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1st woman to free-climb El Capitan

34-year-old Emily Harrington of Tahoe City, California became the first woman  and the fourth person ever to free-climb the notorious El Capitan route in a single day. Harrington accomplished the feat on Nov 4, 2020, in 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds. Taking the route called The Golden Gate, to scale the 3,000-foot wall, El Capitan. According to the Yosemite website, the wall is, “2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building.” 

While many people have attempted to free climb El Capitan in 24 hours, including Beth Rodden, Steph Davis and Lynn Hill, only three men have ever free-climbed the Golden Gate route in under 24 hours. Harrington is now the fourth person and the first woman to do so.   

The Golden Gate is a grade VI 5.13 route that follows 36 pitches up the south face of El Cap. Climbing grades provide guidance, suggesting the length of time an experienced climber might take to complete the route. To complete the Golden Gate route, it would take two-plus days. The climbing rate overview was initially developed to describe a full range of backcountry travel, the YDS rates technical rock climbs from 5.0 through 5.15. The scales 5.13-5.15 are considered very difficult. Meaning it’s strenuous climbing, requiring climbers to be qualified as “expert climbers” who train regularly and have lots of natural ability. 

The route was pioneered by the late Dean Potter and Alexander Honnold; the star of the 2018 documentary, “Free Solo.” Honnold was one of the first people to climb the famous route without a safety rope. The vulnerable portrayal of Honnold coming to terms with the possibility of dying showcased the life-and-death gamble that climbing can be. Principally with Holland solely equipped with chalk and climbing shoes. 

Free climbing includes the use of trad gear, bolts, and rope, free soloing lack thereof. Free soloing includes zero aids or protection whatsoever, making it the purest form of climbing. It is extremely dangerous—one misstep can cause certain death.  

Climbing is a waltz with death—especially since falls still occur with the usage of protective gear. This was evident in the tragic incident of Brad Gobright. American rock climber Gobright died after a fall at Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero Chico, Nov 27, 2019. Gobright fell nearly 985 feet using abseiling rope, which is supposedly safer than free-climbing. Gobright’s companion, 26-year-old Aidan Jacobson, was saved by a bush. Not only did it break his fall, but it also stopped him from tumbling farther. He watched Gobright, in a “blue Gramicci shirt bounce over the edge,” he told the website Outside. 

A similar incident happened to Harrington last year. It was her first attempt climbing El Cap.  Harrington fell 50 feet, hitting her head on a ledge, suffering a concussion. 

She took to Instagram with a picture showing her injured face and a rope burn across her neck.  

“Not much to say except I took a bad fall and pinballed a bit then somehow hit the rope with my neck,” she wrote alongside a face slap and shrugging emoji. 

She was accompanied by her boyfriend, a Mount Everest guide, Adrian Ballinger and Holland during her first attempt. In Ballinger’s own post, he praised her for her “warrior mentality,” saying, “She dealt with the pain, helped where she could, and stayed positive throughout.”  

That same mentality shone through during her winning attempt. She was again accompanied by Honnold and Ballinger, as they witnessed Harrington have another “nasty slip on the 13a” (Harrington’s Instagram). 

In another one of Ballinger’s Instagram posts, he described the moment Harrington reached one of the hardest parts of the climb. Her foot slipped causing her to fall sideways and hit her head against the rocks. 

“Blood just started pouring down her face, dripping onto me at the belay,” Ballinger said. “We immediately thought her day was done. It was a wild, scary flashback to last year’s fall.”

While Harrington hung from a belay, securely hanging from the end of a rope, she struggled with her confidence, sharing her conflicted mindset on Instagram, “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?’” Harrington was quick to dress her wounds and rest for about an hour. 

“There was a part of me that wanted to give up and quit,” she told ABC News. “But this other part of me was like, this is why you’re here. It’s supposed to be hard. You owe it to yourself to try again.”

It was A5 traverse, where she failed the previous year.  

“This time it was not my limit. I fought hard but with flawless movements in the dark” she wrote on her Instagram. “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 10:30 pm in disbelief.”  Harrington celebrated her accomplishment on Instagram, expressing gratitude towards Ballinger, “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.” 

She also posted pictures of her bleeding head, accompanied by her disbelief. 

“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,” she wrote, “Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”