Sasha DiGiulian Attempts the Eiger’s Hardest Climb

The young climber is in the Swiss Alps aiming for the first female ascent of the La Paciencia route.
Climber Sasha DiGiulian in Yosemite National Park
Sasha DiGiulian climbing in Yosemite Park © Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool
By Whitney Boland

Climber Sasha DiGiulian, supported by Carlo Traversi, has been pushing for the first female ascent of the La Paciencia route on the north face of the Eiger, Europe’s most notorious alpine wall. In an effort to beef up her stable of climbing skills, DiGiulian’s attempt of this nails-hard route is a full-throttle dive into serious alpine climbing.

First freed in 2008 by Ueli Steck along with Stephan Siegrist, the 23-pitch, 3,000-foot La Paciencia is stacked with hard climbing: three 5.13 pitches and five 5.12 pitches (see our primer on climbing ratings and terminology). A test of physical ability and technical aptitude, La Paciencia also tests patience — foul weather is practically a guarantee. The combination of weather, fragile rock, sparse protection and difficult free climbing has spun its reputation as one of the most difficult routes in the Swiss Alps.

So far, DiGiulian and Traversi have climbed more than half of the hardest pitches within the seven pitches they’ve completed, but they’re currently stalled by the weather.

“We have been stopped by the wet 8a (5.13b), which we nearly finished yesterday,” says DiGiulian, “but there was a literal waterfall cascading down it and it simply didn’t feel possible. We need the weather to improve…”

UPDATE: DiGiulian and Traversi changed their focus to a route called Magic Mushroom and completed that ascent.

DiGiulian's view from the Eiger

With a promising weather window next week, the duo hopes to match and cruise past their highest point — wet or dry — and gain a bivy (on-the-wall camping spot). However, more technical and challenging pitches guard the final summit.

While resting off-mountain, DiGiulian took a moment to explain the inspiration for her latest project. 2015 seems to be about expanding your skills and moving away from your sport-climbing roots. What’s your motivation and where does the Eiger fit?

Sasha DiGiulian: The only way to truly know what you’re capable of is by constantly expanding your comfort zone and testing the unknown. Climbing is a multifaceted sport and in order to fulfill my personal goal of being the best climber that I can be, I want to excel in as many aspects of climbing as possible. I’ve been really motivated this year by setting new goals and really pushing myself in areas that I am completely unsure of.

I decided to try this route on the Eiger because it is the perfect fusion of a lot of what I have been trying. Alpine climbing tests my limits well beyond the physical climbing — there are many variables that are relevant to success, including big wall skills where you need to be fast and efficient. I feel like regardless of [whether I reach] the summit or not, I am motivated to improve my Rolodex of what I am capable of in climbing, and that is the motivation for this project.

DiGiulian took over Red Bull's Snapchat account while on the mountain; see some of the videos below

What was your training like?

Brittany Griffith was my sensei. She taught me how to place gear in Zion and in Wyoming. Big wall climbing requires an intense amount of focus and precision in every detail. Accidents happen when you are too rushed or not in the right mindset. I enjoy this aspect because I completely zone out everything else around me and can fixate on the moment and movement in front of me.

In order to specifically prepare for the Eiger, the best I could do was acclimate to climbing at higher elevation like in Tuolumne Meadows (at 9,000 feet in Yosemite National Park), and to climb at a high volume — one of the most testing elements of the Eiger climb is the long days we face. Every day is about 14-18 hours of full-on action. It is an endurance test and also a bit of a sufferfest. The latter you can’t really prepare for.

Sleeping quarters on the Eiger

What have been the challenges and rewards of approaching the route as a team with Carlo?

We are both new to alpine climbing, so refining our systems like hauling all of our stuff, setting up on the wall, etc., has been slower than other teams that are more versed in alpine climbing. But we are quickly improving and we have an open dialogue to everything. This is really important: to stay on the same page about everything and to trust each other. I really respect Carlo and I am thankful to have him as my climbing partner for this feat.

Weather delays

Can you talk about what it takes to tackle something so big with weather that’s so unpredictable?

The weather is really frustrating because we can’t control it. It’s annoying to feel physically capable of something but then be shut down by extraneous circumstances. When the rock is wet, we can, and have, climbed through portions that are easier. Though with the 8a pitch, it is steep and more difficult than the other pitches so when the holds are drenched, there is no friction and the route is significantly harder than when it is dry — to a point that it is practically impossible.

Also, there have been sporadic thunderstorms that roll through the mountain. We cannot be on the wall when this happens. When the weather is bad, there are car-sized rock chunks that fall unpredictably. No helmet can protect from this. There were two Japanese climbers to our left last week who stayed on the wall a day longer than us and didn’t leave during the storm. They were carried out in body bags by helicopter the next day. This is not something we want to mess around with.

You faced some challenges on the 8a (5.13b) pitch. Can you explain the situation and mental state?

Thinking about falling can be extremely paralyzing. There are certainly parts on this route where you simply can’t fall. These points are not necessarily physically challenging, they are just mental roadblocks. I faced a mental roadblock the other day, which made me physically anchored by fear and doubt. My mental state wasn’t there so I couldn’t perform. This was a surprising barrier because the day before that I felt quite weightless on the route.

My instinct told me to hold back. And I always believe that it’s important to trust your gut, so I threw in the towel that day, took the weekend to rest and returned to the route with a clearer conscience and a motivated mind.

Follow DiGiulian's Eiger project on her Instagram and Facebook, as well as the Adidas YouTube channel. Then like Red Bull Adventure on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to get our top stories delivered right to your inbox.

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