Here to Climb — Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg | In Review Online (2024)

Here to Climb — Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg | In Review Online (1)

Credit: Alex Grymanis/Courtesy HBO

American rock climbing has come a long way from its dirtbag origins in the ’70s and ’80s, and not just because it’s now an Olympic sport. What once started as a hobby for van-living hippies is now the playground of tech bros in high-end gyms, and the era of sheepishly downplaying mega ascents has been replaced by the pervasive presence of social media. No professional climber embodies this reality — and feels the tension of this thoroughly modern dynamic — more acutely than Sasha DiGiulian, the 31-year old pro who stars in HBO’s newest documentary, Here to Climb.

In a lot of ways, DiGiulian is the sport’s Taylor Swift. Both are talented and conventionally attractive in a way that invites misogyny and cyberbullying: DiGiulian discusses but doesn’t dwell on an Instagram troll who bullied and fat-shamed her for almost a decade. Likewise, Swift’s every move seems to provoke the wrath of haters ranging from Ye to 4chan bottom-feeders. Both are also extremely savvy business women; DiGiulian recalls writing a values statement for potential sponsors and brand partners at age 16, while Swift famously handled a dispute over ownership of her master recordings by re-releasing multiple albums, effectively rendering the originals — and their streaming royalties — worthless. Lastly, both women are preternaturally attuned to the ways in which social media can not only shape but actually create an identity.

None of this should do anything to diminish DiGiulian’s (or, for that matter, Swift’s) accomplishments, which include dozens of first ascents, three national championships, and multiple podium placements at international competitions. A professional athlete since grade school who spent most of her life ticking off increasingly mega routes, DiGiulian has rightly earned her spot among a rarefied group of elite female big wall climbers. In this sense, she’s following the path first forged by her mentor and friend Lynn Hill, the hugely influential climber who made her name in the ‘80s by, among other feats, being the first person ever — male or female — to scale the 3,000 foot face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without aid (i.e. no ladders or skyhooks, just brute strength and gear). Yet DiGiulian’s ability to expertly play the sport within the sport — signing brand partners, leveraging social media, and engaging in publicity gimmicks such as climbing in lingerie for an ad campaign with Agent Provocateur — is entirely her own.

While Here to Climb is focused on DiGiulian’s career, directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg also highlight her relationships with women like Hill, Angela VanWiemeersch, and Vian Charbonneau. In a way, these close friendships are surprising given one of DiGiulian’s own statements part way through the doc: “You have to be selfish.” This sentiment seems to fly in the face of climbing’s convivial, community-driven attitude, where crews spend as much time hanging out as they do trying hard. But DiGiulian’s laser focus on solo achievements, which makes sense for comps, doesn’t necessarily translate to the tight-knit group setting of expeditions, where a lack of mutual trust or effective communication can have fatal consequences.

At one point, VanWiemeersch muses that Sasha finds self-worth in setting and meeting increasingly intense goals, such as being the first female to send The Trilogy, three of Canada’s biggest and toughest walls, in a single season. Many athletes at all levels of ability have a hard time separating their identity from their performance, so VanWiemeersch’s observation isn’t surprising. But it can seem as though DiGiulian leans into this equation with an openness bordering on defiance, an approach that makes sense when dealing with bullies but not so much with friends. In 2019, she and VanWiemeersch set off to tackle the iconic volcanic plug Pico Cão Grande on Africa’s São Tome Island. Despite days of driving rain, which significantly increases the chances of falling rock, DiGiulian urged her team to pursue the route. At one point, a TV-sized rock crumbled off the face and narrowly missed their photographer, a terrifying moment that was captured on GoPro.

Despite the clear risk and VanWiemeersch’s obvious discomfort, having lost her partner in a climbing accident, DiGiulian appears to call off the expedition only after posting the GoPro footage on Instagram. It’s hard to know what to make of this. Did she post the footage to highlight her sport’s inherent risks, gain clout, solicit advice, or simply because that’s what people do now, regardless of circ*mstance or optics? Had the comments urged boldness instead of caution, would that have outweighed DiGiulian’s instincts and her friend’s unease?

It’s an interesting moment that vividly speaks to the risks of being a public figure immersed in such a high-stakes culture. It also nods to the unspoken dynamic between athlete and sponsor (though DiGiulian notes that this particular expedition was self-funded.) When a person’s livelihood requires — and rewards — time spent at the “ragged edge of insanity,” the upshot is a loop of increasingly outlandish expeditions that feed the public’s growing appetite for exhilarating content, which then feeds into the next outlandish expedition (for a more recent example, see Janja Garnbret and Domen Škofic’s 2020 ascent of a 1,180-foot abandoned concrete chimney in Slovenia — a ridiculous, undeniably badass feat that was funded by Red Bull.) Hill contrasts this content feeding frenzy with her own career, when her accomplishments spread through word of mouth or niche magazines. Back then, even the most elite athletes prized humbleness and discretion. Nowadays, DiGiulian’s many achievements, coupled with her knack for self-promotion, seem to spur a backlash not unlike those experienced by mainstream influencers.

Having to bail on Pico Cão Grande left DiGiulian somewhat adrift, but it wasn’t long before she set her sights on her next big wall project: the 2,800-foot Logical Progression in Chihuahua, Mexico. This trip, initially planned for 2020, was stymied by a personal health crisis (in addition to a global pandemic): a diagnosis of chronic hip dysplasia that required five hip reconstruction surgeries over the course of over a year. Much ofHere to Climb, then, focuses on her arduous recovery and training, while briefly discussing her history with eating disorders and malnutrition. The filmmakers also memorialize DiGiulian’s friend Nolan Smythe, who was in Mexico prepping for the trip and died in a freak accident. He’d done nothing wrong (the ledge he was on broke), yet paid with his life, a sobering reminder of how randomly cruel the sport can be, and how lucky DiGiulian and VanWiemeersch were in São Tome. This portion hits familiar triumph-over-adversity beats, but DiGiulian’s candid reflections of her own mental state during this precarious time are among the film’s most interesting and vulnerable scenes. And just three months after her final surgery, she and climbing partner Vian Charbonneau sent the full route, proving that sometimes the edge of insanity is actually the sanest place to be.

DIRECTOR:Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg;DISTRIBUTOR:Max;STREAMING:June 18;RUNTIME:1 hr. 19 min.

2024 FilmAnnie SundbergMaxRicki Stern

Here to Climb — Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg | In Review Online (2024)


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