Ashima Shiraishi: Portrait of the Young Climbing Prodigy
Last update: 06/15/2022
All sports have prodigies. But few of them stand out from the pack like Ashima Shiraishi. In addition to her extraordinary rock climbing, there are subtle (and not so subtle) nods to her parent’s avant-garde background in this young climber’s approach and aesthetic. Plus, her rock climbing speaks for itself. She holds records for the first female ascent of a V15 boulder; she’s the youngest person to send a 5.15d and won the IFSC World Youth Championships in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
But Shiraishi is also remarkable for her unique personality, fashion interests, and atypical background. The influence of her artist parents is present in her climbing, style, and attitude. In an era when climbers are often either elite climbing gym athletes or flannel-wearing eco-dirtbags, it’s nice to see another archetype in the mix. She also may be the first female climber with broad, crossover appeal.
Ashima was born on April 3rd, 2001, to Hisatoshi and Tsuya Shiraishi. The couple was already in their early fifties by this time. And their story before their daughter’s birth plays a vital role in what makes Shiraishi unique. Described as a miracle baby by her mother, Ashima was the best kind of surprise for this couple who had tried for so long to conceive.
Her dancer father, Hisatoshi, grew up on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. When he moved to Tokyo in the early seventies to attend fashion school, he met Tsuya, and the two fell in love. Around the same time. Hisatoshi developed an interest in Butoh, an experimental dance that arose in post-WWII Japan.
Punk Rock Butoh
This dance, though hard to define, deals with playful, grotesque, and taboo topics. Like a lot of art in post-war Japan, themes include war and the harsh realities of a new atomic age. It became an obsession for the young Hisatoshi. He dropped out of university to focus his energy on Butoh. When Tsuya graduated, they traveled to Europe. Here, they were captivated by the first wave of punk as it swept over late seventies London. On their return to Japan, Hisatoshi took up the nickname Popo and continued dancing. The influence of punk’s first wave would remain with him for a lifetime.
Tsuya went to New York on a tourist visa in 1978. She soon sent word back to Hisatoshi that the city was even more exciting than London. He followed her to the place that would become their home for the rest of their lives. Here, they formed a dance group called Popo and the Go-Go Boys. In addition to theater bookings, they’d perform outside on the street in grimy conditions at places like Washington Square Park – all while wearing outfits hand-made by Tsuya. Their act turned New York street corners into stages and its garbage into props. There’s a distinct strain of punk rock/DIY-Esque attitude to these performances.
A surviving video from UK sound art/industrial project, Nocturnal Emissions, can still be seen on YouTube. In it, Hisatoshi wears white makeup, contorting his body, limbs, and fingers in inhuman ways. His movements suggest a genetic component to his daughter’s talent. Her mother, too, remembers an energetic child, constantly moving her arms and legs –
“All the time, not stop. I couldn’t believe it. I think she has monkey DNA.”
When Ashima was born, her father’s dancing career ended. Tsuya became the family breadwinner, working in a Japanese clothing store while Hisatoshi stayed home to take care of their daughter. He made it a priority to take her outdoors as much as possible. The family lived in the same rent-controlled Chelsea loft that Hisatoshi and Tsuya have shared for forty years. This meant Ashima Shiraishi grew up minutes away from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and close to Central Park. And this was where she was introduced to bouldering.
Rat Rock in New York City
Unlike most climbers today, six-year-old Ashima started climbing outdoors. Other kids tend to get their first experiences in the climbing gym, only moving outdoors once they’ve gained some confidence. And while Central Park isn’t a climbing mecca, a bouldering scene at Rat Rock (officially Umpire Rock) has existed for decades. This lump of schist near the ballfields in the park offers plenty of challenge for its small, dedicated crew.
The first climber to notice the girl’s innate ability was Rat Rock local Yukihiko Ikumori. The gardener-turned-boulderer began sharing his knowledge of the area’s many tricky bouldering problems. She started to crush routes that experienced climbers struggled with. Her father started taking Ashima to local climbing gyms when she was seven. At one of these, she found some formal training and learned real technique under the training of a former pro, Obe Carrion. Her precocious talent took another leap forward.
Her young age, the eccentricity of her father, and Tsuya and Hisatoshi’s unorthodox parenting style led to some Svengali talk. Shiraishi has always been quick to dismiss this. She’s a climber because she wants to be – not for her mother or father. Female athletes, especially young ones, are often subjected to such scrutiny. Gymnastics is full of such cautionary tales. But Ashima Shiraishi seems self-aware and in control.
For a time, Shiraishi even handled her PR. This might have been an echo of her parent’s DIY attitude. She dealt with all contracts and press without representation and only the consultation of her parents (who both have limited English).
Climbing Style and Speciality
At eight years old, Ashima was a bouldering phenom. She’s the youngest climber ever to send V13 boulders and one of few women with a route this difficult confirmed. Her gold medals in sport climbing and bouldering in three successive Youth World Championships are testament to her versatility in rock climbing. She’s also excelled at lead climbing, taking on routes like Southern Smoke (5.14c) at age eleven. Alex Honnold, perhaps the most recognizable face in climbing today, has described her as “one of the best climbers in the country, hands down.” Golden Shadow (V14) was a defining achievement in this young climber’s career. She was the second woman to climb this grade, and Golden Shadow remains a serious challenge for the best climbers in the world.
But Shiraishi’s outfits are also a key part of her style. Tsuya hand makes her daughter’s signature, calf-length pants using fabric chosen by Hisatoshi at a New York City market. Ashima estimates she has about seventy pairs. These colorful, peculiar trousers express an interest that’s more than casual. The climber has spoken about her love of vintage fashion, movies, and books. Her Instagram feed is unlike that of most other figures in the rock climbing world. She’s as likely to be posting about one of her other many interests as climbing. Her multiple World Championships, individuality, and unusual upbringing all contribute to what has become a stylish, enigmatic figure in the climbing world.
Shiraishi started young when it comes to accolades. She started competing at age seven after Hisatoshi brought her to a local climbing gym. At only eight, she climbed the classic boulder problem Power of Silence (V10) in Hueco Tanks, Texas. Then at age nine, she completed boulder problems Chablanke (V11/12) and Roger in the Shower (V11). At ten, Ashima Shiraishi took on the Crown of Aragorn (V13), also in Hueco Tanks, Texas. This made her the youngest person to top out a V13 route and one of only a handful of women ever to do so.
Ashima climbed the route Southern Smoke (5.14c) in Red River Gorge at eleven in October 2012. This made her the youngest person ever to take on a climb of this difficulty. In 2013, she continued to push in both bouldering and lead climbing, adding two more V13 problems, a 5.14a lead climb, two more 5.14c routes, and her first V14 climb, Golden Shadow. This made her the second female climber to top out such a difficult boulder problem. 2013 also saw her add Slow Food (5.14a) to her checklist.
On New Year’s Day 2015, Ashima Shiraishi became the first female to top out Open Your Mind R1 (5.14d) in Santa Linya, Spain. On the same trip, Shiraishi also climbed Ciudad de Dios, making her the youngest person to send a 5.14d and only the second-ever female to climb at this level. Ashima Shiraishi took home the gold in the Youth World Championships for lead climbing and bouldering in 2015, 2016, and 2017. In March of 2016, at 14, Shiraishi climbed the boulder problem Horizon (8C) in Mount Hiei, Japan. This is only the second ascent of this route. This feat made her the youngest person and first female climber to complete this grade. Horizon remains a challenging climb today.
After Horizon, Ashima Shiraishi climbed Sleepy Rave. However, this 8C problem in Grampians National Park is disputed by those who feel it should be a lower grade. Again, she was the first female to complete the climb. In 2017, she won the USA Sport & Speed Open National Championships in Denver and placed second in the USA Climbing Bouldering Nationals. This was also the year she began to compete in the Climbing World Cup in the adult category.
Fun Facts & Quotes
Ashima Shiraishi is known as one of the strongest climbers of any age or gender in the sport. Climbing prowess hinges on the athlete’s strength-to-weight ratio. This means the gap between the sexes is not as significant as in other athletic endeavors where strength outweighs all other factors. At the top of the pyramid, there are certainly men who can outperform her – but only a tiny handful of the most elite climbers on the planet!
Shiraishi’s Instagram is full of vintage clothing, sneaker appreciation, and the other stuff you’d typically see on a young person’s social media. She’s stated that her interests go beyond the sport of climbing and has also enrolled at UCLA.
“Honestly, I feel like I’m not exactly the type of athlete that people expect. Coming out of New York, that’s a big difference. Climbing is the biggest thing in my life right now, but I’m also interested in a lot of other things. I love fashion and I still go to school. I wanna do more than just climb.”
As strong a climber as Ashima is, she’s not interested in the big ascents of Yosemite or other expeditions. She’s not fond of the cold and prefers to go home and sleep in a real bed after finishing a route. Ashima must train at a climbing gym like Brooklyn Boulders for sport climbing. But her preference is the outdoors over the gym. Despite her many sport climbing accolades, Shiraishi has a strain of romantic, natural climbing in her DNA.
“Growing up, I always climbed outside and the reason I became famous, I guess, was through my achievements outside on the rocks. I’m more happy climbing in nature and competing against myself and the wall instead of competing against other people. That’s what I really wanna focus on.”
Ashima also presented a Ted Talk in 2014 entitled Just Climb Through It. She discusses the tactics and techniques she uses when climbing a challenging route. She suggests the problem-solving skills she’s learned as she climbs have broader applications for kids. Ashima also explains that kids who are smaller and weaker-looking shouldn’t be discouraged from trying climbing.
Sponsors and Gear
Shiraishi’s sponsors include the kind of top-tier outdoor brands you’d expect. She has endorsements with Clif Bar, Petzl, Evolv, and The North Face. Outside of these core outdoor brands present in the sport, she’s also sponsored by All Nippon Airways, Nikon, and perhaps most contentiously with Coca-Cola Japan.
This last sponsor doesn’t sit well with some climbers. The typical climbing archetype’s back-to-nature, hippie-esque, vaguely anti-corporate spiel doesn’t allow for sponsors like Coca-Cola. Arishima Shiraishi is pragmatic about the criticism:
“I feel like living with all the differences that I’ve lived with, I have to embrace that I’m unique and not the same as everyone. Every single person is different in the world and you have to embrace that and not try to blend in or else you’re gonna lose yourself.”
Whether this justifies a sponsor like Coca-Cola in a health-conscious sport like climbing is up to the individual. Or maybe it’s purely up to Shiraishi.
Evolv makes her climbing shoes, her current pro model being the Zenist (Ashima x Brain Dead Zenist). These shoes are 100% vegan to match Ashima’s plant-based lifestyle. Arc’teryx has also added Shiraishi to their family and supplies her with outdoor clothing.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Currently based out of LA, Ashima Shiraishi balances her studies at UCLA with her climbing career.
Ashima failed to qualify for the 2021 Olympics, finishing 44th at the Combined World Championships and 22nd at the Toulouse invitational. Shiraishi is still young and has many more chances to qualify ahead of her.
Although Ashima slightly fell off the radar while studying, she’s still an elite climber with a bright competitive future ahead. But she’s also interested in life outside of the sport.
At the time of writing, Ashima is twenty-one years old.