiulian is the first woman in history—and the second person ever—to accomplish the notorious climb.

Sasha DiGiulian Free Climbs Mora Mora
Francois Leabeau / Red Bull Content Pool

Most people would consider scaling the unforgiving face of a rock wall hundreds of meters off the ground to be nerve-wracking at the very least (heart-stopping at most). But Sasha DiGiulian isn't most people.

The 24-year-old professional rock climber and Red Bull athlete is a world champion. She's accustomed to setting climbing records. More important, she's a pro at staying composed—ascending nauseating heights with nothing more than peanut-sized protrusions and minute hand holds.

DiGiulian was the first American woman to accomplish an outdoor climb rated 5.14d. If you're not well-versed in the Yosemite Decimal System (the North American system for rating hikes and climbs), that number indicates a Class 5 route (technical free climbing) with a difficulty grade of 14d. For reference, the current most difficult climb in the world is 5.15c.

So, yeah, “insanely difficult” doesn't even begin to describe this monumental accomplishment.

And, while DiGiulian's left plenty of records in her wake, she’s not slowing down yet—not even close. DiGiulian recently became the first woman—and the second person ever—to free climb the notorious, 700-meter Mora Mora (graded 5.14b) in Madagascar since its founding in 1999. She and her climbing partner, Edu Marin, made the demanding climb in three days.

We got DiGiulian on the phone to talk about Mora Mora, cross-training for success, and why being a badass athlete and a girly girl aren’t mutually exclusive.

M&F Hers: First of all, what made you decide to try to climb Mora Mora in the first place?

Sasha DiGiulian: Madagascar is a destination I've been curious to go and explore. And I knew there was climbing there. I first heard about the route because it was something Adam Ondra did, and he's one of the best climbers in the world [Ondra was the first and only person to free climb the route]. He went and climbed it in 2010, so I knew about it. I guess that was the catalyst. But to go to Madagascar, I think it's just been one of those bucket-list adventures I've had on my mind for years.

Is there anything about Mora Mora that made it unique or more challenging than ascents you've done in the past?

Definitely. It's consistently very technical. There's no part of the climb that you can take for granted. It's one of the hardest multi-pitches [climbing routes with multiple stopping points, or belay stations] in the world. But what sets it apart from others I've done before is it's consistently difficult from bottom to top, all 700 meters of it. The line goes through this really blank granite base, so you're scaling and balancing on precise, tiny little edges.

It’s also a lot of exposure, and pretty remote. The entire time that we were in Madagascar, it was kind of like this desert-mountain-ish range where we didn't have cell service. We were totally unplugged from everything else going on.

How did it feel when you were finally done with the climb?

Oh, man. So happy. When I got to the top, I thought, “I really hope I don't wake up on the side of the portaledge and still have to climb this thing.” It’s that feeling where you can't believe something's done, and you have this feeling of, “pinch me, because I can't really discern whether this is reality or if I'm dreaming and I'm going to wake up and not have done what I think I've done.”

Sasha DiGiulian and Edu Marin Climb Mora Mora

Francois Leabeau/Red Bull Content Pool

Women tend to face more stereotypes and criticism when it comes to sports, especially when you're so open to the public on social media. How do you approach that, and what are your tips for brushing negative people off?

My approach to social media is to be as candid, honest, and true to who I am with my followers as possible. But with that territory, and the Internet in general, comes trolls. My solution to these people is to just focus on what I'm doing, on the positive people around me that are supportive, and ignore the negativity that exists.

I recognize and understand that, in my opinion, a lot of negativity and mean comments come from people who are insecure with themselves. So focusing on my own self-confidence and on the people around me that actually contribute to my life in a positive way is my antidote.

Have you experienced any stereotyping throughout your career?

I've developed much thicker skin throughout my career, being a female in a sport where I'm pretty different from your traditional climber. I'm not trying to fit into a mold or be super outdoorsy, even though I’m always outdoors.

I think that those stereotypes can turn into this idea of what makes someone a true climber and what doesn't. But I've been climbing for over 18 years, and I think that climbing means different things to different people. I don't think that anyone has the right to define who's a true climber and who's not, because the reality is I live my life climbing every day. I think that's something I'm trying to shape and remold within the community.

Is there a certain message you're trying to convey? Something you hope to shake up in the sport?

Strength and femininity don't need to be mutually exclusive. You can love to go shopping, paint your nails pink, and be a badass all at once. That’s why I get a lot of inspiration from my friends who are professional female athletes. We can all relate on similar levels about this. I think a lot of the inspiring female figures that I know in my life are people who are just confident in what they do and aware of who they are.

Speaking of being an incredible athlete, what supplementary training do you do to keep growing in the sport?

I cross-train with cardio. I do a lot high-intensity intervals, both running and on the rowing machine. I'll also use the VersaClimber. I do a lot of abs workouts, pullups, and fingerboard training. Two huge parts of climbing are upper body and a strong core.

And something new that I started doing is going to dance class. It's a form of cross-training because climbing is a lot in your hips and a lot of finding the flow. I find that dancing has had a really positive effect on my approach to climbing. The coordination and steps you have to do in a specific dance routine translates to starting a sequence on a climb.

With climbing, it’s also important to do supplemental strength-training. I work with Dave Lee Crossfit Room in Boulder. I have a physio there, as well. Then at my house I have a treadwall for endurance training, which is basically a vertical treadmill. It's a wall that rotates, and you can change the angle, the pitch, but also the speed at which the wall rotates.

Sasha DiGiulian Climbs Mora Mora

Francois Leabeau/Red Bull Content Pool

What tips do you have for women who are intimidated by the idea of climbing—or think you have to have a ripped upper body to even start?

I don't think that's something you need to have. The fact is that our bodies adapt and transform to the sport they're focused on. My body has transformed into this tool I use to perform optimally in my sport. But you don't start a certain way when you're just beginning in a sport. As you become more involved in climbing, your body just adapts to the form in which it can perform—for what you're trying to accomplish.

I think that's super-interesting about fitness: Our bodies are really evolved, and we can adapt pretty quick.

What are your top three tips for someone just starting out in climbing?

  1. Find a fitness buddy you trust who motivates you—someone you enjoy experiencing new things with.
  2. Go to the gym with an open mind that falling is a part of the process. Be open to failure.
  3. Challenge yourself. When you don't think you can do something, just keep trying. Oftentimes, you’ll surprise yourself and actually break through a plateau.

You're only 24. Having accomplished so much already, where do you go from here?

I would really like to continue to spread the love of the sport, and use climbing as a vehicle to explore places around the world. I'd like to develop the sport by doing new ascents in areas I've never been.

I want to really push the standard of what I'm capable of achieving and inspire as many people as possible to become more aware of what climbing is. It's been a constant in my life that's transformed the way I approach everything. I've learned these valuable life skills—like hard work and determination—and I've also gained access to a global network I get to experience on a daily basis through the climbing community.

Follow Sasha and Edu on Instagram at @sashadigiulian and @edumarin1 to keep up with the climbers, and for more epic photos of their climbs.

Check out more breathtaking photos from the climb here.

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