Virginia woman breaks vertical ground in new HBO rock-climbing documentary ‘Here to Climb’

(Part 1) : Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, she was destined to reach great heights. WTOP's Jason Fraley spoke with the subject of the HBO film 'Here to Climb.'

Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, Sasha DiGiulian was destined to scale to great heights.

“I went to my brother’s birthday party in the late ’90s at a climbing gym called Sportrock,” DiGiulian told WTOP.

“I was 6 years old … I fell in love with it, I started going about twice a week for their junior team program. Fast forward a year later, I was 7 and the gym was holding a youth regional championship, so I walked into the gym and literally stumbled upon the competitive side of this sport that had just become my hobby.”

Now, the 31-year-old is the inspiring star of the new HBO Sports documentary “Here to Climb,” which premieres this Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO when it will also be available to stream on Max.

Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the documentary follows DiGiulian’s journey starting as a child prodigy at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, which she attended from kindergarten to 12th grade.

“I was one of the very few kids who knew what rock-climbing was,” DiGiulian said.

“Climbing became such a big part of my life from 7 or 8 onwards. I started competing at youth regional, divisional and national championships. I won my first continental championship at 11 years old in Mexico City and came in second at the U.S. Adult National Championships in Canada when I was 12. Around then is when I signed my first endorsement deal.”

Upon becoming a professional climber, she won the Female Overall World Champion title, went undefeated as a Pan-American Champion over a 10-year span and became a three-time U.S. National Champion.

During this time, she traveled around the world to different indoor facilities to scale artificial walls, gripping onto plastic holds that were designed in different patterns to create challenging routes like a vertical obstacle course.

“I felt very satisfied in what I had achieved in indoor climbing,” DiGiulian said.

“There are three different disciplines: bouldering, speed climbing and leap climbing. It is an Olympic sport now. I worked with the International Federation of Sport Climbing to rally with the International Olympic Committee to have climbing have its inauguration into the Tokyo Olympics. Paris will be the second time that climbing has been a sport.”

At age 24, DiGiulian essentially retired from indoor competitive climbing, shifting solely to outdoor challenges. Unlike free-soloing, she always climbs with a safety rope attached, allowing her to travel to over 50 countries from Indonesia to Madagascar, while accomplishing over a dozen first ascents and over 30 female-first ascents.

“Outdoor climbing I started when I was 9 at the New River Gorge in West Virginia,” DiGiulian said.

“I really made a pivot to outdoor climbing after winning the overall world championship when I was 18. I went to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky [and] set this record of climbing the hardest climb achieved by a North American woman. … I do big-wall free climbing, going around the world to climbs that may or may not have ever been done before.”

The cliffs aren’t the only challenge. The film shows her confronting major mental and physical obstacles.

“I was diagnosed with double hip dysplasia in 2020,” DiGiulian said.

“I go in for five surgeries where they break my pelvic bone in four places on both sides, cut my abdominal muscles out of my body and sew together my connective tissue that I’ve shredded through because my femur was popping out of its socket. It was two 10-hour open-hip surgeries, along with three other surgeries over 18 months, so it was a lot of building back.”

Along the way, the filmmakers interview Sasha’s mother Andrea DiGiulian and Sasha’s husband Erik Osterholm, with whom she lives in Boulder, Colorado.

We also hear from other climbers, including Cedar Wright, Angela VanWiemeersch, Vian Charbonneau and Alex Honnold, who chimes in with his cinematographer Pablo Durant from the Oscar-winning film “Free Solo.” Most importantly, we see trailblazing female climbing icon Lynn Hill.

“Part of this film is me partnering with one of my childhood heroes who turned into a mentor and friend, Lynn Hill, who was the first woman and also the first human to free climb this iconic feature on El Capitan in Yosemite called The Nose,” DiGiulian said.

“I grew up with a poster of her on my wall and always looked at women like her … as these examples of following what you’re passionate about and finding out what you’re capable of achieving.”

Find more information about “Here to Climb” here.

Listen to our full conversation here.

(Part 2) : Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, she was destined to reach great heights. WTOP's Jason Fraley spoke with the subject of the HBO film 'Here to Climb.'

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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