Most college students spend their summers partying, but Sasha DiGiulian, a pint-sized professional rock climber who is currently attending Columbia University, had her eyes set on climbing one of the hardest and longest routes in the Alps: a 1,000-foot section of cliff named “Zahir Plus.”
Located in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland, Zahir Plus was given a climb rating of 5.14a, making it an elite challenge. Only a handful of climbers had ever done this particular climb, but Sasha was confident it would fall within her style.
Sasha is a world champion competition climber, and the only North American woman to have ever climbed a route rated 5.14d. In recent years, she has been balancing training and competition with her college coursework at Columbia. During recent summers, however, she has been seeking more adventurous routes – setting goals to achieve bold challenges in the Alps.
Sasha reached out to one of her most trusted climbing partners, Edu Marin, and the two made plans to rendezvous in Switzerland to try Zahir Plus. The route would be tough, for sure – but it also felt achievable. Something she could tick off just before returning to Columbia to begin her junior year. In her mind, sending Zahir Plus was going to be a great way to end the summer.
But Zahir Plus did not go according to plan. Life, in fact, did not go according to plan.
When I got there, I didn't personally know if I could do this route.
“My dad went from being perfectly healthy to passing away within two weeks,” Sasha says in the video above. John DiGiulian suddenly fell ill and died on June 29, leaving behind Sasha, his wife Andrea, and son Charlie.
“My dad was a dreamer,” Sasha 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, Sasha was determined to fill that space 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. When Sasha and Edu arrived in Switzerland, however, they found the entire country socked in with relentless rain. The route itself was soaking wet, running like a waterfall.
“Edu and I talked and we realized that if we stay here, we’ll hardly climb and we won’t have any project,” Sasha remembers.
Sasha and Edu reached out to one of the most prolific route developers and rock climbers in the world, Dani Andrada, to see if he had any suggestions for them. Dani mentioned a line he had climbed on the island of Sardinia several years ago. It was about 1,000 feet tall, really difficult and really sustained. And it hadn’t been climbed since 2002.
I was climbing with my heart in my throat. I was petrified.
The route’s name?
“Viaje de los Locos,” Dani said, chuckling. The Madmen’s Journey.
“It was an appropriate name for what came next,” says Sasha. She and Edu booked tickets the next day for Sardinia. The only problem was that Viaje de los Locos was not Zahir Plus. It was bigger, harder, and more powerful, with more reach-dependent moves. And it was scarier. Sending it would not be a given.
With a pressing deadline to return home to her first week of classes, Sasha still wasn’t sure she’d be able to do Viaje de los Locos. But one day while working her way through the moves, she came really close to sending the crux 5.14 pitch. It was this breakthrough that gave her the confidence she needed.
“Viaje de los Locos was hands-down one of the most beautiful climbs I’ve ever been on,” Sasha says. The climb’s beauty and difficulty inspired her to give it everything she had.
I would say that this was the most rewarding climbing experience of my life.
To send 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. Having practiced all of the pitches, Edu and Sasha felt ready to finally give the route a shot and climb it all in a single push from the ground. They planned to try to send the route the day before Sasha had to leave to return to school. It would be then or never.
“It was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go for it,’” says Sasha. “I experienced that moment of clarity [where] 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 those feelings, it was like, ‘Wow, I can rock climb again.’”
During their trip, Sasha often thought about her dad, whose background is Italian. She felt his presence and brought his strength with her. She realized that he wouldn’t have wanted her to be anywhere else than right there, achieving one of her dreams.
“Sardinia ended up being some kind of destiny," says Sasha. “I was coming off all these insecurities – about this climb, if I was capable of doing it. When I got there, I didn't personally know if I could do this route. And now it’s done.
“Because of how the trip played out, because I didn’t think I could do it, and because my dad was with me on this climb, I would say that this was the most rewarding climbing experience of my life.”
Edu and Sasha successfully climbed Viaje de los Locos in the nick of time. The next day, Sasha was on a plane back to New York to attend classes and dream about where to travel next.