Ashima Shiraishi slotted just her right middle finger into a shallow borehole in the rock, pressed her feet onto slippery footholds, and jumped up. Her left hand latched onto a fingertip-size protrusion, and her body swung out to horizontal, then reeled back in. She quickly arranged her feet and continued climbing, with dancerlike grace, on Thailand's Tonsai Beach.
After Shiraishi reached the top of the sport climb, her father, who is her coach and belayer, lowered her down to the sand. She untied from the rope and a dozen or so spectators swarmed around her for their chance at a selfie with one of the world's strongest rock climbers, who turned 15 in April.
In February 2016, Shiraishi won the USA Climbing Youth Bouldering Championships. In March she climbed a boulder problem with the difficulty rating of V15 -making her the first female climber to reach this level in bouldering, a genre of rock climbing that involves tackling difficult movements on relatively short rocks. The V15 problem is called Horizon, and previously, it had only ever been climbed by one man.
In June, she was training for the USA Climbing Youth Sport Climbing Championships when her father, who was belaying her, accidentally dropped her 40 feet to the padded gym floor. She sustained no serious injuries, and a week later, she competed and won.
In August, she climbed her second V15 boulder problem, this time reaching the top of a problem called Sleepy Rave, near Melbourne, Australia.
"My dream is to keep on pushing myself, and maybe, I will push the sport itself," Shiraishi says. "I feel like if people are expecting me to do this, eventually, I will."
Shiraishi focuses on tackling boulder problems or sport climbs that no women have yet done-and which some of the world's best male climbers take months, if not years, to do.
Bouldering involves climbing rocks that are usually around 10 to 20 feet tall. No ropes or gear are needed other than sticky-rubber climbing shoes, chalk, and foam landing pads that soften falls. Sport climbing is another genre that involves using ropes, harnesses, and carabiners to ascend routes that are typically between 40 to 100 feet tall. Bouldering favors powerful climbers, while sport climbing is more about endurance. Shiraishi is achieving world-class results in both fields.
Women have the power to dominate the sport. It might take a long time ... well, maybe not that long.
Ashima Shiraishi Adventurer of the Year
Today, Shiraishi is considered one of the best female boulderers and sport climbers of all time. A recent profile in the New Yorker called her "a Gretzky of the granite." As she's proven herself capable of pushing female climbing standards to new heights relatively easily, during short breaks from high school, many are now wondering if her talents could one day transcend gender boundaries in rock climbing. Could she one day be considered the best rock climber-not just the best female rock climber-in the world?
"Women have the power to dominate the sport," Shiraishi says. "It might take a long time." She pauses and thinks. "Well, maybe not that long."
A native New Yorker, Shiraishi discovered rock climbing on her own when she was six years old. She was playing with friends on a playground in Central Park after school and noticed some men bouldering on a slab of black schist known to climbers as Rat Rock. Intrigued, she approached one of them, a climber named Yuki Ikumori, who encouraged her to have a try. Soon after, on her first day climbing, she tried a climb rated V0-the simplest on the difficulty scale of V0 to V16. She says it didn't go well.
"I don't know if climbing came naturally to me," she recalls. "I was climbing in sneakers on the easiest problem there. I kept falling and falling, but I was having so much fun. Eventually I got to the top."
Her continued success in climbing is a family effort. Shiraishi's father, Hisatoshi, a former butoh dancer who still goes by his stage name, Poppo, is a constant and watchful presence at his daughter's climbs. He accompanied Shiraishi on her trip to Thailand, to Japan for the Horizon climb, and to other climbing destinations. Shiraishi's mother, Tsuya, sews the climber's distinctive printed pants, creating the patterns and choosing the fabrics herself. Shiraishi is happy to dress differently from the normal technical outerwear that clads many climbing athletes (and she says that her contract with The North Face, her main sponsor, lets her choose her own style). It also helps that her outfits are looser and more comfortable to climb in, she says.
"I feel like wearing tight pants and shorts, that's what everyone wears," she says. "And I don't want to be like everyone else. I wear my mom's climbing pants because it's a part of me and my climbing."
"I think Ashima could be the biggest game-changer in high-end climbing since Chris Sharma," says Josh Lowell, a filmmaker for Big Up Productions and the REEL Rock Tour, which features a film about Shiraishi, Young Guns, this year. "What she's already done on just a few short school breaks each year is unbelievable. When she has the time and freedom to go out into the world and develop her own vision for what's possible, we might see some incredible things go down."
High expectations only seem to get Shiraishi hyped up for what's next. In early November, she'll be traveling to Guangzhou, China, for the IFSC World Youth Championships to defend her 2015 titles in bouldering and sport climbing in the 15-and-younger category, and many expect her to succeed. And now that the International Olympic Committee will allow climbing in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Shiraishi could have more medals in sight.
"Since I even began rock climbing, my dream has been to one day become an Olympian," she says. "I remember watching the Olympic athletes and being so inspired by their determination to set the bar high for their sport and represent their country. Now that climbing has been accepted, my dream may come true."
But for now, Shiraishi will continue to challenge herself and push the limits of what all climbers can achieve. "I've seen other climbers nominated as Adventurers of the Year and I thought that, maybe, one day, that could be me," she says. "But I didn't think it would be this soon."