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16 Months, 5 Surgeries, And 1 Immense Tragedy Later, Sasha DiGiulian Is Back

Sasha DiGiulian spent most of 2020 convalescing as doctors reconstructed her hips, with the spectre of a recent tragedy in Mexico never far from her mind. Less than a year and a half after, she returned to the site of the tragedy with a rebuilt body and a new mindset.

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As her headlamp beam glanced off the rhyolite rock above her and swept into airy darkness, first left, then right, one question kept flashing through Sasha DiGiulian’s head. Why? 

Sixteen months before, she had been preparing to come to this wall, El Gigante, to try this very route, Logical Progression—a  2,800-foot 5.13 in Basaseachi, Chihuahua, Mexico. Two climbers, Aaron Livingston and Nolan Smythe, were already there ahead of her planned arrival in early April 2020, climbing the route themselves and fixing some lines for the expedition’s photographer, Savannah Cummins, Smythe’s girlfriend. Climbing pitch 14 during the night, Smythe fell to his death when the ledge he was standing on gave way and the rockfall severed his rope.

Now it was May 2021, and DiGiulian, 28, was in the same exact spot. While searching for the next crimp, the light from her headlamp illuminated a lighter-colored patch of rock. DiGiulian paused. It was the spot from which both rock and Smythe had plummeted.

DiGiulian climbing by headlamp on El Gigante. Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

“It was hard not to notice this rock scar as I navigated this portion in the dark,” DiGiulian says. “I couldn’t help thinking that I was doing the exact same thing that killed someone last year, who was doing everything correctly. Why?” she asked herself.

Implicit in the why DiGuilian offered up into the night were other unanswerable cosmic questions of randomness and chance. The year 2020 was a trial for all; the pandemic challenged everyone, but some more than others. DiGiulian’s 2020 was trying three-fold: On top of the pandemic, she was working through the trauma of Smythe’s death and complex feelings of guilt, for having been part of the reason he was on that wall; and in 2020 she also learned that the body that had propelled her to three National Championships in sport climbing, 5.14d redpoints, and ascents of 5.14 big walls, was betraying her: the chronic hip pain she had dealt with for years turned out to be full-on degeneration of her joints. 

Why had Nolan Smythe been the unlucky one and not her or anyone else on the expedition? Why was the world spiraling into tragedy? Why had her body failed her in the past—and would it hold up now?

No answers came back at her. But she climbed on.

***

El Gigante is a behemoth. With vertical relief somewhere in the 3,000-foot range, it gives El Cap a run for its money. The king line is Logical Progression, a 28-pitch Grade-VI big wall established in 2002 by Peter Baumeister, Luke Laeser, and Bert van Lint. The trio equipped the route with some 400 bolts. It has over 14 pitches of 5.12 and 5.13. In the years since their first ascent, it has drawn some of the United States’ and Canada’s best climbers southward to test their mettle. Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter made the first one-day free ascent in 2010. A few years later, Hayden Kennedy, Kyle Dempster, Justin Griffin, and Chris Kalous ventured down for a smash-and-grab mission. As though reaching through time, Kennedy’s 2017 essay about that trip—”The Day We Sent Logical Progression,” a meditation on climbing, death, and friendship, published just weeks before he took his own life—became required reading in the aftermath of Smythe’s death.

El Gigante. Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

DiGiulian herself became curious about Logical Progression when she learned that no woman had ever freed it. She wanted to be the first to do so—and to do so with a female partner.

[Also Read Molly Mitchell and Sasha DiGiulian Go Big in El Salto]

“I’ve done a lot of climbs with a male partner, and will continue to, I’m sure, but there’s something really cool about pairing up with another woman, being in this realm of challenging ourselves and pushing ourselves,” DiGiulian says. “On all of my big walls that I’ve done with climbing partners, I’ve shared the leads and always led the crux 5.14 pitches (Mora Mora, Bellavista, etc). However, for whatever reason, people just sometimes make the assumption that the woman does less? I don’t appreciate that; I want to team up with women and show that we can support each other and do big things together.” 

Sasha DiGiulian on Logical Progression. Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

On May 5 of this year, DiGiulian and climbing partner Vian Charbonneau headed down to Mexico to try to tame the Giant. She was anxious. The shadows from the past year hung heavy.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” DiGiulian says. “I just knew that my body felt ready enough to go back to where the entirety of the last 16 months started … back to this goal that I had before I knew of a global pandemic, before that I knew that I needed hip surgeries… and before I knew that this tragic accident would happen with Nolan on this same climb. I just wanted to return and bring a new light to somewhere that is truly magical, but that had been left off with so much darkness.”

***

Even as she was still gearing up for her original 2020 El Gigante expedition, DiGiulian knew she was in for a tough year.  

In 2018, longstanding discomfort in her hips accelerated at an alarming rate. By the winter of 2019 she could barely sleep through the night. An MRI and consultations with three separate surgeons revealed the cause: chronic hip dysplasia. 

“I had shredded through my labrums in both my left and right hips. I had been feeling a sharp, deep throb in my hip joint, and instability to the point that it felt like my femur head was popping out of the socket—which was quite nearly what was happening. Because of my anatomy and the grind that I have put on my body over the course of 22 years of climbing, the issue got worse and worse,” DiGiulian says. 

Her options were simple: grit through the pain and get double hip replacements in a few months—by which time the bones in her joints would be rubbing directly against one another, the cartilage having shredded away; or sign up for a series of grueling surgeries over the next year to reconstruct her hips and avoid said replacements. 

Remembers DiGiulian, who found all of this out just two days before she was supposed to leave to try Logical Progression in 2020: “Having total hip replacement was going to be a career ending decision, whereas having hip reconstruction was at least rolling the dice on possibly coming back to a level of mobility that I could climb with. Both options sent me into a dizzying emotional spiral in which it felt like my whole life as I knew it was crashing down hard.” 

She opted for the latter option.The trip to Mexico, she decided, would be a “last hoorah” before a year of hell. The night before she was scheduled to fly down there, she got a life-changing call from the photographer Savannah Cummins. 

“She called me and told me, ‘Nolan’s dead,’” DiGiulian says. 

The tragedy hit the climbing community hard, but for Cummins, Smythe’s girlfriend, it was an incomparable blow. “Nolan had no ego,” she later wrote. “Nolan’s passions far transcended climbing or BASE jumping. He had a deep and intuitive empathy for humanity and the world around him.”

“If he had a smile on his face, it wasn’t long before I found a smile on mine,” she said.

[Also Read Remembering Nolan Smythe]

Cummins, DiGiulian, and several of Smythe’s family and friends flew down the next day to orchestrate the recovery of his body, and to help get Aaron Livingston, Smythe’s partner who was still stranded on the wall, to safety. (The Mexican climbers Tiny Almada and Jose David “Bicho” Martinez later rescued Livingston, rappelling into his location from the top of El Gigante.)

“That trip, I hiked out to a lookout point with Nolan’s parents and brother and couldn’t even imagine the grief and void in their hearts that they felt,” DiGiulian says. “I felt a sense of guilt of being a part of the reason Nolan was even there climbing, even though we all knew he was doing what he loved and was absolutely thrilled to be climbing Logical Progression.”

And “that was it…” she says. “A dark, dark ending to a six-month planning effort to go try a climb, resulting in absolute heartbreak, devastation, and this shaking feeling of, But why?

“He was doing everything right.”

***

Coming back to a world of Hollywood disaster tropes straight out of movies like “Contagion,” DiGiulian steeled herself for a year of going under the knife. The first of her surgeries, originally scheduled for early April, got bumped back as hospital staff and resources across the country mobilized to meet the pandemic head on. She had her first surgeries on May 5, 2020.

“I had what’s called a hip scope, on each hip, in which the labrum is stitched back together and the head of the femur bone is shaved down,” she says. The next surgeries were periacetabular osteotomies (POA) on both hips—a procedure in which the “pelvic bone is broken in 4 places and reconstructed back together with six 6-inch screws.”

DiGiulian on Logical Progression, El Gigante. Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

The fifth and final surgery, on February 17 of this year, was to remove the hardware. In each surgery, her lower abdominal muscles were literally taken out and then put back. Between that and the intensive work on her hip joints, the things she could do for most of 2020 were limited. Hangboarding and ab workouts were off the table. Even sitting up straight and walking was impossible for months at a time.

The mental and emotional recovery was just as involved as the physical. DiGiulian spent her time writing, working on business ideas, and finding “gratitude” for the things she still had. 

“A huge part of my identity, since I was 6 years old, has been climbing,” she says. “And, if not just climbing, at least sport. Exercise is the way in which I manage my anxiety, my stress, my feelings and emotions. So not being able to be active at all for 4 months of last year was like redefining who I am to myself. I like to think that I developed a better relationship with myself through it.”

Her words echo those of Kennedy in “The Day We Sent Logical Progression.” He wrote, “Climbing can be an incredible catalyst for our growth. But I am beginning to realize that there’s a certain danger in making climbing the singular focus of your life because it can actually limit the opportunity for growth and reflection if you don’t stop, pause, breathe, and reflect.”

With the final surgery in the rearview, a year of growth and reflection under her belt, DiGiulian turned her attention once again to El Gigante.

***

After a couple months of putting her body through the wringer to get back into climbing shape, she felt ready. She flew down to Mexico with Vian Charbonneau, and, after rapping in from the top of the route (as most climbers do), started up the wall.

DiGiulian found some of the 5.12 pitches far harder than she was expecting, likely due to the friable nature of the rock and holds that may have broken over time. But she and Charbonneau made steady progress up the wall.

Vian Charbonneau jamming on Logical Progression Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

With Smythe’s accident in her mind, one thing DiGiulian hoped to do was avoid climbing at night. But the heat of the day was too intense. When the sun hit the wall at 2 p.m., the dark-hued rock became a frying pan, radiating heat until 7 at night.

[Also Read Interview: Sasha DiGiulian on Completing the Rocky Mountain Trilogy]

Charbonneau and DiGiulian at the summit of El Gigante. Photo: Pablo Durana / Red Bull Content Pool

So, despite their plan, they resorted to climbing at night. And that’s how DiGiulian found herself leading pitch 14 in the dark, her “headlamp flashing low battery.” The whole weight of the past year came down like a sledgehammer.

“As I climbed slowly and examined every fracture line of rock blocks through the limited sphere of my low lit headlamp, the reality of how everything can just so drastically change in a moment crashed into me,” she says. “And I thought of how much love I felt in my heart for the people close to me. How I wouldn’t be back on this climb without them being there for me every baby step along the way this entire year. And I knew I wanted to be here, to be on this climb. But for the first time in this journey of a year, I did feel very alone. … Everything else was pitch black. My heart sunk and I just knew I had to get through it.”

The sixth day after leaving the base of El Gigante—including one rest day on their portaledge in the middle of the wall—DiGiulian and Charbonneau topped out Logical Progression at 2:37 in the afternoon. They swapped leads during their ascent. DiGiulian freed the entire route, and Charbonneau came just shy of freeing every pitch. 

The ascent was a milestone for DiGiulian—a return to Basaseachi to honor Smythe’s memory and to prove to herself that she could make it through a nightmare year the likes of which she had never anticipated.

“This climb brought me so much newfound confidence,” she says. “It made me feel like I’m back. And that for me was my victory. … That the grind, the uncertainty, the tears, the fear, the blood, the heartbreak—it all came together.”