American climber Sasha DiGiulian has made a career of overcoming the odds and she made history again when she was joined by Matilda Söderlund and Brette Harrington to become the first all-female team to scale the imposing Rayu 5.14b big wall route in Picos de Europa, Spain.
In 2010, aged just 17, DiGiulian won her first National Sport Climbing Championships against women of all ages, won the World Championship title a year later and now has more than 30 first female ascents to her name.
Established by Iker Pou, Eneko Pou and Kico Cerdá over five weeks in 2020, Rayu ascends the south face of Peña Santa de Castilla via a continuously steepening, heady trad line with spaced bolts.
DiGiulian asked Söderlund to be her team-mate because of their long-term friendship and her ability to scale 5.14 routes with ease as the Swede climbed 9a (5.14d) and bouldered 8b (V13) too.
This is Harrington’s and DiGiulian’s second international trip; this past winter, they travelled to Makatea, French Polynesia, to film an episode in DiGiulian’s new vlog series for Red Bull TV.
Thirty-year-old American Harrington’s career includes free soloing the 5.11a Chiaro di Luna on Aguja Saint-Exupery in Patagonia and sending a 5.13+ trad route in her Californian Lake Tahoe base.
The first half of the spectacular route is in the 5.12 range (6c), which leads to a spacious yet sharp and sloping ledge, which is where DiGiulian and her team spent the night.
DiGiulian declared: “Big wall free climbing is a reminder of what humans are capable of. That’s what we do, and that’s what we came here for. It’s that feeling of digging deep and succeeding on something you didn’t think was possible.”
The crux 8c section comes three rope lengths above the ledge followed by two more technical pitches and, from there, 60, of technical scrambling leads to the summit where the Atlantic Ocean is visible.
Soon after DiGiulian and Söderlund redpointed the route on September 12, all three climbers went back up the route to give support to Harrington so she could successfully do the crux pitch.
They supported Harrington from September 16 to the trip’s end on September 22, but by then, she had still not managed to redpoint the 8c – which would have marked her first 5.14.
DiGiulian revealed: “There was nothing I wanted more than Brette to do the 8c. We sent the climb; Brette just didn’t send the 8c. She gave it more than a dozen tries and fell in the same place each time.”
Despite that, Harrington led up many of the 13 pitches where she fiddled in small wires, set Totem cams, braved no-fall terrain and showed key gear placements so they could swap leads on the next round.
Adding to the difficulty of the terrain, the rock was so sharp that it bloodied every one of their fingertips, so they wrapped them in tape to help prevent further cuts.
Weather also proved challenging as Harrington explained: “The storms were all over the place. A massive hurricane hit off the coast of Portugal. Some days fog rolled in, other days it was raining, and there were thunderstorms. Here we have big lightning storms called ‘chubasco’.”
Söderlund, 30, added: “It was impressive to learn how to navigate the adventurous trad pitches as a team. I accidentally dislodged a block that came down and almost hit Sasha.
Other parts of the route are loose, too. There are no fall zones on every pitch, and the cracks have knobs and barnacles, making gear placements tricky.
Luckily, we didn’t have any scary falls. We’re already talking about another project together. We complement each other’s climbing styles really well.”
Discover more about their Rayu route adventure HERE