Yosemite has been a proving ground for rock climbers for decades, attracting people from all over the world with its stunning scenery and challenging routes. Golden Gate is known as one of the more difficult courses on the famous El Capitan, and just this week, Emily Harrington has become the first woman to free climb it in a day.
Completing the grade VI 5.13 route in 21 hours and 13 minutes, Harrington has also become the fourth person to free climb the 3000-foot-high route in 24 hours after Tommy Caldwell, Brad Gobright and Alex Honnold. The successful climb comes a little less than a year after her first attempt that left her hospitalized. The route typically takes experienced climbers between four and six days to complete, with over 40 pitches or sections to overcome.
“El Capitan is one of the largest, most difficult and iconic walls in the world and is deeply entrenched in climbing culture. I grew up knowing about it and the incredible climbing achievements that have occurred there. I suppose it had always been in the back of my mind. I free climbed the Golden Gate route in 2015 over six days and decided that attempting to climb it in under 24 hours would be a true show of progression in my climbing,” Emily told Lonely Planet.
Free climbing sees a climber ascending a route without any physical assistance, and only a rope for safety in the event of a fall. On 4 November at 1.34am she set off with Alex Honnold, whose rope-free ascent of El Capitan was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Free Solo. Honnold was her belay partner – the person who climbs behind and tightens and slackens the safety rope.
A harrowing slip on the 13a Golden Desert pitch tested her resolve, and left her with a bloodied gash on her forehead. Still she pushed on to complete the leviathan task. Both the successful climb and the lead up to it taught Emily valuable lessons.
“I think mostly I learned how to fail. How to deal with uncertainty, struggle, and the very real possibility that I was working toward something that might never happen. I had to come to terms with that. I’ve always been a perfectionist and incredibly hard on myself. Once I learned to have a little more compassion for myself, that nothing was ever going to be perfect; I gave myself the space to really try hard, to get creative, and to eventually succeed,” she said.
Harrington has been a prominent and leading figure in the climbing community since she was a teenager, with her early years being defined by her successes on the USA Climbing Team on the national and world competition circuits. Since shifting her focus from competition she has completed 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.
As well as experiencing pride in her achievement, Emily’s takeaway is a hope that she is able to encourage others to get into climbing. “I want people to understand that climbing is an activity that does not have a defined ‘ideal’ in terms of who can experience it and who can excel at it. Climbing is for everyone and I hope more people are inspired to try it. My advice would be to ‘embrace the struggle’. The fear and discomfort never goes away. You just learn how to move through those things better. And that is a gift that carries through to all aspects of life,” Emily told Lonely Planet.
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