I only work on my weaknesses.
This was the first bit of wisdom Emily Harrington shared with us at Moja Gear as she described her training philosophy and life of adventure.
Even though Emily is most famously known as a rock climber, she could more accurately be described as an all-around adventurer these days. Together with her partner, Adrian Ballinger, Emily has been climbing, mountaineering, hiking, windsurfing, skiing …
… and the list goes on.
In 2019, Emily and Adrian kicked off their own YouTube channel, DangerStikTV, allowing us to follow them on their adventures around the world. Their authenticity and vulnerability provide a deeper glimpse into what it takes physically, mentally, and emotionally to literally live a life of peak experiences.
See Moja Gear’s previous interview with Emily when she was projecting Golden Gate (5.13b) on El Cap.
Moja Gear recently caught up with Emily to talk about her life on the go, and her recent experience with DangerStikTV.
Peak Points on Emily Harrington
- Born: 1986
- Hometown: Boulder, Colorado
- Started Climbing: 10 years old
- Top Competitive Results: 5 US National Sport Climbing Championships and 2 North American Championships
- Hardest Climb: El Capitan’s Golden Gate (5.13b) in 2015
- Highest Ascent: 2012 North Face expedition up Mount Everest
- Pets: A dog named “Kat”
- Goals: Climb El Capitan’s Golden Gate (5.13b) in one day
- Sponsors: La Sportiva, The North Face, Smith Optics, and Petzl
From Comp Focused to Adventure-Driven
Emily Harrington spent years as a competitive climber dominating championship after championship. Since 2012, she has been a member of The North Face team and has diversified her athleticism across a wide spectrum of outdoor activities.
Athletic trainers and coaches often espouse the benefits of sport-specific training as critical to maintaining and refining high levels of skill and strength, yet somehow Emily manages to continue to climb at an incredibly high level while taking on challenges in mountaineering, skiing, windsurfing, and more.
Emily is quick to say that maintaining this level of performance has been a challenge.
For me it’s been a lot of trial and error because I don’t really know anyone who does what I do, such a wide variety of things at a high level.
Emily does note that this variety provides an interesting advantage for her as well.
“I also think that it’s been really helpful because I’m not the type of person who can just specialize and have that be the only thing that I do. I suffer from burnout and lack of motivation, so mixing it up for me really helps. Motivation is the most important thing you need to start with for high performance. I’ve gotten smarter over the years, and I have realized that taking a break and doing different things is really helpful for my mind and for my body.”
Besides Emily’s high level of performance, the credibility of her training routine is bolstered by the fact that she has never had an injury. How many of us can say that?
Lessons to Share
In addition to keeping her motivation high through variety, Emily has learned a lot through trial and error and her long history of training hard, which can be useful to both new and experienced athletes.
It takes years of training to identify patterns in your energy and motivation. Emily was in her mid-20s before she really learned how to best take advantage of her training time.
“I only work on my weaknesses. So, when I’m training, I’m only bouldering. That’s all I do, because I can gain endurance super fast but I’m not a great boulderer and I’m not a very powerful climber. When I’m in the mountains, I’m doing a lot of stamina and aerobic-based activity, which builds my endurance naturally. So, when I’m training, I’m only focusing on power.”
This insight saves a lot of training time and energy that Emily can apply to other endeavors. In fact, she has found a symbiotic way of meshing all these activities together; using the other activities to work her aerobic system and her training to build strength.
As a climbing coach once told me, “if you can’t do the move, then there is nothing to endure.” Emily has found a way to apply that to meet the needs of her mind, body, and schedule.
Embrace your Fear
In his book 9 out of 10 Climbers Make the Same Mistakes, Dave MacLeod says that all climbers need to train taking falls in the gym in order to deal with fear. Emily said that while this may work for some climbers, it didn’t work for her.
Emily recalls that when she was a kid, she would get really nervous climbing on lead in the gym. Her coaches would say “go up there and just take falls on purpose. Just take falls on purpose and then you won’t be afraid.” But for Emily, the fear remained.
“For some reason, falling on purpose is not the same as falling when you’re fighting and trying really hard.” This relationship with fear has been a long journey.
There is deep wisdom in the way she talks about her relationship with fear that resonates with a lot of climbers.
“There’s no quick fix with fear. There’s no miracle diet. There’s no easy way to conquer your fear. I don’t even think that’s something that exists, ‘conquering one’s fear’. What ends up happening is you simply learn how to sit with your fear, and work with it, and use it as a strength, instead of letting it distract you and letting it hurt you.
Being aware that you’re afraid, acknowledging it and letting [the fear] show itself is actually a really therapeutic way to handle it. For me, admitting that I’m afraid is really helpful and calming.
Also, it’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s important to stress this in today’s world where we’re constantly trying to make everything more comfortable.
But climbing itself is not comfortable. Trying hard is not comfortable. And that’s kind of why we do it. We do it to be at our limit. Fear is just another aspect of being at our limit.
We have these objectives in climbing so that we can feel those things, and so that we can learn about ourselves and grow. Once we accept that, then we can learn how to work with our fear and achieve our goals. But it’s part of it—fear is a part of it. It’s not a hindrance.”
Emily Harrington’s Definition of Fun
In a previous interview, Emily commented that she had structured her life around “fun.” Yet all the video posts of Emily’s adventures seem to show her at the limit, bruised, exhausted, and beaten down. Are we getting a distorted view of Emily’s day, or does she have a different definition of fun?
“My definition of fun is just different than everyone else’s. I do things to experience the pain and the struggle and the self-doubt and all of the weaknesses that I have as a human being.
Climbing brings those [weaknesses] front and center and it forces me to confront them and work through things that I wouldn’t otherwise go through in normal life. To me, that process is fun. Many people in the [Moja Gear] audience, myself, and Adrian, we’re all lucky enough be able to make fun one of our goals in life.”
Some people describe climbing as ‘Type 2’ fun, that is, it’s fun after the fact but not in the moment. But Emily’s definition doesn’t quite fit that either. She truly enjoys the process.
“It’s all fun. The struggle is fun. The pain is fun.” To help bring home the point, Emily continued “I think it’s why we have relationships. Relationships are also hard, but they’re worth it. There’s a lot of struggle in life and that struggle is both valuable and fun.”
Climbing El Cap
One ‘fun’ struggle that remains on Emily’s bucket list is El Capitan. Emily sent El Cap’s Golden Gate (5.13b) route in 2015. Now, her goal is to take this route down in a single day.
Emily took her first stab at climbing Golden Gate in a day with El Cap expert Alex Honnold. The duo was thwarted by heavy rains. This intense moment was captured in Season 1, Episode 12 of DangerStikTV.
We’re going canyoneering down El Cap! This is so crazy. – Alex Honnold
Despite this setback with the weather, Emily tried a couple more times in the fall of 2019 to get the send of Golden Gate in one day. The first attempt came agonizingly close to success. With the fall season coming quickly to a close, Emily set off to make one more attempt on the climb with Alex Honnold. Unfortunately, in the cold and dark, Emily took an unexpected 40-foot fall.
Related content: Emily Harrington takes a 40 Foot Fall Down the Face of El Cap
Thankfully, Emily’s injuries looked worse than they were, and Emily was able to get back on her feet in just a couple of days.
Getting to the Crag
Even as Emily buys a house and travels to faraway places, her favorite way to get to the crag is still by van. Although… her schedule often dictates a faster pace of life.
Emily loves van life, and says “it’s the perfect setup because you have everything you need. It’s probably my favorite way to climb.”
Do you love vanlife too? Check out Vanvaya.com.
“Adrian and I bought a van a few years ago, but we haven’t used it very much. But we’re about to go to Yosemite and use it for the next few weeks or months. It’s actually a very old van. It’s a 1990 Ford Econoline with an Airstream topper. It’s old-school. I’ve spent a few days in it, and it’s got a lot of character and personality. I love living in it! It has an oven too so I’m gonna try to do some baking this fall.”
Not only is van life a favorite for Emily, but it’s also essential if you want to have a long trip to Yosemite.
“It is actually quite hard to stay in Yosemite for long periods of time. But if you have a van, it makes it exponentially easier.”
Follow Emily Harrington’s Lead
You can follow Emily Harrington on Instagram @emilyaharrington, and on her YouTube channel DangerStikTV to see how she continues to manage fear and work her working weaknesses. All while making it fun.