I’ve had a major girl crush on Sasha DiGiulian since well before she was the climbing/speaking/entrepreneur-ing powerhouse she is today, so when I found out she was publishing a memoir earlier this year, I preordered it immediately (after desperately searching for an advance copy of it at my bookstore day job to no avail). Sadly, when Take the Lead: Hanging On, Letting Go, and Conquering Life’s Hardest Climbs was released in late September, I had just dipped my toes into a different book that ended up taking the better part of a month to wade through—Russian literature is not my forte—and, as a “monogamous reader,” Sasha’s book got sidelined. Whether or not it was worth the wait is still up for debate (hey, just because she makes my heart pitter-patter doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend this was my favorite book ever).

Take the Lead Sasha DiGiulian

The Approach

As expected, the book opens (prologue notwithstanding) with the story of young Sasha’s introduction to climbing at her brother’s rock-gym birthday party back in the late ’90s and proceeds chronologically through the ups and downs of both her personal and professional lives. For readers who crave a linear progression with no tangential storylines, this is a plus that I’m sure makes for a fast read; for those of us whose ADHD brains require a few “ooh, shiny thing!” moments to keep us engaged (and/or for those who have followed DiGiulian’s career in real-time), the lack of tangents, time jumps, or “juicy” deep cuts makes for a slower, more monotonous read rife with opportunity to get distracted and put the book down.

On the bright side, it feels like that same lack of things-I-didn’t-already-know means the storytelling is delightfully honest and much more “autobiography” than “memoir.” No part of the book ever seems to be begging for praise or pity, despite plenty of reason for both; rather, Sasha very much sticks to a “this thing happened, and this is how it felt” convention—the facts are factual, the drama is appropriately dramatic, and the emotion comes off as genuine. If you’ve read too many memoirs that felt like the author just needed a very public way to toot their own horn or draw mass sympathy, Take the Lead’s narrative is a refreshing change of pace.

The Crux(es)

I kept a mental list of (admittedly petty) “cons” as I read this, which included such things as:

  • Sasha’s writing style, which just reads a little too simplistically for my taste, almost as if it were young adult non-fiction.
  • A consistent use of quotation marks to denote a climbing term and then defining it in em dashes, which is not only distracting but seems entirely unnecessary since a) the book’s audience is, presumably, climbers who do not need climbing jargon defined, and b) there’s a three-page “Glossary for Climbing” before the book even begins that covers everything a non-climbing/newer-to-climbing reader might not already know.
  • Similar to fellow goEast book reviewer Jaime Herndon’s yearning for more on Graham Zimmerman’s climate advocacy in his book, I would have liked it if DiGiulian had expounded a bit more on her advocacy for both the climate and land access.

Ultimately, it’s easy enough to look past all of that—and for most readers, such nitpicks will either be the worst of it or won’t even register at all. But for me, the hardest part of reading Take the Lead was exactly what I knew it would be before I even started reading: the dad talk. As a girl who is still very much grieving the unexpected death of her own dad two years ago, reading Sasha’s account of her relationship with her father and his similarly sudden passing was heart wrenching. So here’s a head’s up to any readers who are also mourning the loss of a parent: be ready to put the book down for a bit when/if the tears come (especially in Chapter 9!), and know that the second half of the book will be much easier on your emotions.

The Send

Despite my quibbles with the writing and having cried way more than I should have while reading this, there are plenty of things Sasha nailed in this telling of her story. The balance of personal “stuff” (e.g., her history, family dynamics, personal/emotional growth, and the like) and professional achievements (comp performances, sponsorships, climbing expeditions and first ascents, entrepreneurship, etc.) was *chef’s kiss* and paints a very complete picture of how she became the person she is. It would have been easy for her to get too caught up in talking about any one facet of her life, but she does a great job of keeping things even and paces us through her timeline really well.

It’s also easy to see how this would be an inspiring read for a younger, primarily female, audience: DiGiulian battled just about every stereotypical “girl struggle”—plus double hip recontsructions before age 30—and overcame them all to be a badass with 30+ first female free ascents, a Women’s Sports Foundation board member and Athlete Ambassador for organizations like the Access Fund and American Alpine Club, congressional lobbyist, winner of multiple prestigious awards, founder of her own company, and more. Sasha DiGiulian is the epitome of female empowerment.

The Takeaway

I didn’t love Take the Lead as much as I expected to, but I am glad I read it. I think I can say with reasonable certainty that I am simply not this book’s target demo. However, if you’re a woman in your 20s, haven’t been closely following Sasha’s career for the past 15ish years, or just need some extra lady inspiration in your life, then Take the Lead is a worthy addition to your TBR pile.