Emily Harrington is a professional rock climber and adventurer who has been a prominent and leading figure in the climbing community since she was a teenager. Her early years were defined by her successes on the USA Climbing Team on the national and world competition circuit, including 5 US National Sport Climbing Championships and 2 North American Championships. Emily’s true passion lies with outdoor climbing and exploring the mountains.
Since shifting her focus from the competition, Emily has established numerous first female ascents of 5.14 sport routes, summited Mount Everest, and has been on expeditions all over the world attempting big wall free climbs and high-altitude peaks in Nepal, China, Myanmar, Crimea, and Morocco. In 2020, Emily achieved a lifelong dream and a career milestone, becoming just the fourth woman ever to free-climb El Capitan in one day, and the first woman to ever do it via the famed Golden Gate route. El Cap is the largest piece of granite in the world and stands 3,200 feet tall. One of her two climbing partners during this incredible feat was El Cap “Free Solo” climbing legend, and her friend, Alex Honnold.
With a highly-anticipated documentary about her story on the way later this year, only the sky is the limit for Emily. She has appeared on The Today Show, The Joe Rogan Experience Podcast, National Geographic, CNN, NPR, Sports Illustrated, The North Face and many more.
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Emily Harrington El Cap Free Climb Legend: Fear & Teams, Why You Need Them.
Joining us now is Emily Harrington, a professional rock climber and adventurer who has been a prominent and leading figure in the climbing community since she was a teenager. Her early years were defined by her successes on the USA Climbing Team on the national and world competition circuit, including five US National Sport Climbing Championships and two North American Championships. Emily’s true passion lies with outdoor climbing and exploring the mountains.
Since shifting her focus from competition, Emily has established numerous first female ascents of 5.14 sport routes, summited Mount Everest, and has been on expeditions all over the world, attempting big wall free climbs and high-altitude peaks in Nepal, China, Myanmar, Crimea, and Morocco. In 2020, Emily achieved a lifelong dream and a career milestone, becoming the fourth woman ever to free-climb El Capitan in one day, and the first woman to do so on the famed Golden Gate route. With a highly-anticipated documentary about her story on the way, only the sky is the limit with Emily. Please join me now with Emily Harrington.
Emily Harrington, thank you for joining me on the show. How are you doing?
I\’m doing well. How are you?
I\’m doing well. I\’m excited to have you on and about you as a speaker and your story. Everything that\’s been happening with you is so exciting and so much a part of the zeitgeists and the world we live in. The Alex Honnold movie came out. The documentary that won the Oscar a couple of years ago, Free Solo. He\’s one of your friends. Tell me a little bit about you as a rock climber. Did you start climbing rocks when you were a just little kid? Were you always drawn to this? Was this something that came later in life for you?
I\’ve been climbing for well over half of my life. I started climbing at the age of ten. I discovered climbing like most people discover climbing nowadays. I was one of the first generations of kids who started out climbing in a climbing gym, in an artificial setting, plastic-hold, super controlled environment. At the time, my only understanding of climbing was indoors in a gym. I remember the feeling of being high off the ground and the feeling of almost being afraid, confronting that fear, pushing beyond it, and recognizing how powerful that was even as a kid, that was cool to me. That was something that I was drawn to. Growing up, I was a gymnast. I was a ski racer. I was into all these things. I grew up in Colorado. I remember after I climbed, I went to my dad and said, \”Dad, I want to climb. That\’s what I want to do,\” and I never looked back.
He was supportive. I know he\’s also an adventuresome guy. You guys have done some fun things together as well on that front.
Yes, my dad is awesome. He is full of energy. He loves everything that\’s adventurous, whether it\’s climbing, skiing or kitesurfing. He\’s all in from the very beginning. We started climbing together. I grew up climbing with my dad. He still climbs. He\’s awesome.
I know that after you got hurt, and not the one where you became the first-ever, but the one with Alex, the one where you fell pretty far.
I got pretty lucky. I fell about 50 feet. I hit a ledge before the rope could catch me.
It was you falling, swinging with the rope. Did you just fell straight down into the ledge?
I impacted on a ledge. If you could imagine, the rock that I was climbing wasn\’t steep. Usually, when you fall and it’s steep, you hit air and it’s safe and it’s comfortable, but I was climbing on a slab, so it was less than vertical. When I fell, I impacted on a ledge before the rope could catch me. I was super run out. My last piece of protection was well below me. Alex and I were doing a type of climbing called simul-climbing, where we climb simultaneously up the wall. You\’d imagine I\’m on the top and he\’s on the bottom. We were sneaking our way up like a caterpillar and I fell. I made a couple of mistakes along the way. I didn\’t have enough protection. I was going too fast. All of these things led up to it in hindsight. I fell 50 feet and hit a ledge. It was the most serious accident that\’s ever happened to me in climbing.
Was there blood?
Yes, there was blood. I lost consciousness. I had a lot of back pain and neck pain. That was the primary concern. I was concussed so there was a lot of confusion going on. Thankfully, I had Alex there with me. He is probably the best person to be with in a situation like that. He was very calm. We had the rescue. Yosemite Search and Rescue came. I was lowered in a backboard and then evacuated in an ambulance.
You didn\’t give it up after that. You didn\’t stop climbing after that. This was just a little blip on the radar for you.
Upon reflection, I knew what had gone wrong. I knew that what had gone wrong was very much in my control. I have this level of risk tolerance that I\’m comfortable with. I had pushed a little bit too far, honestly. The year that I took between attempting again, I came to a place where I realized that I could avoid that situation. For me, it wasn\’t a random occurrence of like, \”This was out of my control. I had an accident and I almost died.\” It was like, \”These were the mistakes that led up to it. I can prevent those in the future. This is my life dream. I\’m willing to take a certain level of risk in order to get there.\”
When you were doing this with Alex, were you training with the goal in mind of the accomplishment you eventually accomplished? To say for everyone, you were one of only four people who\’s ever climbed El Capitan, the biggest largest piece of granite in the world. Which is how tall?
It\’s 3,200 feet tall.
[bctt tweet=\”With free climbing, you\’re allowed to fall. You\’re not going to die. In free soloing, if you fall, you die. \” via=\”no\”]
Were you one of only four people who climbed it in one day? I hear different versions of that.
It\’s a little confusing. The way that I explain it is I was doing something called free climbing, not to be confused with free soloing. Alex Honnold has confused the entire world with this. Free climbing is when you use your hands and feet to ascend a rock face. You have a rope and protection in case you fall. What Alex was doing was something called free soloing, which is free climbing, but without a rope. With free climbing, you\’re allowed to fall. You\’re not going to die. In free soloing, if you fall, you die.
You could die if you hit the rock hard with your head and you break your head.
Yes, much less likely, but fair point. What I did was I free-climbed a route on El Capitan called the Golden Gate in a single day. Free-climbing El Cap in a day is considered one of the most prestigious, elite forms of climbing achievements in the world because El Cap is so famous. It\’s so big and difficult. There are only a few paths up El Cap, only a few ways to get up to the top. They\’re all extremely difficult. The route I did, the Golden Gate, I became the fourth person to free-climb it in a day, that route in particular. El Cap has been free-climbed in a day by maybe twenty people in history. I became the fourth woman to do so.
Is the Golden Gate route one of the hardest or one of the easiest routes?
It\’s in the middle. Alex did the Freerider when he did his free solo. It counts because he did it in a day. It was three hours. Alex has free-climbed El Cap in a day a couple of times, including the Golden Gate. The Freerider is the easiest one. He did it without ropes.
You want to do the easiest one when there are no ropes involved.
Yes, but it\’s still hard. It\’s still considered elite-level rock climbing. Most people who free-climb El Cap take 5 to 7 days to do it. They\’re camping and sleeping on the wall.
It\’s a journey. You were like, \”I don\’t have time to take a rest, take a nap, eat a meal, go to sleep, and take some pictures. I\’m getting to the top as quick as I can.\”
The backstory to that is in 2015 when I was first learning how to big-wall free-climb, which is this style of climbing where you spend multiple days on the wall, I set my sights on Golden Gate. I took six days to free-climb it. It was my limit at the time. I was maxed every day. It was my proudest achievement at the time. I started thinking about what my next challenge could be and what might have a distinct show of progression for me and my climbing. I realized that maybe free-climbing El Cap in a day would be a cool objective. I\’ve always been inspired by the idea of starting at the bottom of that piece of stone and climbing, and not stopping until you reach the top. It\’s an incredible physical and mental challenge that gathers all of the experiences and skills that you need as a climber. You have to apply them to this. Essentially, it comes down to one day, which is cool.
It’s amazing and ridiculous. I remember when I was in seventh grade, we went to Yosemite. They walked us over to Half Dome and the waterfall and all these different cool spots. They were like, \”There\’s El Cap.\” You could see the tour guide guy was the most excited about El Cap. Therefore, we all became most excited. I like how there\’s that little prairie underneath it. It opens up. We had a picnic there and looked at it the whole time. He was like, \”That\’s the largest piece of granite in the world.” We were excited about that. Of course, I love telling everybody that whenever it comes up. They were like, \”That\’s great. Thanks for telling me.\”
At the time, people were jumping off of it with the hang gliders, which is insane as well, 3,200 feet up. I don\’t even know if there were people climbing it that day, or we even knew people could even attempt that. At some point, you\’re climbing the walls in these gyms as a kid. You started climbing rocks with your dad outside, and then you were like, \”Let\’s go to the biggest one.\” Everybody has that on their radar of the Ultimate Rock or the Ultimate Wall to climb El Cap. It\’s interesting so much has happened with it in the last couple of years. Alex was on 60 Minutes and then the documentary came out. You did yours as well, which got a lot of coverage. You were on The Today Show and all kinds of other programs and cool shows about it. There was a documentary short film or movie made.
There\’s a film of me on my first six-day attempt at the Golden Gate. That\’s on The North Face. There\’s a film. It\’s sixteen minutes long. It\’s on their YouTube channel. There will be a feature film about my journey towards doing it in a day. I\’ve had a filmer with me the entire way for the last few years.
That\’s going to be a very successful film. Is it going to be more of a drama doc or more of a doc?
It\’s a doc. It\’s my life as a rock climber, how I started, all the steps that took to get me to that place, and the missteps along the way.
When you were doing the tandem thing with Alex, how long ago was that? You said it was a year or so before you accomplished what you accomplished.
I\’ve tried in total to free-climb the Golden Gate in a day four times. I succeeded on my fourth attempt. Leading up to each attempt, there were many days spent on sections of the wall. I\’d repel in and I\’d climb up in the bottom. Leading up to each attempt, there was probably a dozen or so days, an entire season essentially of work, to pick that perfect day, to find the weather window, to go for it. I\’ve tried with Alex every time. I\’ve tried with him in the spring of 2019. We got shut down by this crazy hailstorm. I tried in the fall of 2019 with Alex. That was my best attempt up until the success. I made it 300 feet from the top and failed. I failed on the 15 feet of climbing. Had I completed that 15-foot section, I would have gone to the top because it gets much easier.
That must have been very disappointing.
El Cap Free Climb: Free climbing is when you use your hands and feet to ascend a rock face. You have a rope and protection in case you fall. Free soloing, on the other hand, is free climbing but without a rope.
It was heartbreaking. It was one of those moments where you have these goals. You have these dreams that you set for yourself, and you\’re not sure that they\’re entirely possible. It was that a-ha moment where I was like, \”I can do it now.\” I didn\’t know if I was capable until that experience. That\’s when I started to want it badly. I tried two weeks later. In hindsight, one of the mistakes was trying again so soon after. That\’s when I had a bad accident. I fell 50 feet. The season was over. That was 2019 November. I was going to come back in the spring of 2020, but 2020 spring was COVID. Yosemite was closed. I would spend a lot of time in my house. I spent a lot of time on my pull-up bar, training, and thinking about Yosemite, and then came back this past fall and succeeded.
When you\’re on Yosemite rock climbing so often, it must seep into your dreams. You must be dreaming about it as well.
You dream about it. You have nightmares about it. You visualize. It got to the point where I had written down almost every section of the wall and memorized at least all the important moves. I knew everything.
That\’s like a musician who has it all charted out exactly what they have to play and every beat. People don\’t realize there\’s so much nuance, specificity, and exact knowledge of what you\’re doing. There are people in many different walks of life who are experts in the best ever at what they do. It all comes down to knowing all of these details. It\’s cool to find that out, see people map it out like that, and hear that you did that. Fear has got to come into your head a lot when you\’re thinking about it. When you\’re doing it as well, I\’m sure it doesn\’t float away or maybe it does. Maybe for you, when you\’re on the wall, the fear leaves you. You\’re focused on the matter at hand. How do you deal with fear?
I enjoy talking about fear because that does it for me. It doesn\’t go away. There are people like Alex Honnold who don\’t identify with fear in the same way that a lot of us do. I don\’t think he has the same emotional response to it as a lot of people. I\’m a person who has always struggled with fear. I\’ve always tried to figure it out. When I was younger, I was hard on myself. I felt a lot of shame and guilt for feeling fear or being afraid.
Fear of failing, fear of the exposure, fear of height. All of that to me was a weakness. You\’re always taught when you\’re a kid. Especially as a young girl, I was always trying to keep up with the boys, especially in the sport that\’s relatively male-dominated. You\’re always taught like, \”Girls are meant to be afraid. Girls are scared.\” For me, I was always fighting that. I was always like, \”I can\’t be afraid. I\’m not supposed to be afraid. I need to be stronger. I need to beat my fear. I need to conquer my fear.\” I found that to be a very counterproductive experience. When I talk about fear and process fear myself, it\’s more about recognizing why it\’s there and acknowledging that it\’s there. I almost think of it almost like another little spirit. It\’s sitting there. I acknowledge it. I let it be there. I let myself feel it. I let it watch over me.
I try to take the tiniest little steps to push beyond the fear, just to push the envelope of my comfort zone a little bit. When that place gets comfortable, then I push a little bit further. It\’s more about getting comfortable with the fear and the discomfort of it. That\’s how we ultimately progress as humans. A lot of times, when we feel difficult emotions, we feel a lot of shame and guilt for feeling those emotions. In reality, they\’re human emotions that we all experience. I\’m not different from anyone else in terms of the fact that I don\’t feel fear, that I\’m an adrenaline junkie or anything like that. Those are things that are uncomfortable for me as well. I\’ve spent a lot of time dissecting it, analyzing why it\’s happening, and learning to work with it.
To be comfortable with it.
Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is ultimately what it is.
If you can be comfortable with being uncomfortable, you can pretty much achieve anything and nothing will stop you. Does the fear also make you more careful and more precise with your moves, and makes you plan harder and take more care in what you\’re doing? What fear does for me is like, \”Let\’s not let that thing that we\’re afraid of happen.\”
It makes me think more carefully about the risk that I\’m taking, but I wouldn\’t say that it makes me take less risk.
It makes you take more care with the risks.
Yes, it makes me calculate the risk with care, I suppose. I took more risk. This objective that I had was far more dangerous than anything I\’ve ever done in climbing. I\’ve got injured over it. I had an accident over it. To me, I was always going back to the drawing board thinking, \”Is this worth it? Is this worth the risk? Where can I cut corners in a way that I recognize is dangerous, but that I\’m comfortable with? Where can I maintain a certain level of safety?\” It\’s the analysis that I was constantly going through. It\’s pretty fluid. It\’s a constant process of analyzing what I\’m comfortable with and what I\’m not comfortable with. It causes me to calculate risks instead of just going for it willy-nilly.
Which anybody who does that is going to fall off the mountain and not going to do well. You do have to take risks and cut corners in order to do it in one day. You said it\’s the same path, but it\’s a different path up the same path.
I was cutting quite a few corners. That strategy that I was talking about with Alex and I climbing simultaneously called simul-climbing is very risky. There are a lot of places where you can\’t fall or shouldn\’t fall. We\’re cutting corners because I\’m not using as much gear. We\’re covering such a larger distance of rock before switching over. I was leading placing gear, but you only have so much gear. I had to spread it out over 1,500 feet instead of 150 feet. That\’s why the long-distance is between protection, but the climbing for me and for Alex in those sections is relatively easy. I was very confident in our skills and our ability to not fall. That\’s why I was comfortable cutting the corner.
To let everybody know and to explain this, when you have ropes, the actual type of climb you achieved when you did this in one day with ropes is called what? What kind of climb is it?
[bctt tweet=\”Free climbing is an incredible physical and mental challenge that gathers all of the experiences and skills that you need as a climber.\” via=\”no\”]
Not a free solo in which you have no rope. It\’s not free because you didn\’t have to pay for it. It\’s free because of what?
You\’re not using aid.
The ropes aren\’t there to help you up.
No, you\’re not using the rope.
They help you when you\’re falling?
They keep you from dying. Aid climbing is the way that most people ascend to El Cap. El Cap is too hard to free-climb for most people. Aid climbing is when you place the gear in the cracks, and then you pull on the gear. You stand in it. You place another piece, and then you stand it like a ladder. The person below you comes up the rope.
It\’s easier that way. What do you do next? I know that part of the story when you got injured, you didn\’t just go and chill out for a month, and let yourself recover. I know you had a concussion. You said you lost consciousness. What did you do? I know that there\’s a little twist to the story. Within a week of being rescued, you did something else.
Yes, I had this plan. Going back to the story with my dad. My dad is someone who at age 65 still has a lot of goals. He\’s motivated. Leading up to November 2019, we had signed my dad up for this trip to Ecuador to go and climb a 19,000-foot volcano down in Ecuador called Cayambe. My fiancé, Adrian Ballinger, owns a guide company. They take people on these trips all over the world like high-altitude climbing trips. My dad is into climbing mountains. He wants to climb El Cap someday. He\’s got all these goals. I told him six months prior, \”You should start training. We got to go climb this volcano, and you\’re going to love it. You\’re going to be so psyched.\” He spent months and months training. He was in the gym with the backpack on, on the StairMaster, doing it all. A week before we\’re supposed to leave for Ecuador, I did my attempt and I fell. I had this concussion and a serious fear of spinal injury and all these things. I was able to walk out of the hospital with no serious injuries.
The same day?
It\’s the same night I walked out of that hospital.
You went into the hospital having been rescued and you came home that night.
I honestly think I was incredibly lucky to fall 50 feet and not suffer any serious injuries. I had a torn ligament in my neck and my arm. I had this crazy rope burn on my neck and concussion symptoms.
When did you do the free climb?
November 4th, 2020.
Going back to you left the hospital with all these injuries.
I left the hospital and went home to Tahoe. I went to the doctor and she was like, \”Don\’t go to Ecuador. You have a concussion. Don\’t go to altitude. Don\’t do any of that.\” As any person with my personality, I was like, \”I\’m going to go to Ecuador because this is my dad\’s dream trip. I can handle getting on a plane. I can handle going to Ecuador, and then I can start feeling it out.\” We went to Ecuador with my dad.
How many days later did you go to Ecuador?
We left 4 or 5 days later. We got on a plane. I had a neck pillow and flew down to Ecuador. Adrian and I have been to Ecuador a lot. We spent a few weeks acclimatizing and going on hikes. I realized that I was okay. I thought that I could climb this volcano with my dad. Early December 2019, we climbed a 19,000-foot volcano, me, my dad, Adrian and a couple of friends. I skied down with Adrian. My dad was so proud. It was the coolest thing he\’s ever done in his entire life. I\’m glad that I made the decisions that I did and kept going.
El Cap Free Climb: It\’s more about getting comfortable with the fear and the discomfort of it. That\’s how we ultimately progress as humans.
When you came out of that hospital, you probably came out of the hospital because of your dad. You knew that trip was a week or so away. The whole time you probably were motivated with that.
It was on my mind. I remember being in the hospital, having them come back, and be like, \”The X-rays came back clean. MRIs came back clean.\” In my head, the wheels are turning. I was like, \”Maybe I can still go to Ecuador.\”
What\’s next for you? At my age now, I go to answer the phone and I pull a muscle. I\’m picking my kids up. My back and my neck, I\’m hurting all the time with just all the normal life activities. People who are doing what you\’re doing as you get into your 40s and older, what do you do next? You\’re going to start getting a lot more injured. Your body is not going to necessarily be able to recover from that 50-foot free fall into a ledge. What are you focused on now? You\’re very goal-oriented.
It\’s something that I think about a lot. I\’m 34 and I still have some big goals that I\’m excited about.
You\’re not going to free-solo El Cap.
I\’m not going to free-solo El Cap. It\’s not my thing. It\’s like a once in every other generation type of person. I\’d like to free-climb El Cap again. I\’d like to do some other big expeditions. I used to travel the world. A lot of us used to travel the world pre-COVID. I\’m looking forward to doing that a little bit more. As you said, my body is not going to be able to handle a lot of things that it does now and it used to as I get older. I do believe that I\’ve still got a while. I do believe that I can be a rock climber forever as long as I\’m smart about it.
As I\’ve gotten older, I\’ve learned a lot more about my body, how I handle it, and how I handle things. I\’ve learned a lot more about rest and recovery, and a much smarter athlete than I was before. I\’m a better rock climber than I\’ve ever been before. I\’m excited about that. I want to have a family someday. I want to continue to tell my story to others and share it. That\’s also impactful for the world. I\’m looking forward to continuing to be a rock climber, continuing to push myself, at least push myself at the highest level for a few more years before, before hopefully, diving into the adventure of having a family and continuing to climb with them.
Being the excited parent for your kids\’ endeavors and whatever they do. People who do what you do are meant to do it. In a lot of ways, it\’s an example for the rest of us. If you look at the analogy and the metaphor of it being a wall, like a canvas or like an artist would do something with, you\’re doing something artistic. You\’re also displaying for everybody the overcoming of fear, the setting of goals and achieving them, and then also this accomplishment. A lot of people think that these accomplishments are just one person alone climbing a rock. It’s not. I\’ve come to know that there\’s a team of people around you to make it work.
I\’ve been hearing this a lot lately. You got to have a great team around you. You got to do things with those around you, helping you all accomplish a certain goal. You are an incredible picture of that. This whole time we\’ve been talking about you, all the movies and news reports are going to be about you. Tom Brady can say, \”It was the team. It wasn\’t just me. I\’m not the GOAT without my team.\” We all know there\’s a team. With you, we don\’t even know there\’s a team. How does that come to play into it with the people around you?
It\’s super important. Climbing with a rope, I\’m on one end of the rope, there has to be someone on the other end of the rope. Especially with objectives like climbing big walls and climbing mountains, there is very much that partnership aspect. That can make or break success. It can make or break life and death in a lot of ways. One of the most important things that I\’ve garnered through my climbing is understanding how to receive support and how to be supportive when you\’re in a place of extreme vulnerability. There are a lot of times when you\’re on the side of a cliff and you\’re tired, hungry, and cold, and that is the last place that you want to be. Your partner feels exactly the same way, and you\’ve got to figure it out.
For me, it\’s been years of finding those partnerships and the people that work best with me, and utilizing each other\’s strengths and weaknesses in order to be successful. A lot of times, especially with stuff like El Cap, that person who\’s supporting you has to have just as many skills and as much experience as you do, if not more, in order to be a successful partner. For me, it took a lot of strategies to try to figure out how I wanted my team and how I was going to make it all work for the one day. On the day that I succeeded, I had two climbing partners. I had Alex for the first two-thirds of the route, and then I switched over to Adrian, my fiancé, for the last part.
When I went into the second night and we\’re going into hour eighteen, I needed my life partner there to provide that emotional support and empathy. Adrian likes to say that I traded Alex\’s speed for his empathy. I climbed the first two-thirds of the route with Alex because he\’s the fastest, the most competent, and the most experienced El Cap climber there is. When it got hard and then when I needed that person that would be my emotional supporter, that\’s when Adrian came in and we swapped out. Especially for professional athletes like me, I also have the film crew. They\’ve got their own logistics. There\’s someone there holding the camera documenting the whole time. There\’s someone that has to support him as well. Having a camera up there, that\’s a lot of stuff and a lot to manage as well. The team was crucial and it is always crucial. It can become even more so depending on the objective. One of the most valuable things I\’ve received through climbing was the gift of these partnerships and friendships.
You said that this injury here was the one that happened in November 2020’s success. Did you hit your head again on the successful one?
I did, yes. On the way up.
Was there a lot of blood again?
This time, it was less serious because I didn\’t lose consciousness, but there was more traumatic-looking. Also, I was much higher off the ground. I was 300 feet from the summit instead of being close to the ground. I was almost there. It was almost to where I had gotten to the good try the year before. I tried in the sun. I was rushing. I wanted to get this part over with. I\’d never fallen on it before and I slipped. Climbing in the sun is quite hard. It\’s not very good. The friction gets bad.
Does it sweat?
Yes, you get sweaty. The rock gets hot. Everything is slippery. El Cap is south-facing so it bakes in the sun all day. When you\’re doing it in the day, you got to climb in the sun. I was climbing in the sun. I slipped and fell. I came off sideways. I don\’t know what happened. It felt like a very normal fall, but the next thing I knew, the world went black. I had the stars. I could feel the blood. Head wounds bleed a lot. There was a lot of blood. I had punctured my head. There was a hole.
[bctt tweet=\”Processing fear is more about recognizing why it\’s there and acknowledging that it\’s there.\” via=\”no\”]
How can your hands don\’t stop the body from hitting the wall with the head? Is that sideways?
That\’s what I mean by, \”I came sideways.\” Usually, you get your feet under you. You can brace yourself with your feet. This time, my hip checked the wall, and then my head bounced off of it. It was very bizarre. I\’ve seen the footage. It\’s bad.
It\’s going to be in the movie.
Yes, it\’ll be in the movie.
I interrupted you. You were saying, this was a real low point at that moment?
I lowered down to the beginning. There\’s this little ledge. Adrian assessed me for concussion symptoms. I was like, \”I don\’t think I have a concussion.\”
That\’s good that he was there.
He was there. The filmer was there. His supporter was there. A couple of friends of mine are mountain guides. They have the Wilderness First Responder training. I had a lot of support around me. That was where the team aspect was incredibly crucial. I was almost drained. Everything had been going so well. I felt like I was going to be successful. It was all good, and then this happened. There was a part of me that was like, \”This is just like last time. I\’m going to fail. It\’s all over. I got to be done. I can\’t do this. I can\’t complete this section.\” There were all these doubts. There\’s this moment, and I have it on video where Adrian and my filmer, John were like, \”You have fight left in you. You can do this. You need to get back up there and try again. You\’re not that injured. We\’re going to put a Band-Aid on it. You should try again.\” There was a part of me that was like, \”I owe it to myself to try again. I deserve this. I can do this. I still do have a fight left in me.\”
There was another part of me that was super tired, exhausted, drained, and scared. That fear started creeping back in like, \”What if it happens again? What if I fall like that again?\” I gave myself this ultimatum. Thanks to that uplifting vibe from the crew and the team. I was like, \”I\’m going to try one more time. I\’m going to go one move at a time. I\’m only going to think about one move at a time. I\’m not going to think about 300 feet above me,” which is what I still had left. “I\’m not going to think about all the hard climbing. I\’m going to think about this right here. This is what\’s in front of me.\” I had this bizarre, almost like an out-of-body experience where I let go of all expectations. I had no concern for failure or success. It was almost like I was watching myself climb.
I had this moment where athletes have these flow state experiences. They\’re hard to access, but I accessed it somehow between the emotional roller coaster, and then letting go of all of those expectations and all the worries. There were moments where I was thinking to myself, \”Why are you still holding on? Why is this still happening? How is still happening?\” I was on autopilot. I reached the end of that section. I started crying. Everyone around me started crying. They were super emotional. It was one of those moments where I overcame this thing. All of these people witnessed it and were a part of it. That was the ignition that I needed. I was able to continue and be successful.
It\’s interesting because you think about how tired you are. You\’re the one who trained for all of this, yet you\’ve got all these people around you. How tired must they be? How sick of it must they be? They are rooting for you. In some ways, you\’re probably feeling guilty. It must be so wonderful to hear them all say, \”You\’ve got more left inside you. We think you can do this.\” That\’s probably a huge part of letting go of that guilt and the worry about them.
Through the years, I\’ve gotten to a place where I didn\’t have that guilt at that moment. I knew how committed they were to me. There\’s a footage from the previous year when I fell and failed 300 feet from the top. I\’m apologizing to them profusely like, \”I\’m sorry.\” That was something I had to learn to get over, not to feel guilty about that either. That also sucks energy. When we went up there together, we truly were this very cohesive unit with a lot of honesty, truth, and good communication. As you said, they were as invested in it as I was, which is why they also had such emotional reactions to everything that I was doing and happening to me. They even said it. They were like, \”You like to bring us all to the brink of collapse and emotional breakdown, and then you deliver and bring us all back up to here.\” It was a powerful journey.
I can\’t wait to see the movie.
It\’s going to be good.
It culminates. That\’s the ending of the movie, I would assume.
I think that\’ll be the end of the movie. I\’m not sure yet.
When is that supposed to come out?
We\’re thinking fall.
Any title yet for it?
No title yet. We\’re still working on the title. I\’m working with my filmer. We\’re sorting through all of those details at the moment.
That is so cool that all of this has been documented.
El Cap Free Climb: One of the most important lessons from climbing is understanding how to receive support and how to be supportive when you\’re in a place of extreme vulnerability.
That will be cool to watch and so inspiring. That\’s why everybody wants to book you. You\’ve been so in demand as a speaker. Everybody\’s excited about your journey and message. You are still in the middle of this journey, and you\’re going to continue to do amazing things. Sharing all this with everybody about the teamwork aspect, overcoming fear, goal-setting, and everything that you talked about are important points for everyone usually, but even more so in the pandemic.
Right now, people have a lot of fear and uncertainty. They\’re giving up. They don\’t have the drive. They don\’t see the vision of what\’s going to happen. They don\’t have a vision. They\’re not willing to create a vision. All of these lessons and themes that you\’re talking about are relevant right now. I\’m happy that I\’ve booked you and that people are finding out about you. There\’s somebody like you out there who\’s relevant, who\’s current, who\’s doing this, and accomplished something amazing. Congratulations to you for that. Thank you for all of that as well.
Thank you so much. I\’m happy to be here. I truly love sharing my story. It\’s cool to see people relate to it so well. I love talking about these topics, especially in the world now.
This has been awesome. Thank you so much. It\’s obvious that you love what you do as a climber and as a thought leader in these areas. It\’s been wonderful talking to you. I\’ve been looking forward to this. Thank you so much for doing it. Good luck with everything. Good luck with the film. Good luck with all the next climbs. Have fun and stay safe. I\’ll talk to you again in the future.
Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.
About Emily Harrington
Emily Harrington is a professional rock climber and adventurer who has been a prominent and leading figure in the climbing community since she was a teenager. Her early years were defined by her successes on the USA Climbing Team on the national and world competition circuit, including 5 US National Sport Climbing Championships and 2 North American Championships.
Emily’s true passion lies with outdoor climbing and exploring the mountains. Since shifting her focus from the competition, Emily has established numerous first female ascents of 5.14 sport routes, summited Everest, and has been on expeditions all over the world attempting big wall free climbs and high altitude peaks in Nepal, China, Myanmar, Crimea, and Morocco.
In 2020, Emily achieved a lifelong dream and a career milestone, becoming just the fourth woman ever to free-climb El Capitan in a day, and the first to do so on the famed Golden Gate route.
As a speaker, Emily offers a candid perspective on how she’s evolved as a world-class athlete and as a person, often leaning into her experience as a female athlete and how she’s overcome doubts and fears. She’s lent her experience and perspective to the NYTimes, TedX stages, and a variety of different business audiences.
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