“Hi! Nice to meet you!” Ashima greets me enthusiastically, a smile wide across her face and a slice of pizza dwarfing her petite hand. It was the fall of 2013, and we were in Miguel’s Pizza in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky. Earlier that day, I had arrived in a rental car from the Lexington airport, flying from New York City on a last-minute assignment to photograph The North Face climber Ashima Shiraishi. I asked Ashima how her stint of climbing in the Red was going. “Great!” she replied, adding that she had just sent a very difficult route (God’s Own Stone 8b+), a grade of climb which would mark a huge accomplishment in any climber's career. The fact that Ashima was 12 years old marked the feat as nothing short of groundbreaking. She celebrated with an ice cream bar after dinner, and I watched in amusement as, struggling to open the wrapper, she turned to her dad for help. In that first interaction, I learned three important things about Ashima. Three things that I found to hold true throughout the years as I grew to know her better. First, she is remarkably kind, humble, and self-aware. Second, she has a deep love of sweets, a brand of nutrition that seems to play an integral role in her ability to accomplish superhuman climbs. Third, and most surprisingly, off the rock and back on solid earth, Ashima maintains the mannerisms of an unassumingly normal young adult. One of my favorite things about photographing climbers is the rare privilege to bear firsthand witness to how these athletes overcome challenges and push their limits. There are few sports where, as a photographer, you are in such close proximity to the action; hanging on a fixed line I am often within inches of my subject during their most critical moments, watching in suspense as he or she battles fear, experiences self-doubt, pushes through pain, and tries as hard as humanly possible. In that moment, there is a certain primal focus; a rawness that is unparalleled to anything else I have witnessed. Of all the climbers I’ve photographed, Ashima has been one of the most fascinating to observe and learn from. Switching her interest remarkably quick from ice cream to climbing, the level of focus and fluidity with which she transitions from being your everyday young adult to one of the world’s best climbers is nothing short of exceptional. I watched Ashima attempt this particular route, Escalata Masters (9a) in Perles, Spain, dozens of times, tirelessly and with a smile. Though stymied by the crux toward the top of the pitch, she continued to try to climb through the moves, time after time. On each attempt, as she neared the crux, Ashima grabbed a small jug, placed one hand in her chalk bag, and breathed deeply, calming herself and preparing for battle. Dangling from a line fixed to the route’s anchors and trying to remain as still as possible, I gazed through my camera lens as Ashima entered a series of thin, impossible looking moves, engaging the challenge with the knowledge that failure was the likely outcome. Over and over she stepped into this sequence boldly and resolutely, only to be flung from the wall in a long, slow, graceful fall and caught by her father belaying on the far end of the rope.
As a photographer, it’s all too easy to get involved in the triumphs and failures of your subject. Each time Ashima confronted this section of the climb, my heart raced, and my palms grew sweaty with hope, anticipation, and nerves. Each time Ashima fell, disappointment flooded through me and I was racked with doubt. Judging by the look of ease and graceful determination on Ashima’s face as she hung at the end of the rope, she had learned to handle the try-hard-but-fail far more astutely than I. Though she spent days and countless hours trying Escalata Masters without successfully climbing the route cleanly, the process of photographing Ashima as she repeatedly stepped into that space of probable failure was, beyond any of her successes, one of the most inspiring demonstrations of the mature temperament and optimism with which she approaches her discipline. Quite simply, Ashima does not see impossibility like the rest of us; anything can be accomplished with the right amount of determination and grit. Today, Ashima is widely considered one of the best climbers in the world, male or female, youth or adult, and this mental maturity might be what places her a cut above the rest. When I first met Ashima at Miguel’s, I had a suspicion that she might teach me an appreciation for the proper pre-climb candy surge, and the perfect timing of a post-climb ice cream. However, given her sweetness and slightness of stature, she seemed an unlikely candidate to impart those more elusive lessons: of success and failure, of digging deep and cultivating a bold, and limitless imagination. These traits often remain uncultivated over the course of a lifetime, let alone over the course of the 6th grade. But as Ashima has taught me: anything is possible and the best surprises (ice cream, chocolate, wisdom, and strength) often come in little packages.