On Jan. 28, professional climber Emily Harrington joined a Forever Buffs Spotlight zoom event to talk about her historical single day free climb of El Capitan via Golden Gate at Yosemite National Park in 2020. Over the hour-long zoom call, the University of Colorado Boulder graduate outlined her journey from a youth climber to joining the North Face Global Athlete Team and accomplishing several climbing feats.
Harrington became the first woman to free climb the 41-pitch route in a day and is just the fourth climber ever to climb El Capitan in a day. In 1993, Lynn Hill became the first woman to free climb the Nose in under 24 hours while Steph Davis and Mayan Smith-Gobat have each climbed the Freerider route in a day.
Harrington grew up in Boulder and began her climbing career at 11 years old at the Boulder Reservoir and the Boulder Rock Club. She was a five-time national champion from age 16 to 23 while her passion for sport climbing grew. Harrington then attended CU Boulder and studied international affairs with an emphasis on Sub-Saharan African politics. She graduated with honors in 2007 and was the Magna Cum Laude of her class. In 2008, her plans to attend law school were curbed by an invitation to join the North Face Global Athlete Team.
Over the past 12 years, Harrington has traveled the globe climbing big walls and has established multiple female first ascents of route grades 5.14 or harder. In 2015, Harrington climbed Golden Gate in a push that took six days while being supported by her now fiance Adrian Ballinger.
Soon after Harrington completed what she described as one of her proudest achievements, she began thinking more about pushing her limit.
“Right afterward, I started thinking a little bit bigger and I started thinking that maybe I wanted to do what I had done in six days in under 24 hours,” Harrington said.
In the fall of 2019, four years after embarking on her quest, Harrington made it to the A5 traverse about 2,900 feet from the valley floor and just a few hundred feet from the top of El Capitan. The A5 traverse is regarded as the last hard pitch of climbing on Golden Gate. After climbing for 15 hours, Harrington was unable to push through the traverse and had to go home empty-handed.
“It was heartbreaking, honestly, but I was encouraged,” Harrington said. “It was kind of an epiphany honestly. It was that moment when I realized that this impossible dream was actually possible for me, that I could actually do it.”
In November of that same year, Harrington tried again but slipped and fell 50 feet onto a ledge where she hit her head and lost consciousness. She was evacuated off El Capitan and luckily only suffered a concussion and some cuts and bruises. Undeterred by the setback, Harrington was determined to etch her name in the history of Yosemite climbing. “But like all things that are hard, progress is not linear and doesn’t come easy,” she said.
One year later and after several weeks of preparation, Harrington and fellow professional rock climber Alex Honnold began to climb up Golden Gate at 1:34 am on Nov. 4, 2020. Nearly three-quarters of the way up, Honnold was replaced by Ballinger to give her extra emotional support. Despite a fall near the top that left a hole in Harrington’s head, she was able to rally with the help of her team to finish the final pitches of Golden Gate.
“It can seem a little bit pointless when you break it down, but that process of finding my limit, trying the impossible, being creative and then leaning on my team, gave me so much more meaning than I ever thought it could,” Harrington said. “In the end, it was less about the objective itself and more about that search to find my limit and push beyond that perceived edge and just go a little bit further.”
Harrington climbed Golden Gate in 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds to become just the fourth person ever to climb Golden Gate in a day, joining Honnold, Tommy Caldwell and Brad Gobright.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Chad Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.