14-year-old Ashima Shiraishi is already one of the most talented climbers in the world -- but can she reach the height of her father's ambition?
Photography by Andrew Cutraro
Look for this story in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 7 issue. Subscribe today!
ne afternoon this past spring, Ashima Shiraishi waits on the crash pads of a climbing gym in Long Island City, New York, while a sinewy guy with a power drill and paint bucket full of plastic holds finishes setting routes. Ashima is 14 and in ninth grade. Beside her stands her father, Poppo Shiraishi, who is 65 and defines himself as "Ashima's baby sitter," and who sports spiked, peroxide-blond hair.
Together Ashima and Poppo scrutinize the walls, pantomiming climbing moves with their hands, speaking to each other in Japanese. The whole spectacle is calm, gentle and vaguely conspiratorial -- until Ashima ties on her climbing shoes, spiders 10 feet off the ground, sways her body left to right to gain momentum and hucks herself through the air. The launch is disorienting, like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel or a toddler explaining string theory -- a clear breach of natural laws. And then, with just three fingers on her left hand, Ashima catches herself on a hold. "Ashima very strong mental," Poppo says in his not-quite-fluent English. He taps his forehead. "This part very strong. Third eye."
Ashima should have been at her Waldorf school on Manhattan's Upper East Side this afternoon, preparing with her classmates for an orchestra concert. But because she could not miss the TEDxTeen gala she'd been invited to at 5:30 that evening, nor, certainly, a day of training, she is here.
After more vaulting leaps from one hold to the next, moves known as dynos, Ashima switches to a bouldering route labeled v9.* It looks like trying to climb the inner slope of a weather-pocked McDonald's arch. Next she tries a route labeled v10 -- same arch, newer -- but keeps falling while trying to launch off a minuscule crimper about two-thirds of the way up.
On the ground, she and Poppo resume their gestural deliberations, studying the subtleties of the v10, slightly confused. At 5-foot-1, 100 pounds, Ashima is the best teenage climber in the world, male or female. Some consider her the best female climber in the world regardless of age. She won the American Bouldering Series Youth National Championship every year from 2010 to 2014. This year she also won the IFSC World Youth Championships, for athletes 13 to 19, in both lead climbing and bouldering. Many think she's on track to become the best climber in the world, full stop.
The tattooed route setter, the one with the distinctly non-metaphysical tools -- ladder, bucket, drill -- approaches the wall. "Do you think it needs a right foot?" he asks, deferring to the 14-year-old's expertise and his sense that if he created a v10 and Ashima couldn't do it, something would be wrong with the route, not her. Poppo watches, arms folded across his chest. The setter scurries up the ladder and bolts a new small, red hold in the problematic place. Ashima dips her hand into her chalk bag and blows the excess dust off her red-polished fingertips. Within three minutes, she has dispatched the route.
After the pesky v10, Ashima moves over to a cavelike box the size and shape of a Mini Cooper garage to practice climbing upside down. Then she knocks off a few monos (pullups with one finger on each hand) and rides the subway home with Poppo to dress for the gala. At the event, she meets me at the door in a tasteful black minidress. Together, as we push through the crowd looking for a juice -- Ashima doesn't drink soda -- she turns to me and says, "Did my father say anything embarrassing?"
POPPO IS ASHIMA'S coach, mentor and near constant companion. He doesn't climb and never has. Instead, he trains his daughter by applying the techniques he learned as an avant-garde dancer in a Japanese discipline called butoh, an ascetic art form developed after WWII. Poppo quit dancing when Ashima was born and has continued to dedicate his life to her because, he says, "Ashima possibility more big than me." Among the lessons he now brings to Ashima's climbing: An empty mind is the most useful tool in sports, and once an artist or athlete starts a project, he or she can never give up. "If escape, forever you can't forget. Forever escape," Poppo tells me. "Try, try, try -- good. Escape, no forget -- very bad. Forever mental go down."
Poppo has some pretty out-there plans for his daughter. "Ashima is a girl with great talent and skill," he says. "For example, the Beatles in 1960, they made it big, influencing people all around the world. Ashima also in that manner." The basic ambition -- delusion? -- here is that Ashima will become a mass-market athletic pixie, like, say, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas or McKayla Maroney, she of the meme-able eye roll.
The Beatles in 1960, they made it big, influencing people all around the world. Ashima also in that manner.
- Ashima's father, Poppo
But achieving broad celebrity will be quite a trick. Unlike gymnastics, climbing is not yet an Olympic event (though it's on a short list to be potentially included in Tokyo in 2020), so how is Ashima going to stage a breakout? More problematic: Climbing is a horrendous spectator sport. Nick Rosen, writer and producer at Sender Films, one of the few viable climbing production companies in the world, gets so bored on his own shoots that he starts playing ukulele.
Still, Poppo is optimistic. About 60 new climbing gyms will open in the United States in 2015, and they do a brisk birthday party business -- great for expanding the market base. Plus, Ashima, you should see her: straight bangs framing sparkly, intelligent eyes, perfect ponytail (which Poppo secures for her with two elastics each day before she climbs). In many ways, Ashima is the ideal right-now girl sports hero: a cute, strong killer -- a young female athlete who might one day beat all the men.
It's a lot of pressure on a young kid -- all the more because Ashima handles her own media. Her mother, Tsuya, who until recently supported the family by working at Mikimoto, a Fifth Avenue Japanese jewelry store, speaks less English than Poppo. But what Ashima herself wants is anybody's guess. My notes of our time together are filled with quotes like "Yeah" and "I guess." And even if she did talk more, she's a very loyal daughter, disciplined with reporters, allowing Poppo to call her life's plays right now.
Where Ashima opens up is, predictably, on Instagram, with her 48,700 followers. "Wooooooowwwwwww!!!! Thank you @Time for having me on the list as one of the 30 Most Influential Teens of 2015!!!!" she posted on Oct. 30. And a weeklier: "Defended my title at the #BrooklynBeatdown @BrooklynBoulders. This year I was able to do all the hardest climbs they set and I got the highest score on the whole competition (beat the guys)!!!!"
Ashima with her parents, Poppo and Tsuya, headed to Minnewaska State Park Preserve in upstate New York. Christaan Felber for ESPN
WHEN ASHIMA WAS 2, Poppo starting taking her to New York City's Central Park every day, acting on his belief in the importance of nature, trailing his toddling daughter as she explored. When Ashima was 6, she discovered Rat Rock, a huge round boulder not far from the Central Park Zoo. She slid down a smooth crease in the top. Then she noticed people climbing up a steep section of it and decided to try that too. Within three months, she was climbing v9 -- serious prodigy territory.
Poppo started training Ashima in the butoh ways, teaching her Zen basics like "one second, one second, just breathe" and to focus on what he called her "small universe," otherwise known as your core. By age 8, Ashima could flag-pole, or hold her body perpendicular to a rock wall. (Please pause here to consider how insane this is.) The media ate her up. In 2009, New York Magazine ran a profile. In 2012, the New York Times sports section followed. Copies of those stories still hang in her house.
Most of the time, such outsized parental effort ends in heartache, obscurity or worse. But on occasion it does create a superstar, and in that high-risk, high-reward tradition, Poppo stepped up his game. At a climbing competition when Ashima was 8, he decided climbing wasn't just a sport for his daughter; it was her fate, her life, just as butoh had been his. "Other kids ... playing park and rock climbing, same kind of face," Poppo says. "But Ashima's face is different. Face is very honest, quiet, strong."
Climbing truly is mystical to watch. You observe an elite runner and you probably think, "OK, I could never run that fast in a million years, but I do understand what that person is doing." Climbing? The closer you look, the more incomprehensible it becomes. Even if you get a climber to break down and explain the specific moves -- "first you grab that crimper with your right and then you smear" -- and you get that climber to translate what he just said into standard English -- "hold on to that tiny edge with your right hand and use friction from your feet to push up" -- once you touch the wall to try to understand what this means in physical space, the possibility of doing what that climber just described disappears.
Poppo conceded that, to be the best in the world, his daughter would need a bit of technical help in addition to his metaphysical coaching. And so the Shiraishis began riding the train from Manhattan to New Rochelle for Ashima to train with Obe Carrion, who'd been one of the best climbers in the world in the late 1990s. When Ashima first appeared at Carrion's gym, he said, "She didn't yet have her own style. She just liked really small holds because she had small hands. She liked to move statically. Everything was slow and static." So Carrion set out to get Ashima "off her feet" -- to teach her to dyno, to fly.
The first principle of teaching a little girl to fly is: "Momentum equals strength. Speed equals strength." Ashima's performance rocketed. At age 8, she climbed a v10; at age 9, a v11/12; at age 10, a v13. Fewer than 10 women in the world have ever climbed a v13.
Ashima's home, complete with a fenced-in play area, is another world entirely. Christaan Felber for ESPN
"ASHIMA'S BED IS the most comfortable. The food at Ashima's house is the best. Ashima is good at everything."
This is the opinion of Ashima's friends at the Rudolf Steiner School, which I attended one day in the spring. Because it's a Waldorf school, the students learn to knit socks and make dolls of themselves; they rise and say "Good morning, Mrs. Hester!" when a teacher walks in the room.
Ashima's friends, many of whom she's known since kindergarten, have seen her climb exactly once, at her birthday party in fifth grade. They adore her and remain somewhat fuzzy on how truly exceptional she is. The main excitement at school around Ashima's climbing is that actor and teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort works out at her gym sometimes.
Ashima chooses not to bring her "honest, quiet, strong face" to PE. After lunch, the eighth grade files onto a yellow school bus at 79th and Madison to ride up to the 92nd Street Y to play volleyball. In the gym, she doesn't even look like the best athlete on the court. "Nice try, Ashima," one of her teachers says after she misses a bump and shrugs. The only sign of her alternate reality is that she reflexively shakes out her hands.
She's so light and strong and she has such strong fingers. It's crazy, she can heel-hook anything. The tension she creates in her body is nuts.
- pro climber Alex Honnold
Home is another planet entirely. The door to the Shiraishis' Chelsea loft opens into what appears to be a playroom for a toddler: mini-trampoline, trapeze, beach balls, cubbies, kid paintings, tiny desk, doll's bed -- all surrounded by a 2-foot-high wooden fence. When she lets me in, I ask Ashima, who is an only child, if she has a young niece or nephew or cousin who comes over to play. She says, pleasant and flat as always, "No, those are mine."
On the other side of the apartment, behind a scrim, is a small kitchen where Tsuya makes rice balls, a bathroom that's painted red, two bedrooms, a kitchen table cluttered with papers, and a sewing machine. There's also a long wooden dowel on which, next to the family's coats, hang about 50 pairs of climbing capris, each in a different fabric, each Ashima's size. The pants are made by Tsuya. As I thumb through them, she bows. Then she pulls open a drawer beneath the dowel, revealing several dozen more pairs.
For years, Ashima has floated among the tectonic plates of her worlds -- school, home and climbing -- young enough to skip over the faults, maybe even pretend they're not there. Because Poppo decided that climbing was not just a hobby for Ashima but her life, starting when she was 8 he made her climb whether or not she wanted to. Her climbing, in turn, transcended to a level far beyond that of anyone else her age. The only other girl in her vicinity was Brooke Raboutou. Brooke's parents, both retired professional climbers, bolted climbing holds all over their house. Her mom, Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou, turned herself into a youth climbing coach -- and she remains one of the best in the world. But while Brooke's parents fit snugly into the climbing community, Poppo stayed aloof and obtuse.
Tension between Poppo and Carrion began erupting at competitions, especially when Carrion, who remains devoted to Ashima, started coaching her not just in physical technique but in how to keep her head in the right place. "Obe says, 'Big breathe. I can do, I can do, I can do,'" Poppo tells me, glasses dangling on a gold chain around his neck, shaking his head, slightly dismayed. "That kind of thing is not enough." In 2012, Carrion moved to Colorado and stopped coaching Ashima.
The inevitable drama between Ashima and Poppo started playing out in the spring. Climbing gyms are great for competitions, but climbing stars are made on real rocks, outside. So for the past five years, during Ashima's breaks from school, Poppo and Ashima have taken climbing trips. In March, the two traveled to Catalunya, Spain, where they met with Chris Sharma, 34, who for many years was the best climber in the world and is now maybe third, behind Adam Ondra, a geeky 22-year-old Czech, and Alex Megos, a marginally less geeky 22-year-old German.
Sharma is the most mediagenic personality climbing has ever had: He's Fabio-handsome, deeply tanned and prone to shirtlessness, with long, flowing hair. Sharma encouraged Ashima to work on a route in Santa Linya called Open Your Mind Direct, which is graded 5.15a/9a+ -- an almost mystical level of difficulty, perhaps equivalent to running a 4:00 mile -- harder than any route a woman had climbed before. The first day Ashima fell off the start of the route and hurt her wrist. The next three days she spent suffering: trying and falling, trying and falling, her life on the ground becoming cruelly synecdochic. Sharma, one of the few men in the world who'd done the route, shouted technical advice; Poppo countered, sternly, in Japanese, that what Ashima really needed to do was maintain "a deep, quiet and strong mind and soul."
The relief on her face when she completed the climb -- it's too much relief for a 13-year-old girl. "That was so, like, surreal," she said to Sharma, shaking out her head moments after reaching the ground. The two high-fived; Ashima laughed and said, "Ow." On the video -- a crew, naturally, is on hand to film the historic feat because climbing, like the rest of the adventure sports world, adheres strictly to the philosophy that if you don't capture something on film, it didn't happen -- you can hear Sharma prodding: "Give your dad a hug."
For the next 24 hours, Ashima fielded a zillion phone calls -- The Guardian, Smithsonian, Outside, The Huffington Post, dozens of foreign papers. BuzzFeed interviewed Ashima over Snapchat. She lined up a segment with ABC World News Tonight. Was this Ashima's moment? As Poppo noted, "No other climber, this kind of attention. Chris Sharma been here? No."
Then Ashima flew back to New York and resumed eighth grade.
Christaan Felber for ESPN
Christaan Felber for ESPN
Ashima's impressive strength shows as she boulders in upstate New York. Christaan Felber for ESPN (3)
IN JUNE, Ashima and Poppo embark on another climbing trip, this time to Norway along with a 16-year-old climber named Kai Lightner; Kai's mother, Connie; an athlete manager from Clif Bar, one of Ashima's sponsors; and a camera crew from Sender Films. The destination objective: the Flatanger Cave.
Even before Ashima hikes up to the crag to her next challenge, a cameraman attaches a mic to her shirt. "Hey, you guys?" he asks Ashima and Kai as they stroll into a bright green field, "can you back up 100 feet? We want to get reaction to the cave." Inside the cave, a veritable Superdome of rock, Ashima and Kai look comically dwarfed. Ashima does some arm circles and flexes her wrists.
Gravity, for most of us, is a dispiriting slog. Even if we manage to get a few inches, feet, even yards on it, sooner or later Newtonian physics makes us look clunky, plodding and weighted down. Middling climbers appear this way too -- however strong they might be, you can see the struggle in their movements, the fleetingness of their victories and the inevitable loss. But when practiced by masters, the sport is different -- not just graceful but transcendent, a perfect joining of human capacity and the physical world. Unlike surfers and skiers, who very literally go with the flow, climbers must work against natural laws. A body moving up is a body moving into a dimension that's magical. To climb with ease is to appear otherworldly, triumphant, to levitate above our fallen world.
Day 2 in Norway feels a lot like Day 1 because the sun never set. Then Ashima picks the route she wants to work: Thor's Hammer, 5.15a. Only one person has ever climbed it: Adam Ondra, who is 5-11. The climb begins about 8 feet off the ground. Ashima can't even reach the first hold to start the climb. So after they both tie into the rope, Poppo hoists her onto his shoulders.
Ashima's Favorite Climbs
2015 | 14 years old
NORDIC FLOWER &
2015 | 13 years old
First person to
climb to top of
Red River Gorge, KY
2013| 12 years old
TWENTY FOUR KARATS &
FIFTY WORDS FOR PUMP
2015 | 14 years old
ONly PERSON TO CLIMb
all of the routes in the
Santa Linya, Spain
2014 | 12 years old
first female ever
to do a 5.15a
HUECO TANKS, TX
2012 | 10 years old
YOUNGEST TO DO V13
Rocklands, South Africa
2013 | 12 years old
YOUNGEST TO DO V14
According to the climber Alex Honnold, Ashima's talent has stayed "proportionally outrageous" since she was 6 years old. "For a 14-year-old to climb 14d on occasional breaks from school ..." Honnold's voice trails off, depressed. "She's so light and strong and she has such strong fingers. It's crazy, she can heel-hook anything," Honnold continues. "The tension she creates in her body is nuts."
Yet none of this helps with the fact that, due to heavy rains the week prior, Flatanger Cave is basically crying, seeping water from its cracks. A few moves from the start, Ashima launches herself up and to the left, but she can't stick the landing on the slick rock. Still, she keeps trying -- dyno, dyno, dyno, fall, fall, fall. Each time her hands slip, Poppo catches her on belay. Sometimes she falls so hard on the rope it lifts him off the ground. Then he hoists her back up on his shoulders for her to "try, try, try" again.
Part of what Poppo looks at when he watches his daughter climb are her tells -- how she dips her hands in her chalk bag, where she puts her eyes. He likens climbing on wet rock to dancing before a small audience. "Only 10 people in the audience -- if I think that, already my dance is very bad. Minus. Water very bad for climbing but still mental must be, 'It's OK, I can climb.' When something big happen, Titanic boat going down, mental must be strong. Quiet and strong. Then you don't feel anything. No feeling, no fear."
Elsewhere on the crag, young male climbers grunt and swear in German, free-falling to the ends of their ropes. Ashima and Poppo continue their excruciating routine, Ashima drying her hands on her capris between each movement, tugging her weight against each hold to test her grip.
The next time up, she brings a chamois to try to dry her holds. When that fails, another climber suggests she try the locals' trick of shoving toilet paper in the cracks. When that fails too, one of the cameramen suggests, "You should bring a blowtorch up there!"
Poppo does not agree. "Water wet," he says, dismissively, as if damp granite was just another mental problem. His school of thought follows the 1953 Buddhist classic "Zen in the Art of Archery," which argues that an empty, unfettered mind is the key to all movement. "Archery ... is not practiced solely for hitting the target. The dancer does not dance just to perform certain rhythmical movements of the body. The mind has first to be attuned to the Unconscious," Zen master D.T. Suzuki writes in the book's foreword. The 1974 best-selling sports manual "The Inner Game of Tennis" popularized this message. That book, in turn, laid the groundwork for the now widely accepted thesis that top athletic performance requires not just physical proficiency but being in the flow state, or "the zone."
Frustrated by falling again and again, Ashima is not in the zone. She sits on a rock and turns her face away from her father and the cameras so no one can see her cry.
Ashima and Poppo take several climbing trips every year. Christaan Felber for ESPN
MUCH TO EVERYONE'S RELIEF, by the end of the morning of the fourth day, Ashima does maneuver herself successfully through that awful crux. But soon enough she needs to land another dyno on a different patch of wet rock. She falls again.
She doesn't explicitly lose her cool. But what 14-year-old girl, roped to her father, with a camera crew, a journalist and a sponsor all watching, could possibly describe her inner state as "no feeling, no fear"?
Back on the ground, Ashima, silent, unties her climbing shoes. Poppo doesn't meet her eyes. "This part not strong," he says to me again, pointing to his head. Poppo steps out of his harness and smokes a cigarette. Ashima follows him out of the cave.
For a few hours, Poppo and Ashima remain out of sight. Earlier he had explained to me that he'd recently started working with Ashima on some next-level mental tricks -- in particular, the practice of throwing screams. He scared the crap out of me by shouting "Ya!" 2 feet from my ear. "This second, no meaning," he explained afterward. "My inside very clear." Then he yelled "Ha!" without warning. The idea behind throwing screams is that one person shouts, and the other mirrors the sound back, without pausing to think. The shock and unconscious reaction acts like an emotional ice plunge. "This kind I teach Ashima. Big action, that voice. Feelings very change."
That night, Poppo shows me Ashima's journal. She'd written in perfect Japanese lettering that she wanted to complete the second ascent of Thor's Hammer. "Today bad day," Poppo says, a bit of damage control. "If climbing only easy, no meaning. Life many painful things, frustrations. From that happiness born."
The next day, Poppo stays home while the film crew collects extra footage: Ashima and Kai walking out to a lighthouse, Ashima and Kai fishing, Ashima freaking out a little when she cut her thumb on a fish hook. Like all young teenagers, Ashima is in an awkward place relative to her parents and her own identity, pretty far down the road toward self-actualization but not yet a full voting party in the decisions of her life. It's easy to criticize Poppo, to accuse him of displacing his own ambition onto his daughter, or to say climbing is nothing like butoh. But he has created a spectacular child, and he is well aware that soon he'll need to take a step back. "When Ashima 20, she can take care herself. She don't need me," he says. "My help is getting less."
Sure enough, the day after shooting b-roll, the camera crew informs Poppo and Ashima that she needs to quit Thor's Hammer and move on to a route she can actually climb. To create usable video assets, they need footage of her looking like the heroine, flying up rock walls.
Ashima obliges, for the morning at least, flowing, even leaping, up Flatanger Cave's granite faces, presumably very relieved. But then, when the cameras stop focusing on her, Ashima and Poppo return to Thor's Hammer. Poppo lifts her up, and Ashima climbs the first half with ease. She doesn't quite have time to complete the second ascent before she needs to leave Norway to fly home, but she looks spectacular, on the edge of magical: quiet, graceful, strong and in control.
* Bouldering routes are rated v0-v16, by increasing order of difficulty. Roped climbs are rated 5.0-5.15. Levels may be further subdivided into a, b, c and d. The hardest climb in the world is currently 5.15c.
Elizabeth WeilWeil is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Outside Magazine, and a frequent health and fitness contributor to Vogue. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, the writer Daniel Duane, and their two daughters.