The evolution happened overnight. At least that’s how it felt to Molly Donelan. Her friend, the girl with whom she spent a nine-hour car trip to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky, had gone from a competitive and dedicated teenage climber to one of the most famous faces in the sport.
“It happened so fast. I can’t explain how fast it happened,” Donelan says about the rise of Sasha DiGiulian, the adidas and Red Bull-sponsored climber from Alexandria with over a million social media followers and a number of female-first achievements. “She was just a girl climbing in the gym with her mom.”
For some time in her 20s, Donelan could keep up with her younger friend. Even though they were nine years apart, the two climbed at similar levels at the Sportrock gym in northern Virginia, where Donelan is now the director of programs and events. They also bonded over being among the few girls in a mostly male environment.
Since then, the sport has grown rapidly. Rock climbing gyms like Sportrock have sprouted up across the country and the sport has gone from a niche activity to a celebrated worldwide phenomenon. On Feb. 24, Free Solo, the National Geographic film chronicling Alex Honnold‘s ropeless climb of the 3,000-feet vertical rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, won Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards.
Climbing will also make its Olympic debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“The climbing industry alone has exponentially grown,” says DiGiulian. “The youth programs are so saturated with kids. The level, by and large, has just progressed so quickly because it’s pretty natural. If you have more people doing a sport and more innovation and training, more knowledge about it, then the higher the level goes, which has been awesome to see.”
The 26-year-old has been at the forefront of an internet-famous generation of rock climbers. In October 2011, DiGiulian became the first American woman to climb a grade 5.14d with her ascent of “Pure Imagination” in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. A film crew from adidas captured the accomplishment in a seven-and-a-half minute video, which helped launch DiGiulian’s career only months after she graduated from The Potomac School in McLean.
More recently, she became the first woman to ascend the Canadian Trilogy: Castle Mountain, Mount Louis, and Mount Yamnuska, three of the toughest big wall climbs in the Canadian Rockies.
As the sport becomes increasingly mainstream, Digiulian’s profile and voice will only continue to grow.
She has visited Congress with other professional rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts and attempted to persuade lawmakers to preserve public lands. DiGiulian is also a board of trustees member of the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization she’s been a part of since 2012.
With a few taps on her phone, DiGiulian, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, can reach hundreds of thousands of people.
“Social media has served as this amazing tool for us to share our adventures with our audience,” she says. “Before I would go off on a weekend, maybe to a climbing trip when I was in middle school, no one would know what I was up to, but now it’s this way to not only share what we’re up to but also share our beliefs … and that can be used for social change, making people more aware [of] women’s inequalities that still exist in sports. I think it’s super important to use our platforms, because, I mean, why else have a voice if you don’t use it?”
While DiGiulian calls climbing an “interesting, progressive sport” because men and women are paid equally at competitions and women can potentially make more than men from endorsement deals, she argues that there are still more male professional climbers than female and that “there’s definitely still more of an emphasis on male climbing achievements.”
DiGiulian wants to use her influence to change that reality.
“Women are kind of conditioned to think that there’s only one seat at the table,” she says, “and there’s this plethora of men, male professional climbers, and there’s plenty of spots on the table … I would like to see more women in film tours like Reel Rock and climbing videos and see more women supported by their sponsors as well.”
Last May, she shared a lengthy Instagram post calling out another professional rock climber, Joe Kinder, for disparaging her body on a private Instagram account. “I am hurt and broken hearted to say that I am a victim of a bully and it has crossed the line,” she wrote.
Climbing companies Black Diamond and La Sportiva dropped Kinder, who has nearly 70,000 followers on Instagram, as a sponsored athlete, and he eventually offered an apology to DiGiulian and the climbing community.
When DiGiulian speaks, people listen, whether or not they agree with her. She retired from climbing competitions about three years ago and now focuses on pushing her limits on trips outside. She recently traveled through Cuba and posted about the trip on her YouTube video series called “10:00 am on a Tuesday.”
“I think she’s made a huge difference, especially with the youth,” says Donelan. “I find with the youth—anyone who’s probably younger than her, I just find they really idolize her, especially the girls, they really do … Breaking barriers for women impacts everyone, especially for younger girls. It makes them want to work harder to be that good themselves.”
While in Boulder, where she moved after graduating from Columbia University, DiGiulian trains about six days a week, for between three and six hours a day. She’ll occasionally visit a local gym but spends most of her time in her home gym, where she climbs with friends. It still needs a name.
“We call it ‘The Garage’ now. ‘Digi Dojo’ is still on the table,” DiGiulian says.
She doesn’t return to the D.C. often, but says the area “feels like home.” After speaking at a panel at George Washington University for the Women’s Sports Foundation’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day clinic earlier this month, DiGiulian went back to the place where it all began.
She spent the evening climbing at Sportrock.