Climbers can be broken down into two types.
There is the type of people who talk about all the climbing they’re going to do.
And then there are the people who just go climb.
Where I cut my teeth—in the self-effacing, old-school New England climbing scene—the latter was far more righteous. And we had a name for those folks who were just all talk: spraylords.
I have to admit, when I first saw my very good friend Emily Harrington spouting off about all the huge ascents she was lining up for 2015, I was a bit uncomfortable. She was doing something that I would never do: pre-spray.
Of course, the medium is the message—especially in this case. Unlike those annoying spraylords—and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person like that— Emily pulls of her pre-spray with class, grace and inspiration.
And now, after Emily has crushed one of her major goals this year, by free-climbing Golden Gate (5.13a) on El Cap, I began to wonder … Might it be better, actually, to make your goals public? To be held accountable? To be open to failure? And to be motivated by the surprising outpouring of support from your friends and fans?
I’m impressed that she sent Golden Gate—but honestly, I’m even more impressed by her confidence in herself to put herself out there, doing all that it takes to achieve her dream.
Photo: Jon Glassberg
You can watch her inspiring ascent in this new video, one of the best I’ve seen.
I reached out to Emily to hear her thoughts about setting goals and spraying with dignity.
You started off 2015 listing four pretty big goals. So far you’ve achieved one of them. How does that feel?
It feels amazing—and a bit unbelievable, honestly. None of my goals feel very “safe,” as in, I know that all of them require a significant amount of training, experience, luck, and motivation in order to pull off.
Freeing El Cap had been in my head for a long time. Seriously, since before I even understood what that meant. I just remember I would always say it was a goal of mine when I was a kid—like, it was just something I thought I had to do.
That automatic naive response morphed into a more genuine desire and motivation recently, after moving to California and realizing I had no real sense of how to climb on granite, how to place gear, how to deal with offwidths, etc.
It was a bit of an epiphany, this idea of attempting all four of these diverse goals. I wanted to be adaptable, versatile, and competent in all styles of climbing, in all different environments. I think it’s been the way I’ve found to progress as an athlete and mature as a person.
I felt bored and a bit stagnant before I began, and began asking some harder questions, exploring my deeper motivations a bit more. Now climbing is creative and interesting for me again.
Usually, people frown on people who spray about climbs before they’ve climbed them. What are the pluses and minuses with being so open?
I think it’s rad when people put themselves out there, tell the world their intentions and how they are going to go about it. I personally love following along and watching others go for it, and most people seem to as well.
Take the Dawn Wall, for example. We all watched Tommy and Kevin fail for so long, struggle and battle their way through so many years of getting crushed by that route, and then they did it. Many people probably thought they never would, but they proved them all wrong. And when they sent, we all were so moved because they shared their journey with us.
We knew how hard it was, how badly they wanted it, and how much they deserved that success. That profound communal effect could have never happened had they not been open about their objective and process.
It certainly seems like social media has made it easier to spray.
Some don’t appreciate how social media has influenced the world of adventure, and I certainly think there is a degree of balance that needs to be struck, but I’m mostly grateful for it.
I put my goals out there not to “spay”, but to share my journey and experiences. I love hearing that my own personal efforts help influence others to pursue their own audacious dreams.
I also draw on the stoke and energy I get from knowing people are excited and supportive. It makes me feel a bit more accountable as well, less likely to make excuses or let things slide because I’m insecure or afraid to fail.
This may sound lame to some, but I love it when random people tell me I inspire them. I think that’s cool, and I’m not ashamed to admit that.
The other side is that telling everyone your ultimate dreams is both terrifying and bold, and leaves a lot of room for vulnerability. The safe way is to keep your goals private, not tell anyone about it unless you’re successful, and then you don’t have to face anyone but yourself when you fail.
Did having a film crew with you on El Cap contribute to pressure? Do you think you would’ve tried as hard had it just been you and your partner, alone on the wall?
I did feel a bit of pressure because of the film, but I knew that going into it and I was mentally prepared to handle that extra stress. Filming always adds a different dynamic to a project, but that’s just part of it, and for me it was a very positive thing.
I don’t think Jon [Glassberg] and Walker [Emerson’s] presence as videographers influenced my desire to be successful or not, but they really helped me out as friends and partners. They were just as much a part of the team as Adrian [Ballinger] was.
They encouraged me and gave me advice when I felt like I was sucking and going to fail miserably. Walker had already freed Golden Gate and he gave me beta on some of the pitches I was struggling with. I don’t know think I could have done it without them.
You just went to Ecuador. What was that all about?
Adrian is an IFMGA mountain guide and professional big mountain skier, and he also owns a guiding company called Alpenglow Expeditions. He started a big mountain ski program this year for people who aspire to climb and ski big peaks. The first expedition was to climb and ski two 6,000-meter volcanos in Ecuador, Cayambe and Cotopaxi.
I love skiing and have experience with climbing at altitude so thought it would be a cool opportunity for me to expose myself to some bigger ski terrain and further my experience at altitude as well with Makalu coming up this fall. A bunch of our friends from Tahoe joined in and came as well. It was rad.
We were a group of pretty talented athletes who were all friends traveling to Ecuador to climb volcanos and ski down them.
In the end we got our asses kicked.
We hit it during a bad weather period and the wind blew over 100km/hr everyday in whiteout conditions. I never put on my skis once and we failed to summit both peaks—pretty bad luck.
Despite that we had the best time. I keep saying it was better than most epic powder days or splitter climbing days, all because of the people.
What advice would you give to people who want to set, and achieve, big goals in climbing? I would say, set goals that force you to learn new skills and step outside your comfort zone. Those are the most rewarding ones. Give yourself a good shot, too. Put your ego aside and take responsibility for your own learning. “Earn your merit badges,” as Conrad Anker would say. Initially, I thought that because I’ve climbed 5.14 sport I shouldn’t have to bother with climbing moderate trad routes, but eventually I learned that I needed to climb dozens of 5.9s and 5.10s before I felt comfortable and efficient enough to climb a big wall and not totally exhaust myself on the easier pitches. I needed to put in my time. Don’t be afraid to take the leap though and go for it when it feels right (and safe). Sometimes diving into something way over your head and failing is the only way to understand what you need to do in order to succeed. In the end I think the most important thing to remember is that success is great and all, but it won’t come easy, nor will it happen all the time, and you have to learn to appreciate the failures as well as the successes.
Pretty photos to come, but for now it’s Skittles and Dom because I freed El Cap – BOOM! #PassionSpectrum A photo posted by Emily Harrington (@emilyaharrington) on