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Letting Go With Climbers Emily Harrington And Adrian Ballinger    

Letting Go With Climbers Emily Harrington And Adrian Ballinger

Art by FISK, Photography by Jessica Talley/Louder Than 11

By Hans Aschim

When climbing a mountain, the variables are just about endless. There are the obvious ones like the weather, your gear, your health and fitness, and other climbers. Then there are the million other things that can occur between that first move off the ground and the summit. For seasoned professional climbers like Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger that’s all part of the appeal — even if they need to reach their limits sometimes to remember it. 

Harrington and Ballinger, who are engaged, come from opposite sides of the climbing world. Harrington is a sport climber. She’s competed around the world on technical routes made of plastic and sent some of the most challenging ascents in climbing. Sport climbing is all about strength, strategy and finessing the most technical moves when every muscle from the tips of your fingers to your toes are on fire. The night after the 2020 presidential election, she became the first woman to free-climb El Capitan, the iconic 3,000’ granite monolith in California’s Yosemite National Park, in under 24 hours (21 hours, 13 minutes, and 51 seconds to be precise). Free-climbing allows the use of ropes for protection in case of a fall, but the ropes cannot be used to assist in the ascent. 

“Climbing is a game of patience — with training, with allowing your body to develop, with listening to your body, with rest and with the goals that we choose,” explains Harrington. “The majority of my climbing life has been spent failing and falling, then going back and figuring out how to be better next time.” For her, building patience while climbing comes from acknowledging the little wins and enjoying the process along the way.

Ballinger, on the other hand, is a high altitude alpinist who has topped the world’s highest peaks including Mt. Everest, and most recently in 2019, K2 without supplemental oxygen. His expeditions require months in the mountains at a time and draw on endurance, fitness and making complex decisions under pressure — always with cold hands and toes. The pair, who call Lake Tahoe, CA home, first met on Everest in 2012 and have been together ever since, supporting one another in their vertical pursuits.

Photography by Jessica Talley/Louder Than 11

“Should” Is No Good

Harrington’s historic ascent of El Capitan didn’t come easy. She suffered a major fall attempting the feat almost two years prior that resulted in a concussion, a gnarly rope burn on her neck and a trip to the hospital. That fall came early in the climb, where the route is relatively easy (for someone of her caliber) and quick. But she wasn’t all there. 

“There were a lot of ‘shoulds’ going through my head. You should feel good. You should be confident. You should go fast. In reality I don’t think I was emotionally willing to be there,” she says. Free-climbing El Capitan in under a day requires starting in the middle of the night. It was cold, her feet were numb. There was a snowstorm on the radar and it was her last shot at it for the season. She was in a rush.

“I wasn’t making decisions I would normally make. I learned a lot from that,” she says. “Now whenever I went to El Cap and stood next to the wall, I had to ask myself if I truly wanted to be there. If I could be present.”

Harrington continued training after her injury with her sights set on free-climbing El Capitan in the spring of 2020 via the Golden Gate route, but the world had different plans. Yosemite closed for the season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then when the park opened briefly, smoke from California’s unprecedented wildfires again closed the park and made climbing untenable. 

“If I wanted an objective where I could control everything, it would be inside of my house,” Harrington says with a laugh. “There’s a reason I go out into the mountains and try to do big things in Mother Nature. It’s because of that element of uncertainty. That’s what makes it so valuable and worthy. It makes us all realize how human we are. That there’s things that are so much bigger than we are.” 

Covid forced Harrington and Ballinger to shack up at home for months at a time, a rarity for the globetrotting athletes. Harrington took to home workouts and getting her fill of down time before setting her focus once again on El Capitan. Ballinger, who at times spent up to 80% of his year out of the country on expeditions, seized the opportunity to recharge.

Then the night following Election Day, with the park open and her mind and body fully present for the task, Harrington stepped off the ground and onto the sheer rock face of El Cap once again. The choice to go for her historic climb at a historic moment for the country wasn’t a coincidence. 

“I chose that day for a reason,” Harrington says. “That was the biggest thing going on that none of us could control: everything was done. The polls were closed. We weren’t going to change anything at that point. All we could do was wait, and I didn’t want to sit on my phone and doomscroll all day.” Instead, she had her climbing partner for the first two-thirds of the route fill her in on the latest news when she needed a distraction. That partner was Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame. He was on the other end of the rope, providing political updates while meticulously but swiftly cruising up the granite wall.

Harrington worked with a sports psychologist in the lead up to her climb. She developed a mantra she came back to throughout her 21 hours on the rock: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Anytime she faced a particularly challenging moment, she returned to the mantra. “I would say it to myself and just slow down and think, ‘Focus on what’s right in front of you.’ It’s about being present. Even if it’s bad. Even if it’s scary.”

Photography by Jessica Talley/Louder Than 11

You Can’t Control The Universe

The last third of the climb up El Capitan via the Golden Gate route is the most difficult and technical part. Knowing she would need extra encouragement and support for the end of the climb, Harrington swapped Honnold for Ballinger. He was at her side throughout the entire process of making this dream a reality. And for Harrington, he’s the most patient person she knows. It’s a skill he’s cultivated waiting out weather at 20,000 feet and dealing with ripped tents and broken zippers on the world’s highest peaks.

“Everest reminded me over and over that I can only control what I can control and I need to let go of the other things,” Ballinger says. His first eight years guiding Everest were smooth and successful. Then he spent four years getting his ass kicked. “That is patience. It doesn’t mean not to try, and it doesn’t mean not to plan well, but then to realize that we’re still not in control of this universe.”

When her climb up El Capitan was at its most challenging, Harrington had a liberating revelation that allowed her to tap into her potential: This is hard; it’s not going to be perfect, and I might not make it up. “I opened myself to that idea that I might fail and let it live alongside my intense desire to succeed,” Harrington says. “Both things were true at once and that allowed me to be truly present. That was the magic of the experience: the willingness to fail, allowing myself to be imperfect and just letting it happen.”

In the dark, with no shortage of dried blood thanks to a late fall, Harrington made it to the top. Ballinger wasn’t far behind on the other end of the rope. 

"I felt like I had achieved a huge goal," Harrington says. "There's this very deep sense of satisfaction. I worked so hard for this and poured so much into it." After the initial adrenaline rush of reaching her goal started to wear off, Harrington had to confront the void that accomplishing a goal can bring. "Naturally there’s this period of release and let down — maybe even melancholy. But I’m trying to be at peace with that feeling. I did my thing. I achieved my goal."

For climbers and mountaineers, there’s a tendency to always focus on what’s next: a higher peak, a harder route, less gear. But Harrington and Ballinger know the importance of being present. Sometimes, you have to just look at what you’ve done — failure or success — and sit with it. But not for too long.

With Harrington’s project completed, the pair is turning their attention to Ballinger’s next climbing goal. The high alpine mountaineer is turning his attention to sport climbing, Harrington’s domain. He’s working on his hardest sport climbing route to date. And on every missed hold and rope-tightening fall, Harrington will be there, coaching, encouraging and recognizing the little wins as they come. Because climbing isn’t about getting to the top, it’s about enjoying the ascent. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.