“What if I’m not ready?”: Sasha DiGiulian on the 2nd Team Ascent of ‘Rayu’ (5.14b)
Sasha DiGiulian, Brette Harrington, and Matilda Söderlund traveled to Spain to tackle 'Rayu,' 16 pitches of biting limestone. For DiGiulian, it signaled a return to the height of her athletic career.
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Originally published on outsideonline.com
It’s 3 A.M. and I’m hugging my knees on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. I don’t want to wake my climbing partner, Brette Harrington, who is asleep in the hotel room we’re sharing. I feel like I can’t breathe. I’m drenched in sweat and focusing on boxed breathing. Breathe in—one, two, three, four, hold…. Breathe out, hold. Repeat. I need to wake up in three hours because we’re hiking two and a half miles to our base camp, where we’re going to spend the next month trying to climb a big-wall route.
I have my doubts: What if I’ve just built this whole team and I’m not ready? What if I can’t even do the first pitches of the climb? What if someone gets hurt? What if I get hurt?
My head is spinning. I feel claustrophobic. My heart pounds. I feel like my throat is swelling. This is the first panic attack of my life, and I’m terrified.
Earlier that evening, Brette and I arrived in Posada de Valdeón, a little mountain town in the heart of the Picos de Europa valley of northern Spain, with our third climbing partner, Swede Matilda Söderlund, and our four-person film and support crew: Ryan Sheridan, Priscilla Mewborne, Chris Alstrin, and Michael Potter. We’d had a big day shuffling bags, redistributing gear into backpacks, and figuring out logistics with the porters we hired to help us attempt Rayu, a 16-pitch line up rough limestone, and—if we succeeded in our mission—soon to be the hardest big-wall route ever climbed by an all-women team.
We were staying at a hostel connected to a restaurant, which was really more of a bar. Loud Spanish and drunken laughter filled the main room. During dinner the bartender told us that a local climber we’d been coordinating with wagered we’d need to be rescued by helicopter from the mountain within the first week of our expedition.
“Well, the mountain is very dangerous,” said the local climber in his defense. “Maybe it would be a good idea for you to try the easier routes on the left side.”
Men have underestimated my climbing abilities for as long as I can remember. I signed my first sponsorship deal when I was 12 years old, a decade and a half ago, and I’ve been on enough trips since to anticipate that some guy is always going to assume he knows more than me, boast that he has the key beta, or suggest an easier climb. I’ve learned to tune it out. Yet something felt different in Posada de Valdeón.
I reflected on the past couple tumultuous years: A member of the team I built around an expedition in Mexico died in a tragic accident, and when we returned to the U.S., the pandemic abruptly shut the world down. Then chronic hip pain and five surgeries took me away from my sport for nine months. My trip to Spain would be the longest I’d been away from my home in Boulder, Colorado, in three years. Doubt crept in. I just wanted to return to the comfort of my own house and spend more time training harder in my garage. Maybe I’m not ready, I thought. Maybe he’s right.
I didn’t end up sleeping much that night. Even after my panic attack, anxiety kept me awake. Somewhere between 3:30 and 4 A.M. I dozed off in my hotel bed. Before I could dream, my alarm startled me awake, and I ate a power bar from my company, Send, and a banana, before it was time to trek two and a half hours with all of our gear and sleeping equipment in to Peña Santa, the mountain where Brette, Matilda, and our crew would reside for the next month.
I first learned about Rayu when I was lying in bed, recovering from surgery. It was September 2021, and I was two surgeries into the five I’d eventually have. I wasn’t sure I’d ever return to climbing at the levels I once had. My entirely new hip structure was supposed to counter chronic pain from my dysplastic hips, which led to instability that caused my femur heads to regularly move in and out of the sockets.
As I scrolled on my phone, I saw that Iker and Eneko Pou, energetic Basque brothers who I’ve known for ten years, had posted about their first ascent of a 2,000-foot 8c (5.14b) route in Spain’s Cordillera Cantábrica region of Picos de Europa. It was called Rayu, which means “lightning” in Spanish. The line comprises 16 pitches of primarily 5.12 climbing, which is well within my comfort zone, but the crux grades in at 5.14b, the hardest big-wall grade I’d previously ever climbed. The Pou brothers and their partner, Kico Cerdá, established the route over five weeks in 2020 and had finally completed it in one go, posting about it soon after. Rayu was one of dozens of first ascents the larger than life Pou brothers had to their names, so I trusted their advice. When I called them less than a month later, they encouraged me to go for it but warned that they’d used as few bolts as possible in developing it, meaning I’d have to climb sections for 35 to 40 feet at a time without attaching my rope to the next point.
In 2013, I became the first woman to climb the hardest big-wall grade to date—Bellavista in the Italian Dolomites—a 5.14b, later downgraded to a 5.14a/b. It’s an alpine route with a huge overhang. I followed this in 2017, with the first female ascent and second-ever climb of Mora Mora, a 5.14b big wall in Madagascar, with Edu Marin of Spain. If Brette, Matilda and I were successful, we would make history with the hardest big-wall route ever climbed by a team of women. For me, ascending Rayu would signal a return to the height of my career as a professional athlete.
I started assembling our expedition team in October 2021. Matilda, an old friend, was first on my list. Both born in 1992, we grew up climbing against each other at international events and heading to nearby sport-climbing areas to have fun outside after we were done competing. At five foot ten, Matilda towers over me—I’m only five foot two. She’s quiet and observant—but as I got to know my Swedish friend, a dry wit emerged.
Over the past eight years, Matilda and I began to favor outdoor climbing. When I saw photos of Matilda’s first big-wall climbing trip in Switzerland in 2021, I messaged her about doing an expedition together the next year. We didn’t know yet that the trip would be Rayu, and I had no idea when I asked her to join that it would be her first time ever camping.
A few months later, I got to know Brette, a firecracker of an athlete, on a trip to Makatea, an island in French Polynesia. We were there to help develop sport climbing and explore ecotourism for my new show, No Days Off, in which I examine issues affecting the environment through the lens of sport. I bonded with Brette, 30, right away as she shared wild tales of her adventures: getting socked in by a storm and spending three weeks on a portaledge, or soloing a route in Patagonia because she wanted to climb it and didn’t have a partner. At five foot four, she’s a bit taller than me, but because I have an extra-long wingspan, we can share the same beta. Her background in high-end alpinism and big-wall climbing achievements made her a no-brainer addition to round out the Rayu squad.
In June 2022, Brette and Matilda flew to Boulder for a week. We discussed the project, trained, and, most important, got to know our team dynamic, committing to transparency, communication, intention, and vulnerability. By the time they flew out, we felt ready to embark on our big adventure together.
We arrived in Bilbao, Spain, on August 16, organized our gear and food, and ran errands around the city, stocking up on propane for our Jetboils and other last-minute supplies. Three days later, we drove three and a half hours from Bilbao to Picos de Europa, and after my restless night at the hotel, hiked in to Peña Santa. The valley was colored with pink and purple wildflowers and luscious green grass. Cantabrian chamois, a species native to Europe that’s a cross between a mountain goat and an antelope, roamed through, and at sunset, a sea of clouds rolled in from the Atlantic and over the hills below us.
On August 21, after establishing a camp that was just a 30-minute hike from the base of Rayu, we started our ascent. Our strategy was to acquaint ourselves with as much of the route as we could from the ground up, and we allowed for extra time to work out individual portions of the climb as needed, especially the 5.14b pitch, which was 1,500 feet up.
Due to the alpine environment, our weather reports were rarely accurate. As we learned the route, we’d get socked in by massive clouds so thick that we’d find ourselves climbing several feet off of our targeted line, and sometimes scampering off the wall just before big thunder-and-lightning storms hit us.
“I think we should go down,” I said to Matilda one day while Brette was nearing the anchor of the next pitch. As I looked out across the horizon, dark clouds were quickly taking over the blue sky. While I lowered Brette to the belay, large, pelting hail started to fall.
“Oh my god! Let’s get off this wall!” Brette said, as we quickly transferred our gear back onto our harnesses, found our rappel devices, and lowered down our fixed lines.
In between storms, we spent a few days familiarizing ourselves with the first half of the route. Although the pitches were technically easier on the first portion, the rock was looser and the route meandered; we had to climb points that were far left or far right before we could return to progressing vertically again. Of the three of us, Brette was the most experienced with this style of alpine climbing, and she helped solve tricky gear placements, like small wires and offsets.
Eventually, we got to know Rayu. The upper portion of the south-facing wall was in the sun until 5 P.M., so we slept at base camp for a week and a half while we worked on the 5.14b section. Every day we’d wait for the shade to creep in, ascend our fixed line to the crux pitch, and each squeeze in one or two attempts before sunset.
The abrasive limestone was one of the most challenging aspects of Rayu. It bit into the tips of our fingers until they were raw and bleeding after just two to three tries on the route. “I’ve never seen my skin be this bad,” Matilda said one night.
The inclement weather patterns gave us time to focus on what climbers call “skin farming.” We’d smear copious amounts of Climb Skin, an ointment made up of shea butter and aloe, onto our hands, and apply Neosporin with Band-Aids before we went to sleep each night to heal our raw, pink fingers. After a few days, enough skin would have regrown to harvest with a few more attempts on the wall.
By September 4, we had freed—or led without falling—every pitch of Rayu. Matilda sent the 5.14b section on lead while I had on top-rope, confident I could lead it on the push attempt. Now we needed to do it from the ground to the top in one consecutive climb. After four days of resting and waiting out storms in Posada de Valdeón, on September 8, we were ready to give the whole route our first official attempt. We woke up just after sunrise, ready to make our way back to the wall, tracing the path we now knew by heart. After a quick breakfast of eggs and coffee, we grabbed our bags and headed into the empty cobblestone streets of the sleeping town, where we met our 4×4 taxi, which took us 45 minutes up a winding mountain to the end of a dirt road. We hopped out of the vehicle and hiked through the mountains, gaining 6,000 feet of elevation over three miles, which brought us to our base camp. We prepared our packs for the next few days on the wall and hiked the remaining mile to the base of Rayu. It was Thursday, and the forecast predicted stable weather until Sunday. Then a hurricane might be coming.
Our plan was to go for a ground-up push to see if we could successfully send every pitch. Brette, Matilda, and I would alternate leads, each taking on different sections, but we all wanted a shot at leading the hardest one. I had an extra challenge: my hip surgeries had changed my climbing style, so I’d had to replace the flexibility I’d lost with core stability and strength. I was about to attempt one of the most challenging big walls of my career with a brand-new way of moving.
We took turns leading our way up the route. Due to our height differences, Brette and I had very different beta than Matilda on the hardest pitch; she floated through sequences that made the climb look like a vertical dance up the steep limestone face. I was confident that she could resend the 5.14b on this ground-up push but knew it might not come as easily for me.
On our second day on the wall, after sleeping at the midway ledge, Matilda sent the crux pitch. We technically didn’t need Brette or me to complete it, too, in order to claim the team ascent and to set the record. But I’d been very clear with the team that I needed to free the crux pitch to really feel like I had completed Rayu, which Matilda felt as well. So we agreed that with the weather window in mind, we would make that the priority before continuing on to climb the rest of the pitches to the top. After Matilda sent it, she lowered back down and I went for the 5.14b. I fell five moves from the anchors. Then I got one move closer before I fell again. Brette and I continued to alternate lead attempts on the 5.14b the next day, while Matilda rested on the ledge.
The problem was that my fingers were bleeding from every tip, and my muscles felt tired and less explosive. We decided I’d get one more try, and then, regardless of whether I made it or Brette did, we’d finish the next two 5.12 pitches and the final scramble to the summit. This was my last chance.
While I waited for the sun to move off of the route, I superglued the splits in my fingers and taped over them. I pulled onto the limestone, reminding myself to commit to the dynamic sequences, trust my feet, and not hold back. “You’ve got this, Sashy,” Matilda said. “You know you can do it. You love pressure!”
I knew that a fall would mean I’d failed this section, but I couldn’t worry about that now. I needed to let go of doubt and fully commit. I climbed through the first crux—I had that pretty wired—then I got to a place to rest before the second one. All the tape on my fingers was getting in the way of my friction, but it was protecting my raw wounds from the bite of the rock crystals. I climbed through the second crux and felt good; I knew what to do. Then, I was on the rest before the third crux, which leads right into the fourth and final section of the route to the anchor. As I shook my hands out from a resting position, I could feel the blood gushing from my finger pads below the slipping tape. I heard Matilda and Brette cheering from the belay below.
“Strong!” Brette called from below.
“So good, so strong. You’ve got this,” Matilda yelled. “Everything you’ve got!”
Invigorated by their energy, I bit off the tape and put my left ring finger into a single finger pocket, squishing it in deep for the best possible leverage. Then I reached out to a small crystal, walked my left foot up high, relying on friction to keep it in place, and jumped. I latched on to the hold, clenched my abdominal muscles, and hiked my right foot up. I screamed, embracing the pain beneath my finger tips, and told my muscles to keep going. I got to the next bolt, the final sequences in front of me. As I looked out to a dime-size protrusion, I thought, Don’t let go now! Find a way.
This was my chance. I needed to stay calm on the delicate traverse, 1,600 feet above the ground, while using all of my strength. I dove into the final sequences, unable to use my pointer finger on my right hand because it was too slippery with blood. My right hand grabbed the crimper, a sliver of rock half a centimeter wide, and I reached left. I just needed to hold on. I was past the point on the wall that I had fallen off during my four previous tries. I climbed stealthily, with precision; I was not willing to let go. Delicately, I progressed through the final few moves, at which point I faced down the final challenge: to launch my body up to the last good hold from which I could clip to the chains. Just go, I thought.
It was like moving through space in slow motion. I held my breath until I felt the hold beneath my bloody hand.
“Oh my God!” I screamed. I’d done it.
After Brette gave it one more try, we all continued on our ground-up push of the climb, through the remaining run-out 5.12 pitches to the summit. We untied to complete the final solo to the true summit and stood together atop the mountain. It was there, at sunset, surrounded by a sea of clouds with the Atlantic Ocean in the not-so-distant horizon, that we realized our dream. We’d successfully climbed Rayu.
We would not have been able to achieve this feat without our entire team: Ryan Sheridan, Priscilla Mewborne, Chris Alstrin, Michael Potter, and Fran Gonzalez. The film, coproduced by Artifactual Media, Female Focused Adventures, and Sender Films, will be released this spring.