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Sasha DiGiulian’s Bid to Join the Eiger’s Most Exclusive (All-Male) Club

DiGiulian earned her stripes in the climbing gym. Now she’s attempting one of the hardest routes in the Alps. If she's successful, she'll be the first woman to bag the ascent. Not everyone is convinced she belongs there.
August 19, 2015, 3:50pm
Courtesy Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

No route up Switzerland's 13,025-foot Eiger is easy, but the 23-pitch, 3,000-foot La Paciencia—first bolted and free-climbed by Swiss alpinists Ueli Steck and Stephan Siegrist in 2008—is widely viewed as the peak's toughest climb, and perhaps the hardest pure rock climb in the entire Swiss Alps. This week, pro climber Sasha DiGiulian, alongside partner Carlo Traversi, aims to become the first woman to bag the ascent of the north-face route that only a handful of men have scaled before her.

At age 22, DiGiulian, a Red Bull- and Adidas-sponsored athlete, already boasts an impressive climbing resumé: as the current female World Champion and three-time U.S. National Champion, she dominates the indoor competition circuit. Now her focus is shifting from gym walls to rock walls. She's claimed a slew of first female ascents, and she was the first North American woman to climb a 5.14d route.

"I've had the success that I am proud of in competitions, and I prefer to be outside," DiGiulian said. "So for now, that's what I'll be doing."

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DiGiulian has been in Grindelwald, Switzerland, since late July and plans to climb Paciencia as soon as she has a window of clear weather, which the forecast suggests might happen on Friday, she said. She expects to spend three days on the wall. Paciencia will be the biggest on-mountain challenge of her career. If she's successful, she'll join the half dozen or so other climbers to have scaled the same route.

The Eiger, though, comes with a daunting history, one that's claimed the lives of at least 64 climbers. In his essay Eiger Dreams, Jon Krakauer writes, "The problem with climbing the North Face of the Eiger is that in addition to getting up 6,000 vertical feet of crumbling limestone and black ice, one must climb over some formidable mythology. The trickiest moves on any climb are the mental ones, the psychological gymnastics that keep terror in check, and the Eiger's grim aura is intimidating enough to rattle anyone's poise."

DiGiulian acknowledges as much, admitting in video posts that certain pitches have frightened her on practice climbs, which she's been doing along the Paciencia route. Given her talent—Paciencia is rated to 5.13b, including some difficult 5.12 pitches—the mental game is likely her biggest obstacle.

"My weaknesses include my fear and, on this mountain, my lack of much experience in alpine climbing," DiGiulian said. But, she added, "I consider my strength in climbing to be my willingness to try."

Some of the looming dangers are the 12-to-18-hour climbing days, the long spaces between bolted points, which means she could take a big fall, and the fickle alpine weather.

"We can only think about what we can control," DiGiulian said. "We cannot control the weather, so we're just optimistic and waiting for our window. Staying positive and accepting fear is how we need to move forward."

The north wall of the Eiger. Photo by Alistair Sutton

Before reaching the Eiger, DiGiulian trained hard at higher altitudes. To challenge her technique and endurance, she climbed the historic, highly technical Peace route in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, an old bolted 5.13c route that climber Ron Kauk established in the 1990s. Some wonder if that's enough, though, and a few climbers have told DiGiulian that a naive sport climber from Virginia with scant big-mountain experience like herself doesn't belong on the Eiger. The danger, they say, is that she doesn't know what she's getting into and hasn't served the classic alpine apprenticeship.

"Some make a good point," said Hayden Carpenter, Rock and Ice magazine's online editor. "Others are speaking from hurt egos since Sasha, a little blonde girl, can kick their asses and climb harder than they could ever dream of."

Paciencia is essentially a massive bolted sport route, albeit steep and often overhanging—a monster version of the kind of climbing at which DiGiulian excels. Traditional ascents, where climbers affix and remove their own protection as they climb, are a separate beast; on Yosemite's El Capitan, for example, other women, like Hazel Findlay, have ascended in a single push without pre-inspection.

"Paciencia isn't at the outer limits in terms of big-wall difficulty," said pro climber Cedar Wright, "but it's certainly getting close, and this would be among the hardest big walls climbed by a woman in the alpine."

Wright noted that DiGiulian's Eiger push wouldn't set a new standard, but if successful, she'd join a rarefied club of some very badass women.

"I totally respect that Sasha is putting herself out there and trying to push her level outside of her world of single-pitch sport climbing, where she's one of the best," Wright said.

For her part, DiGiulian ignores the naysayers. She knows she's new to the alpine game but feels that the only way to accrue clout is to come to a place like the Eiger and start climbing, haters be damned.

"There's a lot of machismo ingrained in this sport," she said. "I feel like maybe it's inevitable that characters in this realm have large boots of confidence, and I respect this. There is no way to expand your comfort zones if you don't put yourself out there. I could full-on fail on summitting the mountain. But more of a failure would be not to try. I'm optimistic that we'll have our chance."

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the following change: DiGiulian was the first, not the only, North American woman to climb a 14.d route.