On Wednesday, November 4th, Emily Harrington was unsure if she would be making history that day when she began to ascend one of the most challenging climbs in the world. 21 hours and 13 minutes later, she became the first woman to free-climb the treacherous 3,200 foot El Capitan Golden Gate route in a day.
At 1:34 am Harrington began the climb of the Golden Gate route with her goal being to complete the route from base to summit in under twenty-four hours. While Harrington, like the rest of the country, was awaiting anxiously for election results, she was fighting for her biggest dream.
“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,” she wrote on Instagram.
The Golden Gate is a grade VI 5.13 route on the southwest face of El Capitan and is one of the most well-known and most challenging routes in the world. Harrington’s success makes her the first woman to free-climb Golden Gate in a day, the fourth woman to free-climb El Capitan in a day, and the fourth person to free-climb Golden Gate in a day, according to Climbing Magazine.
“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,” she wrote on Instagram. “Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”
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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
Adrian Ballinger, Harrington’s fiancé and a renowned Mount Everest guide, and Alex Honnold, famous for free solo climbing El Capitan, were her belays for the climb, swapping each other out. Harrington had one bad fall on one of the route’s most difficult sections, Golden Desert, where she hit her head on the granite wall, reminding the climbers of a scary day that happened just last year.
When her name made headlines in fall 2019 at El Capitan, it had a much different tone. The professional climber suffered a major fall of nearly 47 feet while attempting the same climb she conquered this year. She made a post with her thoughts on the climb and injuries.
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I had an accident yesterday on El Cap. I’m banged up but gonna be ok thankfully. Not much to say except I took a bad fall and pin balled a bit then somehow hit the rope w my neck – 🤷🏼♀️🤦🏼♀️ All I know is that I am extremely grateful to have had @adrianballinger @alexhonnold @jonglassberg @sannimccandless @tarakerzhner and YOSAR of course there to get me out and help me through ❤️ // thanks everyone who sent kind messages and thoughts – feeling so supported and loved 💕 // 📸 portrait by @tarakerzhner + neck selfie
The five-time U.S. sport climbing champion was lucky to walk away from the brutal 2019 fall with only a concussion, a large rope burn to the neck, and cuts and bruises. She vowed to not give up on her dream to finish the route in a single day.
Now, a year later, she is climbing over the summit’s edge at around 10:30 pm and walking away with just a head gash and a major achievement.
“I’ve never been more tired or scared leading the final 5.11 pitches out,” Harrington told Climbing Magazine. “Fully at my limit physically and mentally—just like it’s meant to be!”