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‘My chance to really own my voice’: World champion rock climber Sasha DiGiulian speaks about new memoir

Rock climber Sasha DiGiulian will speak about her memoir “Take the Lead” at the Paepcke Auditorium for the Aspen Words Winter Words series on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.
Courtesy of Aspen Words
Rock climber Sasha DiGiulian will speak about her memoir “Take the Lead” at the Paepcke Auditorium for the Aspen Words Winter Words series on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

World champion rock climber Sasha DiGiulian will speak about her new memoir at the Paepcke Auditorium on Tuesday night for the Aspen Words “Winter Words” series.

DiGiulian is the author of “Take the Lead: Hanging On, Letting Go, and Conquering Life’s Hardest Climbs.” The book documents her journey as a professional athlete, as she claimed “first ascents” around the globe and racked up medals in major competitions.

It’s also an exploration of her relationship with her family and the pressures she faced as a young, female climber at the top of her sport.

Reporter Kaya Williams spoke with the author over Zoom last week about the writing process and the evolution of climbing culture. DiGiulian, now 31 years old, begins by sharing why she started writing “Take The Lead” in her late 20s, while she was still in “the heart” of her climbing career.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length. 

Sasha DiGiulian: I felt in 2020, when I began writing this, that I was really at this big inflection point of my life. I had kind of closed my first chapter of what I've gone through since I was 6 years old, growing up with this sport. And I was looking down the barrel of two double-hip reconstruction surgeries that would put me out of climbing for nine months, and the future of my career was really uncertain.

I had just gone through a really big tragedy with someone on an expedition team that I was leading. And it felt like I had the time and the reflection.

But really, as I started writing, life continued to unfold. And I focused the book on how I have grown within this sport, how I've built my career in a very niche industry, and brought climbing more into the mainstream — as well as aspects of my life that are well beyond climbing. But I find climbing is very metaphorical for business, for life decisions, for relationships. And so the book, while it centers around my climbing career, really does touch on a lot of other aspects to what my life has been thus far.

Kaya Williams: And as you were writing this — you know, it's often a very introspective process — did you realize things that you hadn't realized before about how you were approaching the sport or approaching life itself?

DiGiulian:  Oh, yes, I felt like writing my memoir was some of the best therapy I could do. Because I was revisiting memories that I haven't even thought about. And as (an) athlete, I've gotten really good at compartmentalizing, and so when really difficult traumatic situations have happened in my life, I've kind of put them in a box and kept moving forward. And so stepping into this arena of going back and lifting every stone and examining it — of these foundational patterns, and also of the people in my life that have been major players — was a really rewarding and really challenging journey to embark on.

And through the process of even writing it, I think that my perspective of what I wanted out of the book changed. I started realizing that I've put up with a lot, for instance, in my career, within a community that is traditionally very male-dominant. And (I’ve experienced) aspects of empowerment through purely being a woman, cutting against the grain in a sport that was shocked by that. I found a lot of confidence in that process.

Williams: You mentioned compartmentalization there. How did it feel to be taking these things back out of the box?

DiGiulian: Certainly challenging at times. There is a chapter where I go quite viscerally into the journey of losing my dad suddenly (when I was) 22. And I'm back in the hospital with him after his stroke, which happened really unexpectedly, and he ever woke up from that.

And so through my process of both challenging moments off the climb, and on the climb, I've always turned to writing as my way of processing and expressing my emotions and feelings during the time that I'm at.

And I had this whole stack of different journals that I could, in writing the book, turn back to. So it was definitely very raw, at times going back through these moments. But I see the book as my chance to really own my voice. And others have told my story from their perspective before, but I've never really been able to take the reins and guide my own narrative, which felt empowering.

Williams: Throughout your career, now looking forward as well, do you sense that the cultural attitudes about women in climbing are changing, or can change?

DiGiulian: I do think that. I am really optimistic about the future of climbing. It's becoming a more inclusive community.

And also, you know, when I was building my career, I was hustling so hard to put myself through university, to be able to build a career that would provide me the freedom to travel around the world and go after more climbs, and further my success within the sport. And that was highly criticized by a lot of people because they saw my commercialization of climbing at the time, as, you know, selling out.

And working with sponsors like Red Bull, it was kind of showing this narrative that you can be more than just an athlete, and be a high performing athlete at the same time. And bringing in this acceptance of three-dimensional personality: being a full-time student at Columbia, while also going after World Championship titles, or big, new ascents outdoors.

But I would say that now when I look at the future generation of climbers — and even young women who are doing like, makeup brand ads and intermixing in fashion to the outdoors — it excites me, because that was something that I've always really wanted to lean into, but also had this like, backlash that I wavered in my confidence in doing it.

And so I just look at the future of what — you can be whoever you want to be, and you can go out there and create your own path, and it doesn't need to have been trodden before for you to explore it. And that's one of the big messages that I hope encourages both young women and young men to take from the book.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.