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Meet the Local Rock Climber Who’s the Star of an HBO Documentary

Sasha DiGiulian fell in love with the sport in Alexandria. A new film tells her story.

Sasha DiGiulian in Kalymnos, Greece in 2021. Photograph courtesy Red Bell.

Sasha DiGiulian is already considered one of the most accomplished outdoor rock climbers of all time, with multiple world championships and first ascents under her belt. And before the 31-year-old was known for her vertiginous accomplishments, she found her passion in front of a climbing wall in her hometown of Alexandria. 

The new HBO Sports documentary Here to Climb tells the story of DiGiulian’s road to success in a largely male-dominated sport and follows her recovery from hip dysplasia. We spoke to DiGiulian ahead of the documentary’s release.

How did you start rock climbing?

I was six years old when I went to my brother’s birthday party at a local climbing gym called Sportrock in Alexandria, Virginia, and I fell in love with it. I didn’t even know yet that it was a sport that people could do. No one in my family climbed, but I joined the local junior team program and started going about twice a week. When I was seven, I walked in and there was a youth regional championship being held there at the gym. I won my category of 11 and under, and that really launched the future of my career in competition climbing.

What made you fall in love with the sport?

I just really loved that if I wanted to get to the top, it was up to me to get there. It felt like my improvement was all under my own control, and I liked how personal that was. I also love the creativity that goes into it. You’re constantly solving these puzzles of mental and physical capability. As you’re climbing a wall, you’re figuring out how to navigate different sequences and put them together, and then you have to physically get yourself up the wall. There’s a real beauty in that combination.

How did you move from indoor rock climbing to outdoor?

I first started going to a place called the New River Gorge, which is in West Virginia, when I was around eight or nine. And I also had a guide who would take me climbing in Canada, where I also spent a lot of my childhood. I was so invested in competition climbing that outdoor climbing wasn’t as big a role in my career as it then became, and I started to focus on it more as I got older. 

Sasha DiGiulian climbs Rayu.
DiGiulian climbing Rayu in Spain. Photograph courtesy Red Bull.

What are some career highlights during your 25 years in this sport?

Winning the female overall World Championship title and climbing a route called Pure Imagination, which was the hardest grade achieved by a woman in the world, at the time. I was the first North American woman to climb that. And then I recently finished Rayu in Spain, which was the hardest big wall achieved by a team of all women. I accomplished it after all of my hip surgeries, so I was really proud of that.

How did the documentary process start?

We started by capturing this climb that I was going out to achieve in Mexico, and then all the dominoes kind of fell into place during the process. Without giving away too much of the film, I was dealing with a potentially career-ending injury while preparing for this climb. I needed to have my hips reconstructed, so we went down this lengthy road of hip reconstruction surgeries. There was a question of whether I should go through with the climb, but I wasn’t going to hear no as an option. We just kept the cameras rolling to see how it would all play out.

You’ve premiered the film in a few different cities over the past week. How did it feel watching that story onscreen?

Sharing the documentary has actually been a really empowering experience. It’s nerve-wracking to go out and share such a vulnerable piece, but I do feel like strength comes in vulnerability. It was really important to me to be candid with the experiences that I’ve gone through as a female athlete in a traditionally male-dominated sport, so other women who are getting started in climbing can feel more empowered. For so long, I went through this push back just for being myself and for looking different than how we imagine “the traditional climber.” And I think that it’s important for the growth of the sport itself to have different voices out there.

When you imagine the future of climbing as a sport, what do you hope it looks like?

I hope that more people can feel like they are allowed to be themselves and have a place within climbing. My career came on the heels of so many incredible women that inspired me, including the incredible Lynn Hill, who is in the film. I think that’s the reason I’ve been passionate about sharing my story. I haven’t always felt like I’ve had a place within climbing, so I’m excited to share this film with young girls who are interested in the sport, now and in the future.

“Here to Climb” premieres on Max Tuesday at 9 PM

Omega Ilijevich
Editorial Fellow