Projecting The Captain: An Interview with Emily Harrington

We love stories about climbers who push themselves out of their comfort zones and get after their dreams. We’ve been especially inspired by Emily Harrington, a sport and competition climber who recently developed a big crush on the most iconic piece of rock in the world—El Capitan.

In this interview, Emily tells us about training to free climb Golden Gate (5.13b, 40 pitches), what it’s like to climb with Cedar Wright, and her experience with the notorious Monster Offwidth.


What got you psyched on El Cap?

It’s always been something I wanted to try. Ever since I was a kid on the Junior Team in Boulder I’ve just had this idea that one day I would go do it. I think it’s because I grew up around Tommy Caldwell, Beth Rodden, and my climbing coach Justin Sjong, when they were spending a lot of time trying free routes up there.

I remember not really getting it; like I couldn’t fathom how it was actually done. We had a sleepover at the climbing gym once and we all got to sleep in portaledges, ha. I had this vague idea that free climbing El Cap was like another world entirely—a different kind of climbing that I would have to put a lot of time in to learn. Turns out I was totally right.

I got psyched a few years ago when I moved to California and actually started learning to trad climb, big wall climb, and just climb on granite. It’s so different from sport climbing on limestone, and requires an entirely different set of skills.

Climbing El Cap is a rite of passage for me, a confirmation that I’ve achieved something that reflects all that time I’ve put in to becoming more well-rounded. It’s like earning some sort of merit badge. Being successful would be a super meaningful and personal thing for me—it would be a defining moment in my climbing career.

Related: Chasing Dreams: El Capitan Free Climbing

 

What route are you working on? Are you trying to free it?

Emily Harrington
Emily looking down at the Valley floor.

I’m working on Golden Gate (5.13b, 40 pitches), which starts the same as the Freerider and splits off right after El Cap Spire. And yes, we are trying to free it!

Why did you choose Golden Gate?

I chose to try Golden Gate because my friend Hazel Findlay recommended it to me. She climbed it in 2011 for her first free route on El Cap. She said the upper face pitches were super cool and less thuggy (less wide pitches) than the upper part of the Freerider, which is the usual first free route for most people.

Everyone seems to think Golden Gate has a lot of reachy sections, but Hazel did it and she’s a bit shorter than me so I’m not concerned that it’s not doable. However she’s sort of a granite wizard and I’ve already found out that there are several sections that are quite a bit harder if you’re short and require some creativity. It’s been fun chatting with her in the last few days, sharing our experiences and different methods. I really admire her climbing style, and I hope to be able to climb with her on the big stone next spring when her shoulder heals up (she just had surgery).

Tell us about the process of projecting a route on El Cap.

We’ve been utilizing all the tactics in order to give ourselves the best shot possible: rapping in, fixing lines, top roping crux pitches, mini tractioning, etc. HA! I’m not ashamed. I think ground up is super cool and admirable, and I’d love to try an El Cap route in that style in the future, but I really want to give myself the best chance of sending—even if it takes a bit of the adventure and challenge out of it.

It’s also been good for me to practice all the systems and logistics involved with working a route on such a massive piece of stone. My big wall skills are still developing and I’m enjoying the process of learning and swinging around up high. Plus top roping El Cap is super fun in it’s own right 🙂

 

Related: 10 Common Mistakes New Big Wall Climbers Make

 

Tell us about your partner. What is it like to climb with Cedar Wright?

I’ve known Cedar for a long time; since before I joined The North Face team in 2008. After joining the team though, I started going on trips that Cedar happened to be going on as well, which is where we became friends.

We’ve been to some wild places together, including two trips to China (2008 & 2013) and a trip to Crimea (2012), and I’ve always enjoyed his attitude and company. He’s been the perfect partner on El Cap, both because he’s super fun and doesn’t take himself seriously and because he has so much experience there and with that style of climbing.

He lived in the Valley and worked on SAR for years before becoming a professional climber, and his climbing background and style are completely different from mine. He’s really dialed with his big wall systems, and super fast and efficient on easier/scary terrain. It’s a good skill to have and something I’m trying to learn through my time climbing with him. Conversely, my background with training for sport climbing has proved valuable on the harder face pitches, so we compliment one another well and I think can both learn from each other.

Related: Cedar Wright Wrestles the Ridiculous Offwidth ‘Squat’

 

What has been the hardest thing (in general) about climbing on El Cap?

The size. It’s so massive and intimidating. Sometimes the idea of freeing every pitch in one push seems like the most impossible, daunting feat ever. It’s also just so much work to actually climb. There’s so many logistical challenges just trying to climb up there. It’s totally exhausting, but also some of the most rewarding climbing I’ve ever done.

What advice would you give someone who wants to climb an El Cap route?

I would say they need to be ready to work hard, be patient, and stick with it. Try to take it one day, one pitch, hell, even one move at a time. Break it up into pieces so it doesn’t seem so out of reach, because it’s not. It just takes commitment and perseverance, and in the end it will be totally worth it (at least I’m hoping so!).

 

Related: Pitch 27: A Journey for the N.I.A.D

 

How did you train/prepare for this route?

I trained hard for a few months beforehand, just to get in good climbing shape. Lots of hangboard, endurance training on my treadwall, ski touring, trail running, etc. I feel fit and capable of spending long days climbing and trying hard. But I’ve really been preparing the last few years. Just trad climbing a lot, working on moving well and on keeping my head straight when I’m runout.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Tuolumne and the Incredible Hulk trying bigger routes and having long days. I’ve also climbed a lot of moderate routes in the 5.9-5.11 grade on granite. I think it’s easy for hard sport climbers to assume they can jump into climbing 5.13 trad, but it’s not really all that valuable for something like El Cap where you have to be able to move fast on easier terrain and conserve energy for a few hard pitches.

Projecting a sport route is a totally different skill than climbing 3000 feet of mostly 5.10 and 5.11, and still having the fitness and mental stamina to pull off sending a few 5.12 or 5.13 pitches 2000 feet up.

What pitches on Golden Gate do you love? What pitches do you hate?

I really love the harder face pitches, ha! Naturally, because I feel more at home when I’m climbing on them, and the rock is just so good up there. They feel comfortable and within my ability.

The scariest pitches are the wide ones, like the Monster Offwidth, and even the easier stuff like the Ear pitch, which is only 5.7 but super runout and exposed feeling. I wouldn’t say I hate any of them, they are all teaching me how to be a better climber. Except there’s one pitch I’m not sure about: the 5.12 down-climb. It’s this heinous slab down-climb, and I had so much trouble with it the other day. I was so frustrated. Now it’s haunting me—making me scared I can’t send because of one silly down mantle foot move. I guess I like that pitch the least out of all of them.

How intimidating is the Monster Offwidth?

It’s really intimidating and scary—and I only top roped it! But I had built it up so much in my head, as if it was this impossible thing for me, but it’s really just a ton of work. It’s all about sticking with it and inching your way up—and not panicking. I think the biggest thing to remember with stuff like that is that it’s just not going to be easy or graceful; it’s grovely and hard work, like digging a ditch. I just kept moving up and fighting to stay in and eventually it ended. It took all the skin off my left shoulder and elbow though … I’m not going to do it again until it’s time to try for the send.

How does the hardest pitch on Golden Gate compare to some of your hardest sport climbing sends?

I think the hardest pitch for me might be the 12c slab down-climb … even though grade-wise it’s The Move pitch a little higher up (5.13a); this gorgeous face climb with a reachy boulder problem crux at the top. It’s really hard to compare either pitch with hard sport climbing.

For one, they’re thousands of feet off the ground and require so much effort to just get to. You’re already kinda fried by the time you get to try. Both are super technical and involved, especially the down-climb … I don’t think I’ve ever had to trust my feet so much on nothing.

I honestly haven’t really been paying attention to the grades much, which feels pretty cool. The hard climbing may not be the hardest I’ve ever done, but it feels pretty close when I think of the entire experience. It demands the same amount strength and mental control as my hardest sport climbing, and perhaps requires even more technique. It’s all teaching me so much about myself and my climbing. It’s already been a super rewarding and valuable experience.


Emily is sponsored by The North Face, Petzl, La Sportiva, Smith Optics, and HiBall Energy. You can follow her El Cap adventure on InstagramTwitter, and her website.

Thank you for sharing your story and psych, Emily! We’re all routing for you and wish you the best of luck on Golden Gate!

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