Sasha DiGiulian’s ‘Permanent Summer Break’

One of the world’s best climbers is about to graduate from college. Will she use the extra time to take her climbing to the next level?

Sasha DiGiulian climbing "Golden Boy" 13b at "The Gold Coast," Pendergrass Murray Recreational Preserve, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, USA.

Photo by Keith Ladzinski

Pro climbers often eschew school to live out of their cars, training and sending as hard as possible. Sasha DiGiulian, the first American woman to climb 5.14d and the first woman to climb the Magic Mushroom route on the Eiger’s North Face (among many other achievements), never saw that as an option.

Even as first ascents and a world championship earned her endorsement deals – with Five Ten, Adidas, Petzl, Red Bull, and a slew of others – and means to be a full-time pro climber, she stuck to college.

“My family always really prioritized education,” said DiGiulian, 23, a senior at New York’s Columbia University, where she is studying nonfiction writing and business. “I know college isn’t for everyone, but since 10th grade I knew I wanted to go to school here.”

She packs classes and studying between training in the city and traveling on weekends to climb and speak. But when she graduates this month, she’ll find herself with a lot more free time.

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Photo by Keith Ladzinski

Will she climb full-time, potentially taking her sport to the next level? Will she continue to crush it while staying busy off the crag, forging a writing, business, and/or nonprofit career? Could she do both?

For DiGiulian, it’s one step at a time, and the first is to finish school. “Hopefully, I don’t pull an [Alex] Honnold at this point,” she joked. (Honnold, best known for his free-solo exploits, dropped out of UC-Berkeley at age 19.) We caught up with DiGiulian between classes – and between moving apartments – to hear about future plans and post-college life.

When I was 12, I started going to New York every weekend to train with my coach at the time. My mom would drive me from the Washington, DC area [where DiGiulian grew up] to New York in the morning, I’d train, and we’d drive back at night. I fell in love with Columbia as this byproduct of being in New York, and it being an excellent school.

I took a year off to focus on climbing before I started at Columbia. This complicated things, because during that year I felt like I was experiencing the height of my climbing career thus far. I was just climbing and traveling, and when you can fixate on one thing, your performance really peaks.

Sometimes, I’m just counting down the seasons until I have more freedom. I have friends who are pro athletes who aren’t in school, and the prospect of going to Spain to train in October hasn’t been an option the last four years.

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Photo by Chris Noble

I’m usually in the city Tuesday through Thursday, and traveling Friday through Monday for climbing or speaking engagements. This semester I have all my classes crammed into Tuesday and Wednesday, which is great every day except those two, when I might not see the sun. I typically train in the morning with my coach, who has a private gym, or in the climbing gym after class. I train six days a week: four days in the gym, and two days either outside or in the gym in the city I’m traveling in.

I’m not exempt from Columbia’s strict attendance policy. If you miss three classes, you fail that class. It’s funny – once I was going to speak at a women’s leadership conference, which meant I would miss a class I was taking on women and media. My teacher was upset about my being gone, even though it was a real-life application of what we were studying.

My social life is not at all typical of a college student. I don’t go to frat parties or live on campus. I’m actually in a sorority, but don’t do much with it. I don’t consider it sacrificing.

Each summer break, it feels like I’m at the height of my performance again. That’s when I did the north face of the Eiger, and I did a first ascent in South Africa on summer break. Being in school makes you reexamine your approach to climbing and high performance. Soon I’m going to be on permanent summer break, so to speak.

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Photo by Keith Ladzinski

People ask me what I’m going to do when I’m done. I’ll definitely feel a void, not having this consistent other world that keeps me intellectually stimulated. I’ll focus on climbing more, but the point in going to school was catering my life to be part of something bigger, something besides just the climbing and action sports world.

Climbing is expanding at a really rapid rate. I can progress as an athlete but also as a spokesperson for nonprofits I’m involved with, like the Women’s Sports Foundation and Up2Us Sports. They relate to sports as a transformative vessel for people to be leaders and be empowered. Those are pillars I’ve been able to apply to my own life through climbing.

Climbing might be male-dominated, but it’s really progressive and more equal than a lot of other sports. It’s quite equal in the way of pay, at least compared to soccer or the WNBA, because it’s an individual sport, and so much of it is about championships and marketing yourself. But there are reminders we’re not there yet, like being told by some machismo alpinists in Europe that “little girls don’t belong on the Eiger.” Fortunately, that’s waning. It’s not climbing, but society at large that’s still unequal. Climbing is definitely ahead of the curve.

My first big project is to go to South America. I’ll definitely just climb for a bit. I’m going to attempt the first ascent of a big wall in Brazil, and I want to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite. I also want to improve my trad climbing skills. I want to maximize my potential and become as well-versed in all the disciplines of climbing as possible – alpine, big wall, etc. I want to set first ascents, and not just first female ascents.

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Alex Kurt is a Minnesota native, an avid runner, a novice climber, a begrudging cyclist, and an enthusiastic skier. A graduate of St. John's University and the University of Minnesota, he is most proud of his 6:48 PR in the beer mile.

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