Ashima Shiraishi

The Biggest Thing in Climbing Is a 14-Year-Old, 90-Pound Girl from New York City

Features By Photo by Sung Han
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W
hat you tend to notice first about Ashima Shiraishi is that she’s easy to miss. At five foot one, 90 pounds, she can get swallowed by a crowd. I kept losing and finding her again, my eyes scanning the soaring walls of a climbing gym in Queens, New York, where Ashima trains, and where a hundred or so chalk-dusted people were grunting in harnesses and Lycra on a recent Friday night.

A good place to look for her was the 5.13a route, a zig-zagging 40-footer with a gnarly overhang about midway up, by far the hardest climb in the gym: you’re horizontal for a quarter of it, the ground a microsecond plunge away, and then have to pivot midair and swing yourself vertical again, up-and-over the lip, before finishing an ambling line to the top. It’s the kind of route that few climbers can do, as it requires intricate footwork and balance and insane finger-strength on unimaginably thin holds, and probably more so than that, an almost irrational degree of faith. Some rock climbers try their entire lives to “send” a 5.13a. Ashima, who at age 14 is one of the best climbers alive, first conquered it when she was seven.

Nobody else was touching the route when I found her there, staring up at the pylon-orange walls. Friday was a “soft” training day for Ashima — she had a competition on Saturday (the ABS Youth Regional Championship, which she won) — and was here mostly to stay loose. With her dad, Poppo, belaying, Ashima squirreled right up the 5.13a. I timed her on my phone: it took 3 minutes. The climb didn’t appear to tax her in a respiratory sense — I don’t think she even opened her mouth except to chomp a rope while clipping-in — and she wasn’t up there long enough to break a sweat. A crowd gathered; camera phones came out. When I asked a woman among the photo-takers if she’d ever attempted the route, she looked at me sideways, a hand covering her mouth. “Of course not,” she snorted.

Something else you notice right away about Ashima Shiraishi is her wingspan. A person’s “ape index” is their arm length relative to their height. Olympic swimmers and pro basketball players tend to have high ape indexes, i.e., arms longer than they are tall. Michael Phelps has an ape index of 1.06; Rajon Rondo’s is 1.11. Ashima’s ape index is similarly advantageous. When one of her arms swung free on the climb, it had a Mr. Fantastic kind of elasticity to it — not freakish but borderline, somewhere between a ballerina and a longshoreman.

After rappelling down from the 5.13a, she climbed it again from another angle — two minutes, 51 seconds — before making her way to the bouldering walls, where some brawny guys in tank tops were struggling on a v11 roof problem a few feet above the ground. They kept falling, thwacking the mattresses and huffing off. Ashima waited her turn, then made quick work of the v11, sailing diagonally under it and then tacking into the air. For a moment, it seemed that gravity was another phenomenon altogether when applied to her. Cresting the top, she leaned back and looked toward the ceiling, as if wondering how much farther she could climb.

At just 14, Ashima has spent more than half of her life climbing, much of that at the sport’s highest level, and she seems to already be running out of challenges.

She intends to become the first female to send a v15, the second-highest-graded bouldering problem, but is still searching for the right route.

Last year, in Santa Linya, Spain, she became the first female — and the youngest person ever — to send a 5.15a, a famously difficult, 131-foot route called “Open Your Mind Direct,” which had been climbed by only a few of the sport’s top men. The year before, she became the youngest person to climb a v14 problem — a slab of 45-degree-angled granite called “Golden Shadow” in Rocklands, South Africa — and before that, at age 11, she sent the 5.14c “Southern Smoke” in Red River Gorge, Kentucky, again becoming the youngest ever to tick that grade. This year she won double gold at the IFSC World Youth Championships in Arco, Italy, in both bouldering and lead climbing, another first. And she intends to become the first female to send a v15, the second-highest-graded bouldering problem, but is still searching for the right route.

When I asked Ashima to explain what made her so good compared to others, she was at a loss. We were sitting on blue mats beneath a wall shaped like a ship’s prow with climbers hooked into it. She thought about it for a long time, then said, “I guess because I have strong fingers?”

Alex Honnold, arguably the world’s best soloist free climber, who knocked-off El Capitan in a quick 2:23:51, concurred. “Strong fingers is her gift,” he said. “Beyond that, she’s just worked super hard. She’s devoted her whole life to focused, specific training, both psychical and mental. So now she’s one of the strongest climbers in the world.”

Poppo’s take was that his daughter has an unusually high climbing IQ, meaning she’s able to find solutions to problems that others simply can’t. And, he said, stretching his arms out wide, “She’s long.”

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After a while, Ashima took another stab at it. “Because my dad was a dancer [of an avant-garde Japanese form called butoh], I feel like I have movement in my blood, and movement is a huge part of climbing. My dad says climbing is like dancing on the wall.” She searched the climbing walls behind us. “If you notice the beginners, they’re fidgety. They don’t glide. The more experienced climbers, they look like they’re floating.”

None of which answered my question, though my question was probably unanswerable. For whatever reason, Ashima Shiraishi, within a shockingly short window, has established herself as sport climbing’s most transcendental practitioner.

It’s worth considering for a moment that climbing is not a sport like Little League is a sport, or bowling, or tennis, or even muay thai, with all their attendant cultural and institutional scaffolding and recompense. To climb is to be alone, utterly alone, both professionally and psychically. You are a speck on a rock, with some very expensive nylon ropes and carabiners and a lonely, indistinct path to the summit. Only occasionally does anyone pay attention, let alone foot the bill.

But climbing is also form, and freedom, and taking flight, and heeling-in on the varnished red cliffs of some outer-edge desert with a misty, bird’s-eye view only the best have earned. Ashima intuited this years ago, when she and Poppo stumbled upon “Rat Rock,” a popular bouldering spot in Central Park, when she was just turning six. There was scant looking back, zero hesitation. She entered her first climbing competition that spring, and two years later sent a v10 bouldering problem in Hueco Tanks, Texas, called “Power of Silence.” The sponsors came knocking.

“I was surprised,” she told me, a sprinkling of chalk on her forehead, the skin of her fingers cracked and furrowed. “I was just doing it for fun, and all of a sudden people wanted to give me money to do trips. I was like, wait, this is crazy.”

What’s additionally crazy is that from the start Ashima has handled all of her PR herself — Poppo’s English is shaky and her mother speaks none at all — essentially acting as her own press agent while dealing with three or more hours of nightly homework (she attends a Waldorf school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan) and fulfilling roles as trainer (she’s at the gym five days a week for three to four hours), personal secretary, intern and life coach (Poppo is with her on all of her trips, mostly as a belayer, though he pitches in on strategy).

Which is a lot, it turns out, for a 14-year-old. “I get stressed out all the time,” she said. “I’m scared of failing. Not falling, failing. But when I’m in the zone, I’m in a whole different world up there. I wouldn’t say it’s nirvana, exactly. It’s not comfy, but I feel happy because I’m focused, and when I succeed — as I expect myself to do — I feel so much better.”

Sport climbing will likely be included in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan, when Ashima will be 19. It’s probably a safe bet that she’ll be there. Meanwhile, the interstices of rock and wall will continue to tug at her. If she gets her way, more women will follow.

“Climbing has so many talented women,” she said. “My dream is we’ll be able to push it ahead instead of the men. Most sports, the men lead the way. But with climbing, who knows, maybe women will be leading?”

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