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What I’ve Learned: Emily Harrington

Emily Harrington, age 29, from Tahoe, California: a former international competition champion, sport/trad/mixed climber and mountaineer.

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This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 236 (August 2016).


Emily Harrington, mountaineer, skier, climber.
Emily Harrington. Photo: Jon Glassberg.

I’ve decided that in climbing in the mountains, for me the best thing is to do it with skis on my back. That was the best part of [attempting] Makalu last year. I’d love to climb 5.14c just because I love sport climbing and still enjoy pushing myself in that world. I think I’m going to the Red in October to try to make that happen.

***

My biggest challenge is trying to balance the two passions that I have. They don’t go well together. When you return
from high altitude you’ve lost a lot of muscle, and it’s really hard to find that snap again. It takes a while for me to get it, and
then when I lose it, it seems like I’m climbing at square one. I’m figuring it out, in the last few years: how to train for all these
things I like to do.

***

I’ve figured out that to stay motivated I need to have some sort of balance. I’m not going to sport climb year round. Maybe physically
I would climb harder, but then I don’t find much joy in it.

***

I think balance is the biggest thing, the most important thing in life, figuring it out. My life was a lot more simple
when I lived in Boulder and went to school and trained in the gym and just focused on one thing.

***

Now I have a home that I love and a boyfriend that I love [Adrian Ballinger, Everest guide], and he does his own thing, so I’ve sort of
complicated my life. Now is the time to do all those things I want to do. Just go to the mountains and go skiing and go on big mountain
expeditions and drive down to Yosemite for a few days … I know that in the future if I have a family that I can still do them, but
it won’t be with the same level of freedom.

***

I really enjoy going on these big epic experiences that break me down to nothing. I think back on those and maybe it was the hardest time and maybe the most lonely and scared, but maybe they’re the most vivid and fond memories. I find myself yearning for those experiences.

***

Rock climbing and the style of climbing that I engage in is far safer than anything I’ll ever do in skiing … Most accidents in rock climbing
are because of human errors, and a lot of things that happen in the big mountains are because you don’t have control over things.

***

That’s another balancing act. [Risk is] something I think about all the time. Especially with Adrian and what he does with his job and with me delving more into this world, I’ve learned that it’s a risk that I’m accepting … The only thing I can really control is my decision-making and my education and my experience, so building those things has been really important to me. The conservative decision in big mountains is almost always the right one.

***

[If I could do it all again] I think I would have had more fun. I was pretty serious. I have way more fun now than I did before. I would tell
that to a 17-year-old competition climber.

***

I learned [from comps] how to focus on the moment. You’re in a climbing comp and have six minutes to climb the finals route. I learned how to be present, and I can draw from that all my life.

***

I learned [from 5.14 sport climbing] how to keep trying. That was just straight-up perseverance. I learned about this process that you go through as
a rock climber, when things feel so impossible at first and [about]slowly solving that puzzle and having it all come together. I learned to have
confidence in that.

***

I’ve learned that Mount Everest is like this microcosm of the world. It’s just this crazy, fascinating, almost- like-an-experiment of humanity,
and people are obsessed with it, and they love it and they hate it. And the only thing I can say is that things are not always what they seem,
and it’s really complicated.

***

Sometimes I’m really angry about [Everest]. Sometimes I think I hate [it], I think it’s so stupid and can’t wait until Adrian never
has to go there again. Other times I think it’s this really amazing place, and it should be protected, and we should think about it in a really
open way.


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