Sasha DiGiulian was enjoying a crêpe outside Artopolis last spring when an Australian couple came up to the senior and excitedly asked to take a picture with the Virginia native.
Most students would have panicked, but DiGiulian didn’t bat an eye, posing for the photo and then speaking with the couple at length about a sport that she’s helped revolutionize: climbing.
Taylor Fogg, CC ’17, sat directly across from DiGiulian that day, and didn’t seem fazed by the extra attention, either. As DiGiulian’s little in the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, Fogg has become accustomed to people occasionally stopping the jet-setting 23-year-old professional climber on campus.
But that doesn’t mean Fogg is any less mesmerized by her friend’s tact in handling all of the attention that comes with being one of the best female climbers in the world and having more than 213,000 Instagram followers.
“I’m really, really inspired by her, given what she’s accomplished, but also the fact that she’s able to do it gracefully and just be a humble person overall.” Fogg said.
That disposition belies a transcendent figure in the world of climbing. As part of a new wave of professionals who have transitioned from indoor to outdoor rock climbing, DiGiulian has
encouraged young women to embrace climbing in larger numbers than ever before. After all, she won a national championship and the world championship for women overall, and climbed the Red River Gorge in Kentucky before ever stepping foot in Morningside Heights.
DiGiulian has added two more national championships since enrolling at Columbia, working tirelessly to balance her professional climbing career with the rigors any devoted student faces.
“Just the workload across the board that she was dealing with—and the fact that she could do it all so well—was the most impressive thing about her,” former coach Alexi Thomakos said.
A creative writing major, DiGiulian has classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and most Thursdays. The rest of her time, she noted, is spent traveling around the world for shoots, filming, appearances, signings, outdoor projects, and events.
“I have training six days a week,” DiGiulian wrote via email while in Australia for a film shoot. “Normally, I am in New York City at least Tuesday-Thursday, and so while I am in the city for class, I workout with my coach [Kevin Paretti], who has a gym right in the Flatiron District.”
Paretti, certified as a physical therapist and a strength and conditioning coach, first met DiGiulian at a nonprofit event three years ago and was struck by the then-20-year-old’s “amazing raw talent, drive, independence.”
But despite her nearly endless list of achievements, Paretti sought to diversify DiGiulian’s workout regime, which he believes had been too closely confined to the climbing wall. Paretti explained that he integrated sessions for injury prevention and conditioning, forcing DiGiulian outside of her comfort zone.
It was initially a difficult obstacle to overcome, according to Paretti, before DiGiulian adapted to the new training methods, encouraged by the tangible results that she was seeing in the gym.
Paretti also looked to provide DiGiulian with guidance from “an athletic and a career perspective,” pointing to how the climber had been overwhelmed by a dizzying number of requests from sponsors and other organizations.
“It was a matter of thinning out those things to create more time to take care of herself, and to create more time to work on her own growth and development,” he said.
The result, Paretti added, has been tremendous personal growth for DiGiulian, best exemplified by an achievement that dazzled the entire world: becoming the first woman to climb the Eiger, known as the Murder Wall, via the Magic Mushroom route.
“With the Eiger, what is interesting is that we were prepping her for a completely different plan for the summer,” he said. “We were originally planning on going to Norway and killing these intense routes.”
DiGiulian then called Paretti before the start of last summer, expecting to hear a negative response from her coach, given that they hadn’t been preparing for anything remotely like the Eiger.
“What she didn’t realize was, that’s what I wanted the whole time,” he said. “That was the greatest coach’s reward I could have had.”
The senior flew to Switzerland in August for a climb that has taken the lives of more than 60 people, originally determined to become the first woman to take the Paciencia route. Twenty-seven-year-old Carlo Traversi accompanied DiGiulian on the mission to conquer the Eiger, but they soon found the weather too warm to reach the summit via the Paciencia.
Luckily, a local named Roger Schaeli intervened and recommended the Magic Mushroom route, which took DiGiulian and Traversi three days to climb.
DiGiulian describes the moment of reaching the summit as one of “exhausted astonishment” and the culmination of a journey that began months before.
“To prepare for the Eiger, I was climbing at high altitude and concentrating on getting a lot of volume in on the rock,” DiGiulian wrote. “I trained fitness and endurance for long days, but really, the first two weeks on the Eiger were the significant times, during which we became accustomed and ready for the objective.”
Halfway across the world, Fogg remained concerned about her big, though she didn’t seem to doubt that DiGiulian would conquer the biggest wall in the Alps.
“I worry about her sometimes, but I’m also so confident in her and everything that she can do,” Fogg said. “While it was the Murder Wall, I was never second-guessing it for a second.”
Fogg explained that DiGiulian’s team always emphasizes safety above all else, and it also doesn’t hurt to be perhaps one of the greatest female climbers of all time.
“If somebody says that she’s one of the greatest climbers of all time, I guess the question is, ‘It still remains to be seen, right?’ Climbing is constantly evolving,” Paretti said. “[But] what she has done with pure imagination—she already put her name in the books.”
As for her future plans, DiGiulian wrote that she’ll be able to focus more time on attacking new climbing objectives after leaving Columbia. The 23-year-old also wants to write a book and concentrate more energy toward the Women's Sports Foundation, Right to Play, and Up2Us Sports.
DiGiulian is already heavily involved in all three organizations, and with a trip to Rio on deck for the Summer Olympics, her schedule promises to stay busy long after graduation. But she has no intention of leaving behind any of the friendships or life lessons forged within the Columbia gates.
“I am so thankful for the friendships that I have that will last well beyond my college years,” she wrote. “To me, the best relationships are those that I can not see someone for weeks or months on end, but when I see that person again, it’s like no time has passed at all.”
Paretti concluded that after four years in Morningside Heights, DiGiulian departs with a far better sense of the world beyond climbing, which serves her well for whatever endeavor she pursues in the distant future.
“Her time at Columbia has really exposed her to another side that most climbers don’t see because they become so tunnel-visioned in their sport,” he said. “I think that whether or not she ends up following her didactic evolution, she is already becoming a more complete person from that experience.”