Six days, 41 pitches and one “Monster Offwidth” later, Emily Harrington stood on the summit of El Capitan. She had free-climbed Golden Gate (5.13 VI), leading every pitch, while her boyfriend, Adrian Ballinger, jumared up behind her.
“The entire experience was probably one of the more difficult challenges in my climbing career,” Harrington told Rock and Ice. “By the end I was barely able to keep it together, all of my tips were split open, and I was really scared in a lot of moments. I have an enormous amount of respect for people who excel at granite big-wall free-climbing now.”
The Huber brothers, Alexander and Thomas, first freed Golden Gate in 2000. It became an El Cap classic, with a variety of difficult pitches ranging from the “Monster Offwidth” to the notoriously reachy “Move” pitch, difficult for even the tallest climbers. In 2011, British climber Hazel Findlay became the first female to free-climb the route. Harrington joined their ranks on May 31.
“I had a huge hole in my elbow from camming it for 200 feet.”
“The hardest pitches were the four 5.13 pitches,” said Harrington. “But I can honestly say that no pitch on El Cap is easy. I stopped paying attention to the grades after a while because 5.8 and 5.9 can feel like 5.12 or 5.13 if you aren’t used to climbing on granite.”
Harrington began trad climbing three years ago, though she has been rock climbing for most of her life, beginning as a member of the USA Junior Climbing Team in 1998. She competed on the adult US Climbing team from 2004 to 2010. Outside the world of competition climbing, Harrington was the second American female to send 5.14b and has summited Everest.
After Findlay, one of Harrington’s good friends, sent Golden Gate, she encouraged Harrington to give it a try. Earlier in May, Harrington and Yosemite veteran Cedar Wright made a few day trips to work on the crux pitches, but this was Harrington’s first ground-up attempt.
“I looked to my peers and mentors for inspiration, women like Beth Rodden and Hazel Findlay, whose grace and fearless style on granite big walls I found perplexing and humbling,” Harrington wrote on Facebook.
Trad climbing has been a new challenge for Harrington, but less than three years after backing off a 5.8 offwidth in tears, she sent the 200-foot “Monster Offwidth” (5.11a) after a two and a half hour battle.
“I had a huge hole in my elbow from camming it for 200 feet,” Harrington recalls. “It took a lot out of me.”
Despite the struggles on her first big wall climb, Harrington plans to continue to free routes in Yosemite and elsewhere in the Sierra over the next few seasons. Her summer project is 10-pitch trad route Venturi Effect (5.12), in the Sawtooth Ridge. Next week, however, Harrington will be taking a break from California to travel to Ecuador to climb and ski volcanoes.