In November 2020, Harrington became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route on El Capitan in under 24 hours. (Photo: Cayce Clifford)

Emily Harrington Made History on El Cap. She’s Still Ascending.

Her list of physical feats seems almost impossible. Win national sport-climbing competitions starting at the age of 13? Check. Summit Mount Everest? Check. Free-climb El Capitan in under 24 hours? That, too. But in order to cement her status as one of the world’s best climbers, there were more daunting obstacles to overcome.

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It’s 2 p.m. on November 4, 2020, in Yosemite National Park, and the afternoon sun is blasting the south-­facing Golden Gate route on El Capitan. Emily Harrington is a little more than 12 hours into her fourth attempt to free-climb the 3,200-foot-tall granite behemoth in under 24 hours.

Heat radiates off the wall, but Har­rington, 34, is confident and mov­ing well. She’s at the base of a pitch called Golden Desert, a stretch of slick rock with a thin crack. A few minutes ago she took an unexpected fall when her foot slipped, but she’s anxious to get to the next pitch, the A5 Traverse—her prior high point. Despite already ascending 2,900 feet, she isn’t that tired, so she decides to try again.

Graded 5.13a, Golden Desert is one of the most difficult sections of the route. There are no dimples or edges in the rock to put her toes on. Climbing it involves a tenuous balance of keeping her feet high enough to maintain friction but low enough to push upward. After cruising through the section she had just fallen on, she gets to a roof where she must traverse left. The heat forces her to grip harder than she normally would, and fatigue is setting in. To conserve energy, she skips clipping a piece of gear. Suddenly she slips, and the world goes black.

When she realizes what happened, she’s hanging on the rope just above the belay ledge, blood pouring down her face and into her eyes. She’d come sideways off the wall and hit her head on a protrusion in the rock, which gouged a quarter-size hole into the left side of her forehead. The failures from her previous El Cap attempts come rushing back—giving up a few hundred feet from the top in November 2019, and later that month, a massive fall that required a rescue and left her bloodied, bruised, and concussed. Instantly, she feels tired and afraid. She doesn’t want to climb anymore.

“I think you’ve got more try in you,” says Adrian Ballinger, Harrington’s fiancé, who is her belayer and moral support for the top portion of the route. (Her friend Alex Honnold belayed her for the first two-thirds.) With tears running down her face and blood drying on her forehead, Harrington eats a handful of nuts. Ballinger attempts to lift her spirits. “You know I’d tell you if I didn’t,” he says.

“I can try,” Harrington mumbles. Yosemite Valley is quieter than usual, and her words hang in the air. With the country still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the park is practically empty, and Harrington’s team, which includes a small film crew documenting the attempt, are some of the only people on the wall.

She knows how easy it would be to give up. But this is why she chose this goal, to test herself when it got hard.

After resting and waiting for shade to hit the wall, she starts to climb, focusing on what’s in front of her and nothing else. She enters what she’ll later characterize as a flow state, an experience she’d never had before. She executes moves flawlessly, and from that point on the climb is magical. She sends the A5 Traverse on her first try, then the following five pitches, reaching the top of El Cap in 21 hours 13 minutes 51 seconds. With that she becomes the fourth woman to free-climb El Cap in less than 24 hours—and the first woman ever to do it via the Golden Gate route.

Climbing the Golden Gate route
Climbing the Golden Gate route (Jon Glassberg)

At five foot two, with long platinum braids and an athletic build, Harrington doesn’t really stand out when I visit her at Refuge Climbing and Fitness, a crowded bouldering gym in Las Vegas. It’s been two months since Golden Gate, and she’s busy falling off the same boulder problems as everyone else.

You wouldn’t know just by looking at her that she’s a decorated competition climber and has ticked 5.14b outside, summited multiple 8,000-meter peaks (including Everest), completed a ski descent of the Tibet side of 26,864-foot Cho Oyu, and free-climbed El Cap in a day.

What exactly keeps her going? The short answer: she loves the struggle. Like, loves it.

“I need that fight,” Harrington says. “I fell in love with the process of climbing, and I haven’t found anything that has surpassed that.” She recently read the book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, and latched on to the idea that humans are happier when there’s struggle.

Harrington and Ballinger, a 45-year-old International Federation of Mountain Guides Association–certified guide, live in Tahoe City, California, on Lake Tahoe. They’re in Vegas to climb in warm weather and hang out with friends. It’s a winter hot spot for America’s strongest climbers; Honnold and Jonathan Siegrist live here, among others. Ballinger, who leads clients up peaks like Everest and Denali, is trying his hardest sport climb yet: Fall of Man, a 5.13b at nearby Virgin River Gorge. Harrington is his belayer and coach for the route.

It’s hard for nonclimbers, and even experienced climbers like me, to grasp how difficult freeing El Cap in under 24 hours truly is. Harring­ton describes it as running an ultramarathon, then having to sprint a 100-meter dash. A little context: most climbers who ascend El Cap use a combination of aid climbing (pulling on gear to ascend) and free climbing (pulling only on rock to ascend), and it can take them five or six days to reach the top. Both styles use a rope for safety, as opposed to free soloing, which is free climbing without a rope.

While struggling with an eating disorder, Harrington remembers thinking: You’re only succeeding if you’re starving and suffering; you don’t do enough, you don’t try hard enough, you aren’t enough.

For mere mortals, a day of trad climbing—in which the climber places their own protective gear in the rock as they move up—­involves five or six pitches, with a return to the ground after each climb to rest and belay others for 30 minutes to an hour. A big day of multi-pitch trad climbing, where you stay on the wall the whole time but don’t sleep there, is about 10 to 12 pitches. Grade-wise, a strong trad climber is doing 5.11; an elite climber is doing 5.12. Only masters are climbing 5.13 trad.

In less than 24 hours, Harrington climbed 41 pitches total, of which four were 5.13 and one was 5.12. (Those grades are based on the 2021 edition of the Rock Climbing Yosemite Valley guidebook, by Erik Sloan.) On most walls, any one of those pitches would be challenging. On El Cap, they’re even harder. The routes there are known for being “sandbagged,” meaning that the grades are lower than the actual difficulty. Then add in the exposure—doing it all with a few thousand feet of air below you.

In the documentary Free Solo, Honnold climbed El Cap’s Freerider route. At 5.12d, it’s technically the “easiest” big-wall free route on the Big Stone—though Honnold did it without the protection of a rope. At 5.13a, Golden Gate is a step up in difficulty, with the hardest pitches near the top. While Harrington considered climbing Freerider for her 24-hour objective, she decided against taking the easy way up. “The first time I supported her on Golden Gate, in 2019, she wasn’t quite ready for it,” Honnold says. “To be fair, the route was really wet from spring runoff, but she was not climbing her best. Then the accident at the base set her back a little. By the time she did it last November, she looked poised and calm. She has moments of greatness in her climbing that are inspiring to witness.”

Harrington trained by taking on difficult sport routes to get her overall fitness up, which included trips in 2019 to Spain, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and Corsica. She did a lot of bouldering to work on her power, which she says is her weakness, and spent 60-plus days on El Cap. The goal was to increase volume and limit rest—for instance, by ski-touring for six hours, then hitting the hang board. This improved her ability to push hard when she was tired, crucial for a speedy ascent.

“I chose Golden Gate because I wanted it to be unique, and I wanted it to be something that I felt like maybe I couldn’t do,” she says. Only about 25 people in the world have free-climbed a route on El Cap in a day, including Lynn Hill and Tommy Caldwell.

Of course, such an audacious goal comes with an abundance of pressure.

Harrington near Las Vegas with her Catahoula–pit bull mix, Cat (Cayce Clifford)

Even though Harrington ex­celled early and often in her climbing ­career, the road to El Cap wasn’t paved with gold. By the age of 23, she was a five-time national sport-­climbing champion and a two-time North American champion, with multiple first- and second-place finishes in international competitions. But those successes saddled her with the weight of expectation, which con­tributed to one of the biggest challenges she’s faced in her life: a struggle with an eating disorder.

She began climbing at age ten, near her home in Boulder, Colorado. The Army had set up a climbing wall at the Boulder Reservoir, and she, her uncle, and her cousins checked it out one day after water-skiing.

“As soon as I stepped onto the wall, absolutely nothing else mattered,” Harrington recalls. “I remember in my head being like, This is my thing. I’m going to do this, and I’m going to keep doing it, and I’m going to be really good at it.” Shortly after, she quit everything else: soccer, gymnastics, dance, skiing.

Emily is the only child of Tim and Julie Harrington, an outdoorsy couple who moved from the Midwest to Colorado to be closer to the mountains. According to her father, Harrington was naturally talented as a child. “She walked at nine months and was reciting Dr. Seuss books at three years old,” he says.

Soon she joined the junior team at the Boulder Rock Club and began competing. Robyn Erbesfield-­Raboutou, a world champion com­petition climber, began coaching Harrington at age 12. “I wanted to be just like her,” Harrington says. “I wanted to be world champion. I wanted to win everything.”

There weren’t a lot of young women being coached in climbing at the time. “As I got to know Emily, I saw a drive and passion that I didn’t see in too many other people—not just youth, but people in general,” Erbesfield-­Raboutou says. At 13, Harrington took first place at the ­Junior Compe­tition Climbing Association Nationals, and at 16 she won her first USA Climbing adult nationals in sport climbing. The same year she climbed a 5.13c outside, and it clicked that maybe outdoor climbing was as important to her as competition. She worked just as hard at her studies and graduated second in her high school class. The next year she went on to the University of Colorado Boulder.

But cracks were starting to appear. “She’d get so down on herself if she didn’t win,” her father says.

After her freshman year of college, Harrington, then 18, went to Europe with some fellow competitors, and they traveled to various World Cup competitions. She climbed well, but it never felt like enough.

“I started the whole obsessive comp-climber routine,” Harrington says. “Obsessive dieting, obsessive about fitness and exercise and training. I got really skinny that summer.” She lost 25 pounds and started climbing even better, making the podium in countless competitions.

When her parents arrived in Europe for a family trip after the season ended, they were struck by how thin she looked. Her hands were orange from eating so many carrots, and she was struggling to stay motivated for climbing outside.

Watching his daughter be so hard on herself made Tim feel helpless. “That was the period when she didn’t want to talk to us about those kinds of things,” he says.

Disordered eating is a secret many climbers are aware of, but only in recent months have they started talking about it more publicly. In the sport, success depends on a person’s strength to weight ratio. Dropping a few pounds is widely accepted as a way to send harder climbs, but the line between healthy weight loss and self-destructive behavior can get blurry fast.

“My eating habits and my internal dialogue were really unhealthy,” Harrington says. She set rules for herself. She counted calories, eating no more than 1,100 per day. She stepped on the scale compulsively, and constantly told herself she didn’t measure up. She remembers thinking: You’re only succeeding if you’re starving and suffering; you don’t do enough, you don’t try hard enough, you aren’t enough.

The next few years of Harring­ton’s life were focused on controlling how much she exercised and how little she ate. During her final semester at college, in early 2007, one of her coaches, Justen Sjong, suggested she try Burning Down the House, a 5.14b at Jailhouse, a climbing area in California. That’s where she first met Honnold, who recalls that Harrington arrived and climbed all his projects on the first try. She flew from Colorado to California several times over the course of a few weeks, eventually sending Burning Down the House at age 20 and becoming one of only a dozen women in the world at the time to achieve that grade. “When Em did that route, it represented a whole different level. That’s part of why I found her performance so amazing—it was way beyond me,” Honnold says.

Harrington is now open about her eating disorder. In the fall of 2020, she talked about it with filmmaker Caroline Treadway for a documentary called Light. “You deprive yourself, you starve yourself, you drive yourself into the ground, and then… you send,” Harrington says in the film, which alternates between recent clips of her at a healthy body weight and old, fuzzy shots of her looking rail thin and crushing it in comps. “All the climbers I had seen before, that was how they achieved success. You know maybe in the back of your mind that it’s not healthy and it’s wrong, but good things are coming to you, so why would you stop doing it?”

After watching the film, Tim had a conversation with his daughter about that time in her life. He told her he felt bad that he and her mother hadn’t talked to her more about these issues. “That did hurt, that I felt like I wasn’t there for her during that period,” Tim says. “She said, ‘No, Dad, it was OK. That was me.’ ”

Things began to change for Harrington in the summer of 2007, when the North Face approached her about joining its team. She signed on in 2008, and her first big trip was to China with Cedar Wright, Lisa Rands, and Tim Kemple. These were strong climbers in their thirties who planned to keep at it their whole lives, a future Harrington couldn’t envision at the pace she was going. Something had to give. She returned to the U.S. and kept training hard, but improved her eating habits. She relaxed her rules and began hanging out with friends, going to bars, and having fun being a twenty­something in Boulder.

Her body changed, and her ­climbing performance fluctuated, but she stopped weighing herself. A few years ago, she began seeing a sports psychologist and figuring out “what’s true and what’s good.” She credits therapy with helping her realize that being kind to yourself and enjoying downtime are integral to the big picture.

“It’s really now that we’re seeing who the real Emily is,” Erbesfield-Raboutou says. “I was there to guide her when she wasn’t her own person yet. Now she’s guiding herself.”

Emily Harrington ascending the East Ledges on the side of El Capitan, Yosemite, California
Harrington, seen here on El Cap, has endured multiple injuries from climbing (Jon Glassberg)

“Do it again, Stik!” Harrington yells up to Ballinger, who is hanging on the end of a rope about 50 feet off the ground. He’s just done the crux move on Fall of Man. “Rest a minute, then repeat it a few more times so it’s dialed when you go for the send!” she screams over the roar of semis hurtling down I-15.

The unexpected winter weather in Las Vegas has cleared enough for a day of climbing at Virgin River Gorge, where I’m watching Harrington belay Ballinger on his project. VRG is not the most aesthetic crag, but it has what Harrington considers “some of the best limestone in America.”

Harrington calls Ballinger Stik, short for Stikbug, due to his lanky frame, and he calls her Danger, short for Danger Mouse. He dubbed her that because “she’s small but dangerous, a little bit of a loose cannon.” In the beginning of their relationship, they would climb together and she would have the rope behind her leg or take risks that he wouldn’t take, and she would just laugh. Ballinger guides on the world’s biggest mountains, so his career and his clients’ lives rely on him following the rules and being fastidious. Harrington’s scene is a little more spontaneous. After a day of climbing or skiing, Ballinger will put each item of gear in its place, then pack everything up exactly the same the next day. Harrington dumps everything on the ground and leaves it there.

It was with Ballinger that Harrington first free-climbed El Cap over the course of six days in 2015, and he proved to be the ­partner she needed to make it through suc­cessive attempts and the “many wobblers and falls and tears and just thrashing and flailing,” she says. For her, it was crucial to have “her person” there when she needed to dig deep.

The pair met on Everest in 2012, when Harrington was part of a North Face trip with Conrad Anker, who was captain of the company’s athlete team at the time, and Ballinger was guiding clients with his company, Alpenglow Expeditions, in partnership with Himalayan Experience. It was on this trip that Harrington also got to know Hilaree Nelson, one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers of all time. Nelson was skeptical about having a sport climber along in such an intense environment. Early in the expedition, Harrington got a respiratory infection and had to use supplemental oxygen at Base Camp. The situation forced her to make a decision: go home or keep trying.

“I chose Golden Gate because I wanted it to be something that I felt like maybe I couldn’t do,” Harrington says. Only about 25 people in the world have free-climbed El Cap
in a day, including Lynn Hill.

“I met this girl who was timid and nervous, almost mousy,” says Nelson, who took over as captain of the North Face Global Athletic Team in 2018. “She would have had every reason to go home, but instead, as we’ve seen her do over and over again, she made the decision to keep going.”

On Everest, Harrington found herself in an unpredictable environment. “From what you eat to being exposed to the weather to other partners, you can’t control how your body reacts to altitude,” Nelson says. That was hard for Harrington, who was 25 and still recovering from the eating disorder, which centered on control.

But on May 25, she reached the summit. “I went from thinking she didn’t belong in this environment to thinking, Here is a woman who is willing to be vulnerable and try anything. I have the utmost respect for that,” Nelson says.

As soon as she got back from the Himalayas, Harrington headed to California to be with Ballinger. She found herself in a new place with new people and new sports, which continued to force her out of her comfort zone.

“I left Boulder and essentially grew up,” Harrington says. “After being born and raised in a place, and going to college there, and then trying to continue to live in that place and be around the same people and community, it was suffocating in a way.”

During their first few months together, everything with Ballinger was novel and fun. After a 15-year hiatus, Harrington started skiing again, and rediscovered her love for big mountains. To spend time together, Ballinger would sport-climb with Harrington, and Harrington would scale mountains with him. Part of what makes their relationship work is how complementary their skill sets are. “He’d been climbing forever, but he was one of those people who would go out and do like 15 pitches a day and not send any,” she says.

The couple have an aptly named YouTube channel, DangerStik TV, which provides a look into their lives as professional mountain athletes. Episodes include a climbing trip to Spain, flying their Cessna 182 (called Mabel), getting sick on a surfing trip to Baja, keeping up a relationship while on opposite sides of the world, and many appearances by their four-year-old Catahoula–pit bull mix, Cat. In May 2020, Harrington and Ballinger got engaged. They plan to marry in Ecuador this December.

Harrington with Adrian Ballinger on Golden Gate in 2015
Harrington with Adrian Ballinger on Golden Gate in 2015 (@jonglassberg/@louderthan11)

The mainstream media picked up Harrington’s El Cap climb and portrayed it as a history-making ascent by a strong woman who persevered to complete a daunting achievement. All of which is true. But they also got a lot wrong.

Many news outlets claimed that she was the first woman ever to free-climb El Cap in a day; she’s the fourth. Lynn Hill was the first person—man or woman—to do it, in 1994, on the Nose route. For Harrington, who spent her childhood idolizing Hill, it was a “fleeting moment of mortification.” She was able to turn it around and use the media’s misstep as a way to highlight the women who came before her: Hill, Steph Davis in 2004, and Mayan Smith-Gobat in 2011.

“What Lynn Hill did was just as groundbreaking and important as what Alex Honnold did,” Harrington says, referring to Honnold’s free solo of El Cap.

Despite a long career with numerous milestones, her achievement on Golden Gate took so much sacrifice and self-­exploration that she feels changed as a person. The process was all-consuming, and now that it’s done there’s a release. She’s allowing herself to enjoy the sense of satisfaction instead of hustling to the next objective.

Climbing is more fun now than it ever was before. Surrounded by good friends in beautiful places, Harrington no longer seeks perfection. She allows space for creativity and joy, like supporting Ballinger on Fall of Man, which he sent in late March after 45 days of trying. Thanks in part to therapy, she has a healthier mindset and is more aware of when she’s punishing herself.

She has future plans—a big-wall expedition to Pakistan, sport-climbing a 5.14c, freeing more routes on El Cap, not to mention having kids—but nothing is set in stone. She feels like a tumbleweed, going wherever life takes her. The old Emily would have experienced guilt about not having that next big goal squarely in her sights.

The new Emily is just fine with it.

From Summer 2021 Lead Photo: Cayce Clifford