The Mad Men’s Journey

Words: Andrew Bisharat
Photography: Christian Pondella

Climber Sasha DiGiulian overcomes loss and finds unexpected reward in Sardinia.

You can learn a lot about a person by looking at the room in which she was raised. Sasha DiGiulian’s room is in a narrow seven-story house in the old part of Alexandria, Va. Its walls are pink—the most “optimistic” color, according to Sasha—and adorned with rock-climbing pictures torn from magazines.

On one wall hangs a white dry-erase board, where a teenage DiGiulian wrote down her goals just before the New Year. In the dwindling days of 2010, Sasha, then 17 and a junior in high school, recorded three objectives:

“Podium at an international comp. Climb a level 5.14c. Get into college.”

In 2011, DiGiulian surpassed all of her goals. She was accepted early decision to Columbia University. She won an overall gold medal at the World Championships in Arco, Italy. And she not only climbed multiple 5.14c routes but also surprised herself by quickly ascending a 5.14d named “Pure Imagination”—an achievement that earned her the distinction of being the first North American female (and third female ever) to climb a route of that difficulty.

When something goes up on the white board, DiGiulian expects herself to execute that goal. Fast forward to this year. Sasha is on summer break from Columbia, and has her eyes set on another achievement: “Climb a hard big-wall route.” 

DiGiulian climbs the first female ascent of Viaje de Los Locos in Sardinia, Italy

She reached out to one of her most trusted climbing partners, Edu Marin, a very talented competition and sport climber from Spain. The two made plans to rendezvous in Switzerland and try to climb one of the toughest big-wall routes in the Alps: Zahir Plus.

Big-wall climbing is really exacting. You’re dehydrated and tired and uncomfortable.

This route’s particular style of climbing—on really small holds with technical movement between them—appealed to DiGiulian because it matched her style well.

The plans were all laid out. Zahir Plus would be a tough climb, for sure—but it also seemed doable. Something she could tick off just before returning to Columbia to begin her junior year.

But Zahir Plus did not go according to plan. Life, in fact, did not go according to plan.

DiGiulian on the upper pitches ascending a fix line.

“My dad went from being perfectly healthy to passed away within two weeks,” DiGiulian says.

John DiGiulian became suddenly sick and died on June 29, leaving behind Sasha, his wife, Andrea, and son, Charlie.

“My dad was a dreamer,” she says. “He dreamt about achieving things bigger than himself. He taught me to follow my heart, and to live for my passion.”

In the wake of her father’s death, and the space created by his sudden absence, DiGiulian determined to fill the emptiness with a fearlessness to pursue her dreams. Zahir Plus would become a way to honor the memory of her dad, who had always inspired her to achieve her goals.

Viaje de los Locos. The Mad Men’s Journey. It was an appropriate name for what came next.

She had allocated three weeks to climb Zahir Plus—not a ton of time, but enough to overcome jetlag, become familiar with the route and its moves. But when DiGiulian and Marin arrived in Switzerland, they found the entire country socked in with relentless rain. The route itself was soaking wet, running with waterfalls. Climbing would be impossible.

DiGiulian’s very difficult first pitch; a section of overhanging blank wall with very little holds.

“Edu and I talked and we realized that if we stay here, we’ll hardly climb and we won’t have any project,” she says. “We called Dani Andrada.” Andrada is one of the most prolific route developers and rock climbers in the world. He mentioned a line he had climbed on the island of Sardinia. It was about 1,000 feet tall, with many hard pitches stacked on top of each other.

It hadn’t been climbed since 2002.

And the route’s name? “Viaje de los Locos,” Andrada says, chuckling. The Mad Men’s Journey. “It was an appropriate name for what came next,” DiGiulian says. She and Marin booked tickets the next day for Sardinia. The only problem was that Viaje de los Locos was not Zahir Plus. It was bigger, harder, more powerful, and more reach-dependent moves. It was scarier.

Big-wall climbing is really exacting. You’re up on a cliff all day. You’re dehydrated and tired and uncomfortable. And to actually ascend a hard big-wall route demands strength, stamina, perfect execution and the cool-headedness to perform your best with 1,000 feet of air beneath your feet.

DiGiulian discovered that on Viaje de los Locos she’d need to be strong and powerful in both her body and mind. One of the pitches, for example, had only two protection bolts in its entire 90 feet. In other words, to tackle this pitch the climber would risk taking a fall of over 80 feet. DiGiulian didn’t believe she had a lead like that in her. Still, she and Marin kept plugging away.

With a pressing deadline to return to college to begin her junior year, DiGiulian still wasn’t sure she’d be able to do it. She decided to skip the first week of school, and extend her trip in order to give herself every opportunity to ascend.

Viaje de los Locos climbing route. Sasha and Edu worked the climb all day and often would finish in the dark under the stars.

Typically, climbers will rehearse the individual pitches of a multi-pitch route before ascending the entire wall. Having practiced all of the pitches, Marin and DiGiulian felt ready to finally give the route a shot. They planned to go for it the day before her flight home to New York. It would be now or never.

“Up until that final day, I couldn’t bring myself to lead it,” she says. “[But then] I experienced a moment of clarity that I’m not going to fall. I was climbing with my heart in my throat. I was petrified. But when I was able to let go of [my fear], it was like, ‘Wow, I can rock climb again.’”

The next day, DiGiulian was on a plane back to New York, to attend classes and dream big about what to put on her white board next.


For the exclusive video of Sasha’s climb, check out

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10 2014

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