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Sasha DiGiulian Swings Axes on Michigan Ice

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Sasha DiGiulian had climbed 5.14 rock but wanted a baptism on ice. In a two-week session, friend and ice climbing guide Angela VanWiemeersch stepped up to help her push personal boundaries on the frozen walls and freestanding columns of Michigan’s U.P.

Sasha DiGiliuan (left) and Angela VanWiemeersch on stout ice near Munising, Mich.
Sasha DiGiulian (left) and Angela VanWiemeersch on stout ice near Munising, Mich.; photos courtesy Red Bull content pool

Lake Superior and the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the U.P.) provide an epic setting for Red Bull’s latest project, including a film series called “Climbing Frozen Waterfalls Just North of Detroit.”

It focuses on rock-climbing star Sasha DiGiulian and “ice queen” Angela VanWiemeersch, who teaches and guides DiGiulian in the technique required to climb frozen waterfalls.

GearJunkie caught up with the pair in Munising after the Red Bull film premier and a presentation on stage at the annual Michigan Ice Fest.

Interview: Climbers Sasha DiGiulian & Angela VanWiemeersch

You’ve had a transformation this winter here in the U.P. What was the biggest surprise about ice climbing?

Sasha: First of all, it was a surprise how much I liked ice climbing! I didn’t really know what to expect. There’s something meditative about it, like you’re not thinking about anything else – then you’re in the motion doing it. After you have a long day out there, you go to bed kind of feeling like you’re still climbing. It’s methodical, and it stays with you. I like the feeling when you get an ax into the ice. I like the exposure up here. It reminded me of deep-water soloing.

You’re a 5.14 climber. How does that translate into ice?

Sasha: I mean, I have a very solid grip [laughing]! I can hold onto that tool for sure! But otherwise, on ice I was not fixated on grades. When you start a new sport, it kind of blows this fixation out of the water because you’re not even paying attention to what anything is graded.

Angela: Sasha never talked about grades the whole trip. She wasn’t concerned. I got into climbing to escape; it is a personal journey. And the way Sasha approached ice climbing was about the experience, and I think that was really beautiful.

munising ice
Angela (on lead) and Sasha tackling a huge wall of ice in Munising; photo by Keith Ladzinski (Red Bull)

Describe a day in the life up here in Munising.

Angela: Wake up, look out my window, and it’s dumping snow. Shovel snow, dig my way out [laughing]. Then get in the van and head out. Find the climbs and see how many pitches we can do. Three routes is a good day here. Climbing here is kind of a mini expedition each day; long hikes in, through deep snow for miles. Then the routes are stiff leads. It’s full-value climbing here.

What is life like in the U.P.?

Sasha: Munising is a pretty sleepy town in the winter. But apart from eating at the same restaurants more or less over the timeframe that we’re here, there is always something new to do. I had never heard of this town before coming here and did not know much about the place. When I envisioned Michigan before, I would see Ann Arbor and Detroit, and I didn’t really have any sort of perspective about the Upper Peninsula.

Angela: I grew up in Michigan but never came to the U.P. as a kid. My parents were not very into the outdoors; they were more artistic with music and other things. But when I got on site ice climbing here, I made it a goal to go explore the area. I was like, “How did I miss out on such an adventure when I was so close?”

Air boats and snowmobiles
Air boats and snowmobiles served as conveyances to access remote ice climbs on the U.P.; photo courtesy Red Bull

How does the rest of Michigan view the U.P.?

Angela: Most of the people I know don’t really acknowledge the U.P. I know that’s a general statement. But it’s so funny in the Metro Detroit area, it’s just like, I don’t know – might as well be Canada. For me, I’ve been in the Yukon and the far north a lot, and I find the U.P. is almost a similar vibe, but it’s even more lawless and free. When I came to the U.P. for the first time, I was like, “Wow, we might as well be in the Arctic.”

Angela VanWiemeersch
Angela VanWiemeersch; image courtesy Red Bull

Sasha, why did you commit to ice climbing this winter?

Sasha: It intrigued me. I think that you get really complacent if you don’t change. You know, it’s funny actually, but I came back from our first ice climbing trip and I hadn’t really lost any strength [for rock climbing]. But I gained a lot of patience and motivation. I was more motivated to train for my rock-climbing goals than I was before I left. Overall, I got into ice to broaden my scope. I am a rock climber, and I could never go to Patagonia, for example, without having a background and knowing what I was doing on ice. It opens these gates to more possibilities.

Angela: I do want to touch on this question too. Our whole project with Red Bull and the films has been about the story of Sasha expanding her abilities and me more being the well-rounded climber, maybe. But that’s funny because I have the exact same perspective as Sasha, and we haven’t really touched much on it. We come from opposite sides of the spectrum – her rock and me ice. I need to learn to rock climb better and get strong. That is my goal for the rest of this year. Without initially realizing it, we have the same goal: We both want to be well-rounded climbers.

Sasha DiGiliuan
DiGiulian gearing up; photo by Keith Ladzinski (Red Bull)

You’re going to need to make an inverse sort of video series, where Sasha teaches you on rock.

Angela: Right, we’ll use the same lines, just flipped. We are talking about climbing El Cap this year, so yeah.

Which is more difficult, rock or ice?

Sasha: I topped out from one of the ice climbs this winter and was like, “That was harder than anything I have ever done in climbing!” It comes down to mental capacity, I think. I’ve been at climbing areas where I’ve been distracted because of some drama going on in my personal life and not been able to do moves that I do when I’m in a healthy mindset. And then I have gone there in a healthy mindset, and the moves are almost too easy. Climbing is so much more mental than we give it credit for, and I think that a limitation that ice climbing has is that it is way more mental in my opinion. Another thing is falling: The sheer fact that falling is palpably dangerous on ice is something that perplexes me because I fall 99 percent of the time I climb on rock.

Angela: It’s the opposite for me! I’ve never fallen leading on ice. You can’t fall; it’s not really an option. And then I try to become a rock climber, and I am scared shitless of falling. But in that sport, so much a part of it is falling, and that’s part of the development. If you don’t fall while sport climbing, you’re not trying hard enough.

ice climber in michigan
Freestanding pillars of ice dot the Munising area; photo courtesy Red Bull

What was the hardest thing to learn? And for Angela, what was the hardest to teach?

Sasha: The hardest thing was just trusting your gear, your ax, because you don’t have the same connection with the ice. On rock I know when I’m going to fall. Whereas in ice climbing, I don’t know. I don’t yet have the ability to know if my ice ax is gonna blow.

Angela: That same thing was actually the hardest thing for me to teach. It’s kind of intangible. And then I was also concerned because of the inherent risk and objective hazards in ice climbing. I found myself with Sasha being super worried for her safety, and there were things that I would go over 100 times. It is just a different discipline, you know, and none of the same dangers apply in sport climbing. Ice falls onto your head. It can be rough, and it’s cold. She got bruises on her arms. But she never complained once.

lake superior ice
Climbs begin on the edge of Lake Superior, where circular icebergs bob in black waves; photo courtesy Red Bull

–Read more on Red Bull about Sasha and Angela’s U.P. adventure in “See this ice-climbing dream team ascend massive frozen pillars of ice.”

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