‘How to Solve a Problem’ is as much a book about climbing as it is a mantra to prepare kids for a life of trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
“I am Ashima. What I do is climb. What I do is solve problems, which is to say, I make them mine.” The opening lines of The North Face-sponsored, 19-year-old climber Ashima Shiraishi’s first book say a lot.
They not only nod to the grit that helped make her one of the most famous boulderers on the planet, but they also dispel some of the fantasy surrounding her astonishing rise in the sport.
“I fall a lot,” she told me in a recent interview. While Shiraishi just missed qualifying for the United States’ first Olympic climbing team — Kyra Condie and Brooke Raboutou will represent the U.S. women’s side — it freed up time for her to promote the children’s book she authored for Random House.
I talked with Shiraishi to learn more about the book, “How to Solve a Problem: The Rise (and Falls) of a Rock Climbing Champion” (already No. 1 on Amazon’s Best Seller list for rock climbing books), what it’s like to be a teenage role model, and what she has up her sleeve for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Interview With the Author: Ashima Shiraishi
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
GearJunkie: Where on earth did the idea of writing a children’s book come from?
Shiraishi: Random House approached me with this idea they had about me collaborating with them to create a kids’ book. And I was like, “I have to do this!”
Growing up, I fell in love with books because my parents would read to me every night. After that, I knew one day I was going to have a kids’ book based on my life.
How was the process of authoring a book — easy, hard, frustrating, terrific?
Honestly, it was a pretty long process. Working with the illustrator, Yao Xiao, it took a few tries to get sketches right, because Yao is not a climber, so she didn’t know some of the movements. On the first draft, some of the art had movements that were a bit unnatural.
But it was an amazing process. I’ve grown up in an artistic household, so I have a pretty creative eye, I’d say. So I wanted it all to be the best it can be — really natural and raw.
Will you write another book?
As of now, I’m not working on another book. But maybe in a few years. I’d love to, though — maybe an adolescent or teenage book. Something that goes through growing up in New York as an Asian American with immigrant parents.
What are a few pointers you’d offer to kids (or adults) just getting into climbing to help them do or feel better in the sport?
As I say in the book, in climbing, a lot of the time you fall. Most of the time, it’s not about getting to the top, but really about the process of it. Each time you stand back up, you ask yourself, “Next time, what do I do differently?”
Learning and improving is a huge part of rock climbing. Just have fun with it and don’t get too discouraged. Enjoy the movement of climbing.
You have previously said, “Climbing is a sport that females might be able to take the lead in.” What does that mean, and how soon might that happen?
I think that climbing is really a very interesting spot because not every climb is the same. On some climbs, if you’re smaller, more flexible, and lighter, you have an advantage. I think that already, you have a surging, powerful force of female climbers dominating climbing.
And I think at some point, we can catch up to the guys. I don’t know how long it will take — but it might not be too long.
Do you see balance in the accessibility and representation within climbing today?
I think climbing is very inclusive, even though from the beginning, it’s been mostly a white population of climbers. The sport has roots from Europe and the U.S., but it’s slowly growing outwards. And we’re having groups like BOC — Brothers of Climbing — and other groups that support people of color and other communities climbing throughout the U.S.
And also in Japan and all of Asia, it’s getting extremely popular. So I think that we’re moving climbing forward and helping it become a really global, accessible sport.
Did you have a role model that got you into climbing?
There is a guy at Rat Rock where I climbed in Central Park — his name was Yuki. At the time, I was just scrambling on the rock having fun. He showed me that you actually can choose different routes instead of using any holds (this was outside).
But you can go straight, you can go sideways, you can traverse — it was really eye-opening. He was sort of the god of that rock. And then after I was 6, I would say Chris Sharma was really my model growing up.
You’ve also been called a “role model” as you’ve progressed in the sport. Do you remember the first time someone identified you as a “role model”? Do you like that identity?
I remember the first time someone asked me for an autograph — I was still very young. I was surprised and confused at first. In fact, it’s still very strange, because I feel like I’m still figuring out a lot of things myself. But I try to use the platform I have. I know I have a lot of responsibility; a lot of kids follow me and adults as well.
A big community of people look at me and they see what I’m doing, so it’s a lot of responsibility to act in a way that gives back to people. And I love the climbing community; they’ve given me so much. And now I get to contribute, hopefully, and influence people in the right way.
Your Wikipedia page cites you as a “bouldering phenom,” “young crusher,” and “Gretzky of the granite.” Do you have a favorite nickname?
I like the Wall Dancer. The New Yorker wrote a piece about me, by Nick Paumgarten, and his title was “The Wall Dancer.” This was attributed to my dad, who used to be a Japanese dancer. So a lot of his coaching for me growing up was how to use your core and all of the exercises he learned dancing. I really use those climbing.
How did you feel about your first attempt at Olympic qualifying? Was it what you expected?
It was very different from what I expected. The competition scene in climbing is evolving dramatically every season, the style is changing. We have a different format now. We do all three disciplines — that’s a big change.
As more of a classic climber (climbing outside) and doing a few competitions throughout the year, I’d never done speed climbing, and I’m not very fond of it. It was pretty difficult adjusting to training for all three disciplines instead of just bouldering and lead, which is what I like to focus on.
But it was still a very cool experience, going out of your comfort zone and training in a way that felt more like track and field than climbing. With speed, there isn’t that element of problem-solving, which is what I like about the other two disciplines. Speed forces you to find out where your physical limits are instead of mentally controlling things. It was something I’ve never really trained for before.
By the end, it was pretty exhausting.
After the first Olympics, they’re going to separate the three disciplines, so I won’t have to do it. Because of that, I’ll take another chance — if I have the opportunity.