[This story has been updated for accuracy and to include comments from Lynn Hill.]
Late on November 4, Emily Harrington climbed over the lip of El Capitan (Tu-Tok-A-Nu-La) in the dark; she’d free climbed all 41 pitches of Golden Gate (5.13b, 3,000′) in 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds, becoming the fourth woman to free climb El Cap in a day–joining Lynn Hill (who was the first person ever to free climb a big-wall route on El Cap as well as the first person to do so in a day), Steph Davis and Mayan Smith-Gobat–and the fourth person to free climb Golden Gate in a day, after Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold and Brad Gobright. (Jordan Cannon added his name to this list when he sent the route in 20:26 on November 16.)
Harrington grew up as a top competition climber and has completed first female ascents of multiple 5.14 sport routes through the years; she has also climbed Chomolungma (Mt. Everest) and Cho Oyu, but Golden Gate has presented an especially significant challenge to her over the years since she first redpointed the route over six days in 2015. She attempted to climb it in a day in early November 2019 but fatigue got the best of her near the end of the last 5.13 pitch, the A5 Traverse, just a few ropelengths from the top. Her next attempt that year, on November 24, ended with a nasty, tumbling fall shortly after leaving the ground; she was simulclimbing the Freeblast slabs with Alex Honnold and slipped, resulting in a trip to the hospital via Yosemite Search and Rescue.
Flash forward to November 2020–Harrington once again started the day with Honnold, who then swapped out with Adrian Ballinger, about 2,000 feet up the wall. Higher up, Harrington slipped on the Golden Desert pitch (5.13a), which is just below the A5 Traverse; she fell sideways and her forehead hit the rock, leaving a bloody wound.
In an Instagram post, she wrote, “It almost took my resolve–a deep gash on my forehead left me bloody and defeated. 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 five pitches felt scary in my current state but I pulled over the final lip at 10:30 p.m. in disbelief….”
Ballinger posted on Instagram:
It’s hard for me to describe what [Emily Harrington] has accomplished…. [The] facts only contextualize the achievement as one of the great moments in the history of free climbing. It’s the multi-year struggle, the comebacks from the failures, the battles with fear–of both danger and the real possibility that she was pouring years of dedication into something she would never succeed at. And it’s the choices she made to sacrifice so much else in life to a single goal, even after so many beat-downs and so many naysayers and so much distraction.
This is what greatness requires, and for two years I’ve been privileged to watch and feel and experience it. Congratulations Emily. I love you so deeply, and you have given me an unbelievable gift to be a part of this achievement. Now let’s go play.
Harrington employed a creative strategy to climb the Monster Offwidth, a long, body-swallowing crack midway up the wall that guards access to El Cap Spire. While only rated 5.11, it presents a physical and psychological test that has been well documented by many of the people who have struggled up the gaping fissure, sometimes taking multiple hours to climb it, as Harrington did in 2015. This year, to overcome the limitations of her small feet–which aren’t long enough to get the heel-toe cams in the crack that bigger climbers utilize–she wore Honnold’s shoes over the top of her own, thereby increasing the span of her feet. (Photos by James Lucas in a Climbing.com article show the difference in the fewer number of abrasions on her shoulder after climbing the crack this year compared to 2015.)
Alexander Huber first climbed Golden Gate in September 2000. He aid soloed the route to explore its free-climbing potential and returned with his brother, Thomas Huber that October. They managed to free the route in a single multiday push from the ground.
As for the women who have free climbed the Captain in a day, Lynn Hill became the first person to free climb the Big Stone by any route in a day when sent the Nose (5.14a) in 1994, and Steph Davis and Mayan Smith-Gobat climbed Freerider (5.12d/13a) in 2004 and 2011, respectively.
Harrington posted on Instagram:
It’s pretty hard to talk about free climbing on El Capitan without mentioning perhaps THE most astonishing ascents of all time–Lynn Hill’s one-day free ascent of the Nose in 1994. Her ascent made her the very first human to achieve such a feat, and it was far and beyond what anyone could conceive of at the time. Still today, free climbing El Capitan in a single day (via any route) is a pretty rare occurrence (~25 people have achieved this maybe). More impressive, a free ascent of the Nose over the course of many days is considered exceptional and still only a handful of the very best climbers in the world have succeeded (under 10). How’s that for being ahead of one’s time?
…I was lucky enough to get to know Lynn from the beginning of my climbing career. Women like Lynn, [Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou], [Beth Rodden], [Katie Brown], [Bobbi Bensman], etc. were fixtures in the climbing community at the time. As a little girl I was introduced to climbing knowing that it was a space for women and that we had the potential to excel just as much as men did.
Today, after a pretty pivotal week for myself personally as well as for this country and women everywhere (hell yes [Kamala Harris]) I wanted to celebrate the women who paved the way in our sport and those who continue to push forward today. You all inspired me as a tiny 10-year-old girl in the gym and continue to do so today.
(Also mega huge congrats to [Julia Chanourdie] for becoming the third woman to climb 9b/5.15b last week!)
Hill wrote in an email to Alpinist:
Free climbing a “big wall route”…on El Cap is a great accomplishment for anyone! I’m very happy for Emily, who I met when she was a young girl on the ABC climbing team in Boulder, Colorado. I certainly respect her ability and dedication as a rock climber, alpinist and skier! It was interesting for me to learn that free climbing El Cap in a day has only been done by four women! However, I was even more surprised by how the media* got the history wrong. Besides crediting Emily Harrington as the first woman to free climb El Cap in a day, one fact that has been completely overlooked is that, I was the first person–man or woman–to free climb a big wall route on El Cap in a day!