NorCal Rock Climber Becomes the First Woman to Free Climb El Capitan’s Golden Gate Route

Photo by Jesse Gardner 

It was November 2019 when rock climber Emily Harrington had a terrifying fall on Yosemite’s El Capitan. She accrued brutal injuries after being rescued on the 3,000-foot rock face, only to be helped off the wall by world-famous climbers Adrian Ballinger, Jon Glassberg, Sanni McCandless and Alex Hannold.

A little under a year after that accident, Harrington broke a glass ceiling on that very rock wall, becoming the first woman to free climb the Golden Gate route on El Capitan, and the fourth person to ever achieve the accomplishment.

While most people had their eyes glued to the presidential election last week, 34-year-old Harrington made a historic ascent up El Capitan, which took her 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds later to reach the top. She announced her accomplishment on social media, showing the power of determination in the rock climbing world:

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Golden Gate ✨ Free 💫 In A Day ⚡️ 📸 @jonglassberg / @jess_talley / @louderthan11 I never believed I could actually free climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself. It didn’t seem like a realistic objective for me. I didn’t have the skills, fitness, or risk profile to move so quickly over such a large piece of stone. But I chose it exactly for that reason. Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves. On Nov 4 I started climbing with @alexhonnold at 1:34am, caught between my own internal drama of achieving a life goal and the more prevalent one of the elections – both unfolding in parallel ways in my brain. I knew I was in for a big day – but that’s exactly why I was there. I wanted to find my limit and exist in it and fight beyond it. A nasty slip on the 13a Golden Desert pitch almost took my resolve – a deep gash on my forehead left me bloody and defeated. I pulled on again, part of me not really wanting to stay on the wall, the other part gathering courage and flow. I kept thinking “why am I still hanging on?” The next pitch was the A5 traverse, where I failed last year. This time it was not my limit. I fought hard but with flawless movements in the dark. I cried at the belay – it could happen this time….The final 5 pitches felt scary in my current state but I pulled over the final lip at 10:30pm in disbelief. There’s a lot more to say but mostly I wanted to express my gratitude for the love and support from friends, family, and strangers. I feel the love so intensely right now. Thank you all 🙏🏻 Massive thanks to @alexhonnold for climbing with me over these years, you’ve inspired me to think bigger and believe in myself in ways you cannot imagine. To @jonglassberg for your friendship, creativity, and ability to capture a story while at the same time keeping it light and always fun. And finally to my best friend, partner, lover, fave human of all time @adrianballinger – your support and love for me through the darkness and the light has never wavered. I love you endlessly ❤️❤️❤️ More to come!!! @thenorthface / @kodiakcakes / @petzl_official / @lasportivana

A post shared by ᴇᴍɪʟʏ ʜᴀʀʀɪɴɢᴛᴏɴ (@emilyaharrington) on

“I never believed I could actually free climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself. It didn’t seem like a realistic objective for me,” wrote Harrington. “I didn’t have the skills, fitness, or risk profile to move so quickly over such a large piece of stone. But I chose it exactly for that reason. Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”

The term “free solo” or “free climb” is used to describe a rock climb without any safety equipment. Of course, only the best of the best use this tactic as a way to challenge themselves, as it is extremely dangerous. One little hiccup or gush of wind could send you falling to your death.

Harrington was assisted on the climb by her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, a renowned Mount Everest guide, and Alex Honnold, the famed star of Emmy-winning documentary “Free Solo.” During the climb, she faced adversity when her foot slipped and she fell sideways on a wall, causing blood stream down her face mid-climb. After taking an hour rest on the wall, she overcame her injury to continue to the top.

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Harrington now lives in Squaw Valley, California where she trains at a local gym while practicing at local Northern California climbing destinations. She spends here free time rounding out her outdoor athletic ability by running and skiing near Lake Tahoe.

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