Colorado’s Mary Harlan, a single mom, firefighter and paramedic student, plans to attempt the “improbable”—a linkup
of Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Sheer Lunacy (5.12c) and Shune’s Buttress (5.11+) in Zion National Park, Utah, all free
and in less than 24 hours.
She’s partnered with Kiwi-born Helen Sinclair, a ski patrol and YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) member. Neither can climb full time and despite daunting
responsibilities outside of climbing, they have found the time to train and are ready to take on three of Zion’s toughest trad lines.
What experiences encapsulate your passion for the outdoors?
I took a semester Outward Bound course. Our group had a peak ascent planned for a 13’er in Colorado called Mt. Powell. I was terrified. The whole way up
I kept asking to turn around. At some point, I freaked out. The exposure had gotten to me, and I couldn’t move—I was frozen with fear, I refused
to keep going.
Our whole group turned around because of it. I felt terrible, and vowed to get over my fears during the remainder of the course. A few years later, during
my interview with Outward Bound, I told this same story, and how I wanted to give back to the community through teaching for Outward Bound. This led
to my employment with Outward Bound, as well as several other guide services, including The American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington, and
employment as a climbing ranger at two national parks (Mt. Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park).
I was able to create this lifestyle of living out of a vehicle, guiding and working outdoor education jobs, while climbing rock and ice, or skiing, full-time
for almost 12 years.
You are obviously a very energetic and motivated person who likes the sufferzone, so to speak. Where does that come from?
I started getting into “alternative sports” at a young age. At age six, I started riding horses in a style that was very physically demanding called Saddleseat,
and at age 10 I won a youth National Championship. At 12 I took ballet lessons, realized I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, and I took double
the amount of classes so that I could catch up. I danced professionally for Webster University, Paul Taylor II, Joffrey II, and some smaller companies
in St. Louis, MO, and then went to Russia in 1997 when I was 21 on an exchange with the International Fine Arts Federation out of Vologda, Russia.
It was there that I reaped the benefits of all my hard work, getting work as a guest artist and getting solos in performances. Getting to that point in
Russia taught me that hard work, dedication, perseverance, and a positive attitude will pay off.
I LOVE the feeling of pushing myself to the limit, both physically and mentally.
How did you become accustomed to suffering?
During my Outward Bound semester course, we did our rock climbing section in Vedauwoo, Wyoming. I wanted to be like the experienced rangers so bad. I wanted
to be as good as them, it didn’t occur to me that suffering wasn’t a part of climbing, I just thought, “This is what I have to do to be that good and
that strong. I have to suffer, be cold, hang out in miserable weather, experience discomfort.”
discomfort…it made me hearty.
Because of that I’ve climbed 36 glaciated peaks in the lower 48 and Alaska, climbed 28 routes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and skied, ice climbed,
and rock climbed in some amazing and beautiful places simply because I learned how to suffer early on.
The best feeling I have had is when I sent Moonlight Buttress (5.12+, Grade V) in 2013 in Zion National Park. I originally had the idea in 2007.
It took me from 2007 to 2013 to really get strong enough mentally and physically to do that. Some people can walk up to it and onsight it. I had to
fight for it. I had to diligently train for only that route for a year and a half prior to doing it.
I’ve climbed it in rain, snow, and obscenely hot weather. I probably had to suffer more than others to do it, because at the time I decided to do it, it
was improbably too hard for me. It is my greatest accomplishment and example of hard work and “heartiness.” Now when I climb routes that feel hard
or scary or I’m cold or too hot, it feels okay. It’s no big deal.
Okay, describe “hearty,” because the first thing I think of is Dinty Moore Stew.
One day while sport climbing in Rifle with Anna Pfaff, we had this interesting discovery that we just didn’t care that the rock was “schmarmy,” that it
was hot and slimy, and that we were tired. Conversely, we wouldn’t have cared if it were cold and windy. We may have remarked about it, but those things
wouldn’t have stopped us from climbing. Between the two of us, we dubbed that as being “hearty.”
“When I get scared or make decisions on the wall or in the mountains, I always make decisions that I believe will bring me home to my family.”
What has learning to suffer given you, that otherwise we don’t normally appreciate in our lives?
It has given me a deep appreciation for my family—my parents and my son, especially. I think about all the opportunities my parents have given
me, the sacrifices they have made in order to help better my life and teach me how to live life to its fullest. I think about how lucky I am to
have my amazing five year-old son, and how I want to give him as many opportunities as I’ve had, and how family is the MOST important part of my
Climbing is my passion, but family always comes first.
When I get scared or make decisions on the wall or in the mountains, I always make decisions that I believe will bring me home to my family.
What’s higher on the suffer-meter: childbirth or Moonlight Buttress?
Moonlight Buttress. Moonlight is always hard for me, every time I get on it. Childbirth was somewhat painful, but short-lived. I
keep going back to Moonlight in the hopes that it will eventually feel easy. Or easier!
How is the experience or balance of climbing different for you now with a family and multiple jobs?
I have to plan differently. Now that I don’t guide full time anymore, and I am working as an urban and structural fire fighter and EMT, I have more
time to schedule my climbing around family time. I try to climb when my son is in school (he’s five), and I plan my bigger trips around times when
he is at his dad’s house.
I am currently doing my prerequisites for Paramedic school. Balancing school, work, and family life is challenging—I can’t complete my climbing
projects as quickly as I could if I was just living the climbing life. But my life is so much more enriched because of the dynamics of it all.
I also get the much needed “rest days” that I used to forego.
Is the experience of climbing different for you, between climbing with a male partner vs. climbing with a female partner?
Women seem to be a bit harder on themselves. Self-expectations are higher. Sometimes, with women, the silliness factor in me comes out more. I tend
to take these goofy pictures or laugh about weird things. I enjoy both experiences equally, however. I feel empowered by both my male and female
partners. A profound sense of adventure, heartiness, a positive attitude, and a desire to be safe and have fun are really what I look for in any
When I first started climbing, it was mostly the guys that were doing the style of climbing I liked to do. Few women were psyched on pushing grades
on multi-pitch trad routes. The choices in partners were simply limited. Now there are so many women climbing hard trad, or trad in general, at
any level. It’s awesome!
Thank you for your time, Mary, I know you juggle a lot!
Check back later for an interview with Helen Sinclair.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tiffany Hensley is a traveling freelance creative, director at Escalando Fronteras and spends most of
her time helping marginalized generations, including dirtbags. She lives in a 2005 Sprinter van registered in Colorado. Check out her website
tiffanyhensley.com, follow her on Instagram @Tiffany_Hensley.