You’ve probably heard about 22-year-old firecracker Sasha DiGiulian — part pro climber, part Columbia University student — trying to make the first female ascent of La Paciencia, the hardest route on the North Face of the Eiger. After weeks of trying, she and partner Carlo Traversi abandoned their attempts due to weather conditions and made a quick ascent of another Eiger route, Magic Mushroom (rated at 5.13a — see our primer on climbing grades and terminology here). But for DiGiulian, the ascent was more than just another tick on her list of dream routes — it was a dive into a new world of climbing, and at times, it was terrifying.
Backed by her history as a competitive indoor climber and a sport climber, DiGiulian’s bold attempt at La Paciencia was a break from her climbing roots and a rude introduction — it has been called one of the (if not the) hardest routes in the Swiss Alps. Her only other alpine climbing experience was climbing Bellavista, a 5.14b in the Italian Dolomites, which she ascended with Spanish climber Edu Marin in 2013. Despite that initial taste of climbing in the alpine, DiGiulian was taken aback by the seriousness of climbing the Eiger.
“My first impression when I arrived to the Eiger was that I was in over my head,” said DiGiulian in an earlier interview. “The wall is massive, intimidating and just outright scary.”
Conditions were unrelenting
After she spent the better part of a month trying La Paciencia with Traversi (attempting the route over a handful of multi-day stints between bouts of bad weather), DiGiulian realized that the likelihood of finishing it off before she had to return to the States looked grim. They had battled sickness, rock fall and wet rock — more wet than usual due to warmer temps. The wet, seeping rock made the crux 5.13b pitch much harder to push through.
“We had accomplished almost all of the hardest pitches,” says DiGiulian. “It was really difficult to have waited for so long and to not have been able to go for the completion of the route, but we realized that we had less than a week left and the route did not appear to be drying.”
Time to decide
They faced a harsh reality: They may not summit the Eiger. But Roger Schäli, a professional Swiss alpinist who has climbed the Eiger over 35 times, recommended they try Magic Mushroom. This 20-pitch, 5.13a route to the left was still on the North Face of the Eiger, but was less conditions-dependent (i.e., it was dry). Schäli was familiar with the route — he was on the first ascent team. Though rated with slightly less difficulty, the route is still a nails-hard, bolted alpine route that had yet to see a female ascent. With little time left, DiGiulian and Traversi changed their goal, stripped their gear off of La Paciencia and, on Aug. 29, summited Magic Mushroom, climbing all the pitches from the bottom to the top without falls.
Magic Mushroom by the numbers
• First ascent: 2007
• Length: 600 meters (1,968.5 feet)
• Number of pitches: 20
• Hardest pitches: 5.13a
• Number of pitches rated 5.12 or harder: 6
DiGiulian on the importance of her ascent
With the ascent, DiGiulian joined a small, elite group of women who have climbed the Eiger, but her goal to climb this elusive, feared face was about more than just making a first female ascent.
“This was a goal that was a challenge to me because it was a step into the unknown,” she says. “The experience was tough for me because I was a beginner on new terrain. Being pushed to that point of physical and mental exhaustion and then realizing the dream encourages me to take more chances. You never know until you try.”
Highlights: Women on the Eiger
• 1964: German climber Daisy Voog became the first woman to ascend the Eiger's North Face; she climbed the Heckmair route with Werner Bittner.
• 1973: Polish climbers Wanda Rutkiewicz, Danuta Wach and Stefania Egierszdorff made the first all-female team ascent of the North Face via the Messner-Hiebeler Route.
• 1992: French climber Catherine Destivelle completed the first female solo ascent on the classic North Face route in 17 hours.
• 2003: German climber Ines Papert made the first redpoint ascent (and also the first female ascent) of a 25-pitch 5.13b, Symphonie de Liberté, in a day.
What’s next for this climbing phenom?
DiGiulian, who wants to be a well-faceted climber, hopes to do more ice and mixed climbing this winter. Also, “on the bucket list for this year is to free climb El Cap,” says DiGiulian of Yosemite’s shining jewel — El Capitan — the 3,000-foot testing grounds of traditional, big-wall climbing. “I would also like to do more big walls and I have a first ascent trip in mind with a friend in Brazil.”