Emily Harrington is a gifted climber. Make no bones about it. She’s won championships in the competitive arena and she’s more than paid her dues on natural rock. But like any seasoned vet, that doesn’t make her immune to accident. The 33-year-old was attempting the Golden Gate (VI 5.13) route on El Capitan in a single day – she would have been only the fourth climber and first woman ever to complete it – when things went wrong and she took a hellacious fall. She free-climbed that same route in a six day stretch in 2015 and nearly did it in a day, earlier this month (see Instagram, below).
According to reports, Alex Honnold (one of the three climbers to have done Golden Gate in a day ) was in play as Harrington’s partner and they were at the beginning pitches when Harrington fell, gruesomely wrapping her neck in the rope on the way down. Her boyfriend, accomplished climber and skier Adrian Ballinger, was assisting from a pitch above. Both Harrington and Ballinger gave Honnold credit during the rescue attempt as the Free Solo star stabilized Harrington until Search and Rescue could arrive.
“The most important person in my world crumpled on a ledge after a big fall in below freezing temperatures with real injuries and a lot of reasons to suspect spinal injury,” wrote Ballinger on Instagram. “But looking back it was also the best case scenario of the worst case scenario – @alexhonnold with Em calmly maintaining spinal immobilization on the wall, getting things ready for an evac, and telling stories and keeping her talking throughout.”
The duo were using a fast but risky technique called simul-climbing, where both lead and belay scale a wall at the same time. While much faster, falls are also much more devastating: if the belayer slips he drags the lead with, if the lead falls it’s a much longer fall than normal because there’s so much less gear being used. The belayer is cleaning as he/she comes up from just behind.
It was a scary moment for one of the best female climbers in the world and the entire climbing community seems to be breathing a collective sigh of relief.