Fueling Your Body, Building Confidence and Staying in the Present Moment
Fueling Your Body, Building Confidence and Staying in the Present Moment

"Working in that present state can be challenging. Even in today’s day and age, everything moves so fast, and we’re constantly multitasking. But on the wall, I feel like things are the most quiet for me and I think that’s why I love it so much." 

- Sasha DiGiulian

Sasha DiGiluian may be a world champion climber, writer, activist and philanthropist now, but it all started as a 6 year old with a dream to climb. This week, Sasha joins the show to talk with Elizabeth about how she turned her love of climbing into her career, and the inspiration behind her debut book, Take the Lead: Hanging On, Letting Go and Conquering Life’s Hardest Climbs. Sasha gives some fantastic tips on developing a healthy mindset, the vital role of finding your tribe and scaling the mountain of success despite what others may say. Lastly, Sasha reveals her latest venture - the creation of Send Adaptogenic Superfood Bars, a mission-driven endeavor to make organic, gluten-free, vegan, high-quality nutrition accessible to all.

 

  • PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

    Elizabeth Stein 0:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    This week's guest is Sasha DiGiulian, a professional climber, world champion, writer, activist, and philanthropist. She has accomplished multiple first ascents in over 30 1st Female ascents around the world. Sasha is a graduate of Columbia University, serves on the board of the Women's Sports Foundation, and just this week released her first book, Take the Lead: Hanging On, Letting Go, and Conquering Life's Hardest Climbs. In this riveting episode, Sasha shares her journey from climbing at the age of six to becoming a world champion. We talk about achieving seemingly impossible goals like her most memorable climb in South Africa, how to work through fear and failure, and the importance of confidence and courage. She shares her struggles as a teenage girl in the competitive male-dominated climbing world including criticism, disordered eating, and negative comments from colleagues and social media. We also discussed her mental preparation strategies, emphasizing the importance of visualization and breathwork along with her strategies for overcoming negative self-talk and maintaining a positive mindset. Lastly, Sasha shares her current projects including the creation of SEND adaptogenic superfood bars to make organic, gluten-free, vegan, high-quality nutrition available to all. This was such an incredibly inspiring conversation packed with so many learnings. It is an absolute must listen, I hope you enjoy it. And if you want to try her bars, use code SASHAFAM for 15% off on sendbars.com. Enjoy.
    Sasha, welcome to the podcast it's so nice to meet you. I said we should have been doing this in person, but I'm just so excited to talk to you. I had been on your Instagram account, and truthfully doing it at night before I went to bed. And it's giving me so much anxiety looking at your videos. Like you are amazing.

    Sasha DiGiulian 2:31
    Oh, thanks so much. It's such an honor to be on your podcast. Usually, I look at your Instagram and I'm drooling at every breath wishing that I had those skills.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:42
    Amazing. Well, there's so much to get into. And I feel like this could be such a long conversation. But I want to start with your foundation. And first, what got you into climbing?

    Sasha DiGiulian 2:52
    At my brother's birthday party at a local climbing gym, I was six years old. I grew up in the Washington DC area in a town called Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. He had his birthday party at a gym called Sport Rock. My family is Canadian by roots and very much into winter sports and organized team sports. I didn't have any idea what rock climbing was short of it being a birthday party venue, but I loved it. And it was me and my brother and his hockey team and his friends from school. He's a year older than me. Something just clicked for me. I was doing a lot of other sports at the time. So I just saw it as a hobby. The employee working at the climbing gym birthday party said to my mom what she probably said to every mom, “Your daughter has a great natural ability for climbing, you should bring her back for the junior team program.” So, I started going Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year when I was six. When I was seven, I walked into the gym, there was a youth regional championship being held and the gym was closed. I just wanted to climb and the organizers were like, “Well, she can compete. But you can't go on to the next round, which is youth Nationals”, at the time, climbing was even smaller of a sport and very niche. So I won my category in 11 and under and that's how I stumbled into the competitive realm of what rock climbing competitions even look like. Then it was the catalyst, and from there, started competing for the next decade and a half of my career.

    Elizabeth Stein 4:36
    At what point did you go from doing competitions in the gym to getting outside? Because I imagine from an outsider, that sounds like a pretty big difference and a whole other level of fear. Was that a big deal? What did that look like?

    Sasha DiGiulian 4:55
    Yeah, as a youth climber, my team coach would take us out on weekend trips to places like the New River Gorge and the Red River Gorge. But my main focus was plastic climbing because that's the venue where competitions take place. And it wasn't until I was around 16 that I started climbing outside more. And that was mainly because of a boyfriend that I had, who was a pro climber. I know. It's so cliche, but he was a pro climber from Norway, and he was my first real boyfriend. Actually, at 16, I went to Spain on my own with him and a group of friends who are still pro climbers today, and still friends. We went climbing in the Catalonia region. By the time I was like 18, was when I started doing more climbing trips outside. As I loosened my grip on competition climbing and satisfied the goals that I had within that realm, I started transitioning my career to focus on bigger first ascent and first female ascent trips around the world, strictly in the outdoor arena.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:15
    You have so many first ascents and experiences of that. What comes to mind of that most memorable first ascent for you?

    Sasha DiGiulian 6:26
    Well, the first ascent that I ever did was in South Africa in this area called Waterval Boven. The entire trip was honestly really cool for me. I was 19 years old and had never been to that part of the world, we integrated going on the cliché, tourist thing of going to Kruger National Park and seeing all these incredible animals. I was with two National Geographic photographers who were with me to document my climbing trip for Adidas and Red Bull. But the photos and nature that we were exposed to were just so memorable. And even that zone, I haven't actually been back but having this climb and having this blank canvas of possibility and not knowing if it's possible or not, that whole process of trying something, it feeling seemingly impossible, and then working together and whittling down little sections of it almost like a live jigsaw puzzle, where you have all of these pieces and you're like, I don't know if I can manage to fit them all together. And then one by one, you start putting pieces and then as you have that corner piece, the middle starts becoming easier to digest. I think that exposure to that process was incredible to me since a lot of my expertise before that was on plastic. And plastic is so much different. It's like a human is setting the climb for you. And sure, it may not be possible because of some space between holds that's not thought out so well. But generally, I was competing against other people and seeing them progress. So now being in this state where it was me and the wall, that's what started captivating me more about outdoor climbing than indoor climbing. It was like, if it's to be, it's up to me. And I liked that process.

    Elizabeth Stein 8:33
    Oh, I mean, the amount of mental preparation that goes into that, I'd love to get in. But maybe before getting there so much climbing. As I started I was like, this seems so scary to me. It's giving me anxiety is getting over that fear. Would you say that as a kid you were fearless always? Was this something that grew as you started climbing? Where did that come from?

    Sasha DiGiulian 9:08
    That's a great question. Climbing and heights never really seem to bother me so much. I do get fearful still of exposure and feeling very alone on the wall when I'm high above my belayer and there's maybe like a vast mountainscape below me where I feel like the extremities like the wind and just irrational fear can creep in, like if I fall. 99% of the time, I fall when I'm climbing and that's debunking a common myth of the safety parameters within climbing. If you're operating your gear and you know how to trust it, it is a very safe sport in practice. It's inherently risky and there's human error and rockfall as well. But as a kid, I grew up on a climbing team of kids older than me, I was the youngest one. And my friends were like 12 to 16 when I was 9. I feel like that was motivating to me since I was always the youngest, and the one that needed to improve to reach their level. So I was just always trying to get there and thinking about my aspirations there versus what could maybe hold me back. So I think, as a kid, maybe climbing was a natural fit.

    Elizabeth Stein 10:39
    And how about from your parent's perspective? Because you have to have, I would think, so much confidence that plays so much into being fearless. So how do they play into your level of confidence at a young age?

    Sasha DiGiulian 10:57
    My parents were very trusting of me going climbing with my mom, more so than my dad, which is maybe surprising because they didn't have any background in climbing. My mom took it as a goal of hers to learn about climbing. She, when I was seven, learned how to belay me. And she would come to the gym from when I was seven, till even today. Not as often as today, but it would come and be at the gym or be outside and be belaying and supporting me. She took it upon herself to learn about the safety precautions and all of the steps involved with how to make climbing as safe as possible. So that level of involvement with my mom fostered this really fun connection and thing that we got to share. She was at every single competition driving me up and down the East Coast of the US regional events, to then flying around the world and coming to the World Championships that I won and stuff like that. But my dad, I think he struggled more with it. In the book, I do go through this tense relationship that I went through with him not understanding my sport and not taking it upon himself as much to understand it. I think that that was like an underlying tension that fueled me because he was a businessman. He saw success as very monetary-oriented. So going into this sport that didn't have a background of that, I think that it did influence my approach. And like me coming from a family that stressed academics, like I needed to get straight A's and go to an Ivy League school and all of these kinds of expectations that I just took as par for the course, as long as I could go climbing. It influenced the way that I approached even building my career within it.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:01
    Yeah, I've loved reading your book, by the way. I think it's so inspiring. And I cried yesterday on the plane reading some parts of it. But I found that so fascinating hearing about your journey of, as you were just saying, like you went to school, you were doing both school and climbing and traveling around the world. At such a young age having these experiences, you mentioned climbing a Hotel Casino in Japan, I think it was having sushi at the top, pretty amazing. But how was that for you just as a teen and managing that mental side? I'd love to get into what that looks like because there's the mental side of getting onto the mountain or the wall and then just the mental side of everything else going on and being an 18-19-year-old, experiencing all of this.

    Sasha DiGiulian 14:04
    The mental side is something that hit me later in life. When I started climbing as a young kid, everything was fine. The pressure was not something that I felt. Then as I had early success, I had my first Junior continental championship victory at 11, my first sponsorship deal at 12.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:26
    And at that time, were you just taking that in stride and not thinking anything of it? Was that amazing? Like what was that?

    Sasha DiGiulian 14:33
    It was a validating factor to my family that climbing could be a real sport, except for my family not having a background in climbing and it was like, look, I can be a professional too. And granted that 12, I'm just getting free things. Like I'm not making a living from this sport yet. But as things just started to trickle in and grow from there, pressure did too. When I was 18, my career was paralleling the dawn of social media. That was being exposed to trolls and internet forums and people attributing your success to other factors. As a teenage girl, that was hard to navigate and something that I was almost maturing and making mistakes and learning within the judgment of a large set of people that I'd never meet. I think that a lot of the early-day criticism, I internalized a lot. There was criticism over my weight. And that even broadcasted over forums. That was in competition climbing. There's an unfortunate tie to disordered eating that I went through too. Then it catalyzed my interest in learning more about nutrition to get out of that toxic cycle. But it was hard mentally. Because I think at that time, the comparative culture wasn't as strong because people were all new to social media. It wasn't yet these curated versions of people that you're just exposed to daily. But there was definitely like reading, “Oh, yeah, Sasha did that climb because she's so late.” Or “I could do that, too, if I didn't get my period”, and stuff like that. These mean comments, even from fellow colleagues within the sport, who are individuals that I looked up to. So, I think that navigating, especially since there's a strong bro culture within climbing too, and having early success, but then having people see that as a negative was something that I learned early on that I needed to have a very callous skin to navigate.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:04
    Yeah, that must have been so difficult, especially hearing from people from colleagues and people in the community that you knew. Certainly, the climate is different than when you were first there with social media, but what tips do you have or what were some of those things that helped you to get out of that headspace and deal with what you were having to deal with time?

    Sasha DiGiulian 17:29
    The number one tip would be to surround yourself with people that you allow opinions to matter. Because that was something that I was told probably in my mid-20s, was this concept of allowing to matter, versus we're all gonna be exposed to people that emit positive energy, and then people that emit negative, toxic energies. You can't necessarily like be a hermit and not have those people in your life that you'll run into or see at events. But I think that's even the point at which I started differentiating friendship from acquaintance to colleague. And there can almost be this idea that climbing and outdoor sports, in general, are like this kumbaya culture where everyone supports and is friends. That's not what my experience has been at all. And I think that in any competitive realm, that's not going to be the case. Accepting that and realizing that I had the power to choose who affected me. And that's just like, an ongoing thing, too. It's, I struggle still a lot with negative criticism and, and seeing or hearing about rumors like, man, that's so not based in fact, I wish I could meet this person and tell them but it's just going to be impossible to meet everyone that has an opinion about you and consider it in different ways.

    Elizabeth Stein 19:09
    Yeah. I think also, it's just one of those things that as you get older, I was just reading something about just not caring what anyone thinks about you. And that's just something that happens naturally that you start to be like, I just don't care anymore. Like you can say anything and it's no sweat off my back. So, it's a good thing to work on before getting older, but something that also comes with age.

    Sasha DiGiulian 19:33
    It totally does. I feel like as I got older and continued to just learn and mature, the close friend numbers may go down but those roots get deeper. I think that through the challenging times because I've had my fair share of peaks but also my fair share of extreme valleys, it's like you learn about the core of who people are through those times and who's a loyal friend and who will stand up for you. Because that's a really important virtue to me.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:11
    Absolutely. So talking about the other side of mental health, and how that helps to drive performance for you, I'd love to hear some of that mental preparation, like what you do before and on and how you stay so present. How do you get through the night before a big climb? Or any sort of insights into what that looks like?

    Sasha DiGiulian 20:44
    Yeah, for my mental state, I practice visualization a lot. When I'm working on a climb, often, if it's a challenging climb that I haven't put together yet, then I'll use visualization as a tool to bring myself to that place, close my eyes, and envision what that act of actual climbing is like, and solving patterns within my mind at these different sequences that I haven't yet done with my physical body.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:17
    If you're doing that for a first ascent that you've never done, have you gone to that mountain and look to see where your pattern is going to be? Or what does that look like?

    Sasha DiGiulian 21:32
    Yeah, that's something that I haven't done and that's a really common thing like, I'll prepare for an expedition. And maybe it's six months out. I'm training and making this whole plan, but I've never even tried it. Then I'm more visualizing the act of climbing or just imagining a situation that would be hard for me, and how would I confront it. But I think that in that practice, it's a little bit more challenging for sure. Breathwork is something that I practice a lot. Staying calm under pressure is important in climbing because you'll be climbing and all of a sudden, if your head goes to a fear scenario, then it's about like, how do you bring your mind back to being present? And working on that present state can be challenging too especially in even in today's day and age. Everything moves so fast, and we're constantly multitasking. But on the wall, I feel like things are the quietest for me. That's why I love it so much. It’s really hard for me to concentrate on different aspects of life because I'm full of distractions.

    Elizabeth Stein 22:48
    You're like all of us.

    Sasha DiGiulian 22:51
    Yeah. On the wall, you can't be texting while going off base. But I did learn some of the Wim Hof techniques through Red Bull high performance camp. And that was cool to me. Like even controlling your body temperature and in cold conditions through breath work. That's something that I'll practice. I guess the third pillar would be like that positive mindset attitude of the I Can versus I can't or negative self-talk. That's been something that is a constant practice, where I find like, I'll get injured, and then all of a sudden be telling myself all these mean things, and have to bring myself out of that negative self-talk and start thinking what can I control? Where am I at home? If I'm not in a good state, because I just came back from time off, and I feel like I suck or whatever. Being like this is the state that I'm in now. But I'm going to put in the hours and train and work towards changing that because we're constantly fluid.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:03
    Do you have any specific things that you do to get out of that negative self-talk and back into a positive mindset? Do you journal? What practices do you do?

    Sasha DiGiulian 24:16
    I journal a lot. That was a big reason that I wanted to write a book because writing has always been my way of processing my feelings. It is what I went on to study at Columbia. It was creative nonfiction writing, but baths are really big for me. I have like an extreme addiction to doing emails and looking at my phone. So unplugging is something that I have to do and it's so simple and shouldn't be challenging at all, but I struggle with it. So even just plugging my phone in a different room when I go to bed and reading a physical book or a physical magazine has helped me with sleeping better. But I worked with the sleep doctor on a panel for South by Southwest a couple of years ago. It was interesting to learn from him that when we have a stressful day, the next day, like if I'm going to a big climb, it's nerve-wracking accepting that you probably won't sleep your best that night. But recognizing that sleep is a pattern over time, so getting a good night's sleep during the week preceding that event, and then accepting that you're going to be restless the day before that big moment, was informative to me and helped me relax a little bit more the night off because all of this doesn't fall on this one night. It's the practice that I've done over time to prepare.

    Elizabeth Stein 25:53
    And that's a great tip for everyone. I think even just small things like you can never sleep well the night before you're traveling the next day. It's like you're putting so much pressure that you need to get a good night's sleep. And just to remember that, as you said, it's the pattern of that sequence. So hearing that also makes me think a little bit about reading one of your stories in the book about the biggest ascent that you did that took a month. Maybe it was on your Instagram, not on your book, but I was really surprised to hear that it takes or can take that long. And it's such a long journey. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about what that looks like. Just like some of the practicality of sleeping and eating and going to the bathroom.

    Sasha DiGiulian 26:35
    Yeah, those are really common questions. Most recently this last fall was to Picos de Europa in Spain, and I led an all-female expedition to go and try what would then become the hardest route climbed by a team of woman. We were there for almost a month. It's because individual parts of a big wall climb. A big wall climb is made up of a compilation of single-pitch climbs. And the way that you can think about it is that a single pitch climb is a rope-length climb, and your rope is generally gonna bring you to 100-foot sections of a wall. If you build a 100 section, to a 100, to a 100 section, then all of a sudden, you're tackling a 2000 or 3000-foot climb over either one day or several days. And what determines that is the difficulty of that climb. In climbing, we have a grade scale of, 5.0 to 5.15. And as you get closer to that higher end of 51.4 to 5.15, a lot of the sequences take time to really figure out and put together both physically and mentally, how you can climb at clean. Climb at clean means essentially, going from the bottom of the climb to the top without falling. And every time you fall, you have to go back to the beginning and start again. That's why the time starts adding up because you could be sending, and sending in climbing means doing something without falling, doing your most optimal way. And your foot slips and you're 2000 feet up, and then you have to go back to the beginning and start climbing again. Over that month before it, what I like is that organization that goes into, we're going to be hiking into this valley and we're going to be camping for a month, we need to plan all of our meals like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And we need to have all of our gear and everything comes down to a very granular level. Because what you have is what you have. You start with your gear because that's your safety. And then meal planning is something that we’ll often use. We'll use freeze-dried meals for dinner.

    I'm really into health and nutrition and learning about food brands like Liyo which is a female-founded brand in Europe that has owned the production line and it's actually like good food for you. I try, and in my daily life, to avoid refined sugar and too many added preservatives, natural flavorings, and stuff like that. Just learning about what's on the market, is why I started my bar company, Sendbars before that, I was always making my bars in my blender even back in college in my freshman dorm, throwing together dates and nuts and vegetable powders because everything that I tasted on the, if it was healthy, it tasted like paint. And if it was tasty, it was full of sugar, syrups, and chemicals. And then I guess for going to the bathroom, if you're on the wall and you're a female, it's a little bit harder. And then a male but you're essentially just like pulling your harness down and your pants and hanging off the side of a cliff and letting it go while staying tied in. But it's number two, you're normally going into a bag, and then putting that into like a poop tube, which is essentially desensitized. You can't smell out of it, it keeps all the scents. People do sometimes use kitty litter to help sock in the sand and maybe close it off. That's just really to echo that belief of Leave No Trace, so not leaving waste if you're camping. It's a similar mentality there. Sleeping on the wall, normally, you're setting up what's called a technical hammock. It's Portal Edge. You set it up on the side of the cliff. And it's like a low cost that you're sleeping on and living on.

    Elizabeth Stein 31:01
    And how was your sleep during that?

    Sasha DiGiulian 31:03
    Sometimes you're just so exhausted, that you sleep decently. Some of my best nights of sleep in Madagascar, when I went on an expedition there, it'd be dark at 5 p.m. There is no cell service. There's nothing and then the sun would rise at 8 am. You're like there's nothing else to do. Then maybe play cards, eat and go to sleep. But then I have had horrible experiences on portal edges. I was on this trip in Brazil, with a climbing partner and friend who's on the Red Bull team. We were climbing this region that never gets rain. We're trying to do a first ascent there. And the two nights that were on the wall, it just had torrential downpours. We didn't bring a cover or anything, because we're like, oh, it's like the desert. It never rains. And those feelings of just giving into the reality, I was just in my sleeping bag just getting poured on. There's nothing to do, but just be a puddle. So, those nights are not ideal.

    Elizabeth Stein 32:16
    Yeah, that sounds like an experience to never forget.

    Sasha DiGiulian 32:21
    Yeah, it's true. I remember that and various other nights.

    Elizabeth Stein 32:27
    Yeah, that's a good segue into, as you think about you've had so many incredible accomplishments in your career and firsts and wins. I'm sure it's changed over the years, but how do you manage through enjoying the journey and the steps getting there and not being like, here's a win? And at first, that's super exciting. And then is it not as exciting along the way? Because you've had so many of those accomplishments? Or how do you feel about those moments?

    Sasha DiGiulian 33:03
    Yeah, I think that the moments that are the most moving to me are the ones that I've struggled the most to achieve. When I was competing, and on the tail end of competing, I felt more pressure to win, than I did to enjoy. That was something that I had to overcome. This expectation and second place were so scary to me. And it was a total failure. And failure is so much a part of life. But when you're so scared to fail, it can be so crippling. That was something that I had to embrace and overcome, just being okay with showing up and finding out where I was at. My mentality when I was competing was always to train so hard and be at the level that even on a bad day, I could still come home with a victory. But that's also not a sustainable approach, nor is it always going to be the way that reality ends up shaking out. I have had climes where I've failed. It's gut-wrenching to be like, I just couldn't do this trip. But then I've also had trips where I've returned and then done the climb much easier. And it's just like having that mentality of almost letting go and being okay, in that moment of failure when I have experienced success, too. It's that balance of caring, but also letting go of not caring so much where sometimes that magic state happens.

    Elizabeth Stein 34:57
    Do you have any tips for getting into that space where you can allow failure? Because I think that that's such an important point, that's what gets us out of our comfort zones. Like anything in life is letting yourself accept that you can fail and go after whatever that thing is in your life that you're desiring. But oftentimes, or most of the time, that's what stops us is that we have this fear of failure, either internally or ext

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