Sasha DiGiulian Conquers 'Swim Test' First Ascent

Female climber headlines Rocktoberfest at Kentucky's Red River Gorge.
DiGiulian conquers her seventh first ascent © Joe Segreti
By Kitt Doucette

Sasha DiGiulian is on a roll. After graduating from Columbia University in May, she’s been focusing on her pro climbing career full time. Recently, she headed to Kentucky for Rocktoberfest to log a first ascent in the sport-climbing mecca of Red River Gorge. The area is special to Sasha because she’s been climbing in Red River Gorge since she was 8 years old. "This was my first, first ascent in Red River Gorge," DiGiulian says. "I’ve been climbing in the area a long time and it just feels like my playground."

Her climb, which she dubbed "Swim Test" in honor of Columbia’s policy that everyone who graduates from the esteemed university must first pass a swimming test, was her seventh first ascent (she also has 26 first female ascents to her name). Her longtime climbing partner and friend, Dario Ventura, first discovered the crag and named it "The Deep End" since it resembled a giant diving board. Ventura also bolted the route and was the first to attempt it. When he didn’t make it, he called up DiGiulian and told her she should go for it. We caught up with DiGiulian for a hot minute while she was still at Red River Gorge, staying at Ventura's house (whose father is the legendary Miguel of Miguel’s Pizzeria, the longtime local hub for climbers of the gorge). Why did you want to do a first ascent in Red River Gorge?

Sasha DiGiulian: I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, which is close to Washington, DC There wasn’t any outdoor sport climbing in the area so I started to come to Kentucky and Red River Gorge really early on during weekends and any school breaks. I’ve been climbing here since I was 8 years old and I absolutely love it. It’s one of the top-five sport climbing zones in the world and also the location of so many of my biggest accomplishments in climbing. So many breakthrough moments for my career happened there. Now that I’ve finished school and have more time to climb and travel, I set my sights on returning to Red River Gorge. Rather than repeating climbs I’ve already done, I wanted to do a first ascent.

What makes climbing in the Red River Gorge so special?

The rock. It’s this beautiful sandstone that just seems like it was meant for climbing.

I've been climbing here since I was 8 years old; it's one of the top-five sport climbing zones in the world.

Sasha DiGiulian

What goes into planning a first ascent?

With Swim Test, I was really fortunate because Dario had already developed the route and put bolts on it. Normally you have to not only find the line, but also drill in the bolts. He wasn’t able to climb it but wanted me to try and I’m so honored. It really takes a whole team to develop and climb a first ascent. I’ve been climbing with Dario since I was eight years old. We first showed up at Miguel’s Pizzeria in our family’s giant RV and my parents asked if there was anyone who could climb with me.

Take us through your climb up Swim Test.

Well, when you come to a new cliff face you always have to do a bit of cleaning. Loose rock, vegetation and other dangerous debris needs to be cleaned up. The sandstone was actually in pretty good condition so that didn’t take too long. But, at first, I wondered if it was even possible. The route has a really technical beginning, which was super difficult. So it took me a while to figure out the different problems it presented and mark my hold with chalk. After the intense and technical beginning it gets really steep and overhanging so your body is pretty inverted. This type of climbing takes a ton of strength and endurance. It keeps getting steeper with smaller holds and the final pitch is this giant bulge that looks like a diving board. So the combination of different terrain and its length made it really challenging.

After the intense and technical beginning it gets really steep and overhanging so your body is pretty inverted.

Sasha DiGiulian

Who was there with you? Did you have an audience?

It was a pretty small group. Dru Mack, who climbed the route after me for the first male ascent, was my climbing partner and Dario was there, of course. Also Joe Segreti, a photographer and another photographer named Kenneth, a friend of Dru’s. Bill Strachan was there as well; he’s a longtime Red River Gorge climber and the president of the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition.

Were you confident you could make the climb?

I had no idea what was in store for me or if it was even possible … it wasn’t really until I’d cleaned up the wall and started working through the problems that I realized I could do it. Completing any first ascent takes a combination of mental focus, physical stamina , strength and luck. To make it to the top of a climb like Swim Test without falling is always a challenge. There are a lot of variables that have to go your way, but on that day everything felt good, so I had a feeling that I could do it right from the start.

Sasha named her first ascent 'Swim Test' © Joe Segreti

Did you give Swim Test a rating?

Rating a climb is so tough. It’s just so subjective, you know? In the end, it wasn’t the hardest route I’ve climbed and I think it will be a great route for future climbers to try. Grading is always a communal effort as different climbers compare it to other climbs they’ve done, so I’ll wait and see what the rest of the climbing community thinks. If I had to put a number on it, I would say it’s in the upper 5.13 range.

What's next for you?

I just graduated from Columbia and I’m moving to Boulder, Colorado. I’m actually headed out there in a few days. I’ve been traveling nonstop since graduating in May, so I’m looking forward to taking a few months to concentrate on climbing locally around Boulder. I’m also starting to train and compete on artificial sport climbing walls again since climbing will be an Olympic sport in 2020 and I’d love to represent the U.S. I’m mainly motivated to climb bigger, outdoor projects right now, do more first ascents and first female ascents. But since the Olympics will be held on an artificial wall I’m trying to find some motivation for that type of climbing again. I’m planning on coming back to the Red River Gorge in November to try some of the really hard routes and I’m looking forward to ice climbing and skiing in Colorado this winter. And in January, I’m headed to Spain to train with Patxi Usobiaga, the two-time world champ.

Sasha DiGiulian
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