“My last shot on the 8c was absolutely insane,” Sasha DiGiulian says, barely able to contain the excitement of her successful ascent. Then she sends over a video that shows her gunning her way through the crux, pitch 11, 1,600 feet up Rayu in northern Spain.
As she crimps her way up the invisible holds, a sea of gray and orange limestone falls away below her. Rolling hills peak over a nearby ridgeline. Her teammates Matilda Söderlund and Brette Harrington yell from below, “Go, Sasha! Yeah!” Then she hucks a huge dyno – the hardest move on the route – DiGiulian’s fingers barely finding purchase on the stone before settling in place. Continuing up, she growls, curses, and holds on with everything she has – then she loses it at anchor. She’s overwhelmed with joy.
This moment was a year in the making, where DiGiulian hand-picked her teammate Söderlund, chosen because of their long-term friendship and her ability to dispense with 5.14 quickly. Söderlund is a professional climber from Sweden who has climbed 9a (5.14d) and bouldered 8b (V13). Starting a decade ago, the two competed in the World Cup together, but this is DiGiulian’s and Söderlund’s first expedition together.
This is Harrington’s and DiGiulian’s second international trip; this past winter, they traveled to Makatea, French Polynesia, to film an episode in Sasha’s new vlog series for Red Bull TV and to open new routes up to 5.13. For Rayu, DiGiulian chose Harrington—who splits her home between British Columbia, B.C., and Lake Tahoe, California—because of her über-strong crack-climbing ability and vast big wall experience. Her career highlights include free soloing the 5.11a Chiaro di Luna on Aguja Saint-Exupery in Patagonia and sending 5.13+ trad.
Established by Iker Pou, Eneko Pou, and Kico Cerdá over five weeks in 2020, Rayu ascends the south face of Peña Santa de Castilla via a continuously steepening, heady trad line with spaced bolts.
Rayu is located in Picos de Europa National Park in northern Spain’s Cordillera Cantábrica range, an area known for its jaw-dropping scenery. The first half of the route is in the 5.12 range (7b), which leads to a spacious yet sharp and sloping ledge. This is where DiGiulian and her team spent the night. The crux 8c section comes three rope lengths above the ledge, which is followed by two more technical pitches. From there, 60 meters of technical scrambling leads to the summit. From the top of Rayu, the Atlantic Ocean is visible in the distance.
In addition to dreaming up the expedition, DiGiulian—who lives in Boulder, Colorado, is both the first U.S. woman to climb 5.14d and the founder of Send Bars—brought her experience as a World Champion rock climber and seasoned big wall free climber.
Of her team’s success on Rayu, this is the hardest wall done in the world by an all-female team.
Soon after DiGiulian and Söderlund redpointed the route on September 12th, all three climbers went back up the route to give 100 percent support to Harrington so she could successfully do the crux pitch. “There was nothing I wanted more than Brette to do the 8c,” said DiGiulian. They supported Harrington from September 16th to the trip’s end on September 22nd, but by then, she had still not managed to redpoint the 8c—which would have marked her first 5.14.
“We would hike for an hour and would jumar 1,600 feet to belay Brette,” said DiGiulian. That may sound like painstaking work, but the photos from the wall she sent over show all smiles.
“We sent as a team. Matilda and I freed the 8c on lead, and we alternated pitches on lead through basically all trad terrain,” said DiGiulian. “We sent the climb; Brette just didn’t send the 8c. She gave it more than a dozen tries and fell in the same place each time.”
Though in the end Harrington did not manage to redpoint the hardest pitch, on the first day on the wall, she led the team up many of the 13 spicy pitches where she’d fiddle in small wires, set Totem cams, and braved no-fall terrain. She then showed the team key gear placements so they could swap leads on the next round. With protection points 30 or more feet apart, the fall potential is more than 60 feet.
“It was impressive to learn how to navigate the adventurous trad pitches as a team,” says Söderlund.
“I accidentally dislodged a block that came down and almost hit Sasha,” says Söderlund. “Other parts of the route are loose, too. There are no fall zones on every pitch, and the cracks have knobs and barnacles, making gear placements tricky. Luckily, we didn’t have any scary falls.”
“It was cool to watch them be so dedicated to this as a team instead of as individuals,” said videographer Chris Alstrin, who was in Spain capturing the trio on Rayu (meaning “lightning”) for an upcoming episode of Reel Rock.
“They were placing micro cams in that soft rock, so that was a bit spicy,” he continued. “It’s not a sport climb as some people think. The crux pitch has seven bolts in 40 meters. They placed small wires, and in the middle of the hardest sequence, they placed a really small cam, which Brette didn’t think would hold if you fell.”
Adding to the difficulty of the terrain, the rock was so sharp that it bloodied every one of their fingertips. To keep from continuously ripping the skin off their fingers, they wrapped them in tape.
As if climbing nails-hard terrain up a 2,000-foot wall isn’t hard enough, the team constantly battled the changing weather. “The storms were all over the place,” said Harrington. “A massive hurricane hit off the coast of Portugal. Some days fog rolled in, and other days it was raining, and there were thunderstorms. Here we have big lightning storms called ‘chubasco.’”
What brought DiGiulian and her team to Spain, and why did they choose big wall-free climbing at the highest caliber? “It’s that feeling of digging deep and succeeding on something you didn’t think was possible,” DiGiulian says. “Big wall free climbing is a reminder of what humans are capable of.”
In an arena of endless steep rock, where it all comes down to executing the hardest sequences that are set thousands of feet off the ground, DiGiulian says, “That’s what we do, and that’s what we came here for.”
With their trip now over, “We’re already talking about another project together,” says Söderlund. “We complement each other’s climbing styles really well.”