Tahoe-area climber survives dangerous fall at Yosemite
The rope burn mark on pro climber Emily Harrington’s neck is a visible reminder of how much worse things could have been.
Harrington of Olympic Valley, California fell on Nov. 24 while attempting to become one of just a few people — and the first woman — to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan in a single day.
“This was definitely the worst fall I have ever taken,” said Harrington, 33, who had been practicing for the attempt for about a year.
Among the most accomplished climbers in the world, Harrington was on what’s called the Golden Gate route.
It’s an expert route that entails about 3,000 vertical feet (914 meters) of ascent and one that Harrington completed in 2015.
The earlier climb, however, took place over six days. Her most recent climb was an attempt to do the same route in less than 24 hours.
“I had come really close a couple weeks ago and I wanted to give it one more try before the end of the season,” she said.
Her team included Alex Honnold, one of the most well-known climbers in the world, and Adrian Ballinger, an Everest guide and Harrington’s boyfriend.
She was climbing with Honnold because to complete the route in a day, speed was important.
“He is very fast and competent … you really need someone who is not going to slow you down,” Harrington said.
To save time the two were simul-climbing, which means both climbers were ascending together on the same rope. Typically, the second climber, or belayer, is in a stationary position.
Simul-climbing reduces the time it takes to ascend but it also adds additional risk.
“You are covering much larger distances than you normally would,” Harrington said. “I was just placing a lot less gear … in order to have enough to cover more ground.”
At the time of the fall, Honnold was belaying Harrington. Ballinger was hiking another route to the top; from there he was planning to rappel down and take over for the top third of the route.
After starting around 4 a.m., Harrington had barely begun climbing when she fell.
Harrington was ascending a spot that’s considered relatively easy for her skill level but one she knew could be slick.
“I always thought of that part of the route as being a little slippery … but I had never fallen there,” she said.
She was about 20 to 25 feet (6 to 8 meters) above the last piece of protection she placed, meaning that she had about 50 feet (15 meters) to fall before she her rope would catch her.
Harrington doesn’t have a clear memory of exactly what happened, but she suspects she just slipped.
The temperature was below 30 degrees (minus 1 Celsius) and Harrington said the cold might have made it more difficult for the rubber in her shoes to grip the rock.
“Your feet aren’t standing on much, you are really trusting the rubber on your shoes,” Harrington said. “I couldn’t really feel the rock, which is pretty hard for a rock climber.”
She remembers moving from one crack to the next and then things get fuzzy.
“The next thing I know I was in the air,” Harrington said.
Since the wall wasn’t completely vertical it meant Harrington was slamming into the rock as she fell.
After the fall Honnold was able to lower her to a ledge. Meanwhile, Ballinger got a text about the accident.
“All it said was Emily had fallen and it wasn’t OK,” he said. “I started running down the peak.”
The ensuing hours were agonizing for the entire group.
Harrington had regained consciousness and was experiencing neck pain so even though she could move her extremities spinal damage was a major concern.
Hypothermia was another worry.
“We were shivering a lot, I think that might have been the biggest danger,” Harrington said.
Although they knew Harrington was in danger, there wasn’t much anyone could do other than to keep her spine immobilized and try to keep her warm.
Ballinger, who as a guide is trained to respond to backcountry injuries, said he kept calm by focusing on the task at hand.
“It is a different situation being my life partner instead of someone I never met before,” he said of tending to Harrington. “The easiest thing to do was turn all that off and just do my job.”
Yosemite Search and Rescue arrived around 6 a.m. and packed Harrington for transport.
Test results at the hospital showed Harrington somehow managed to avoid any broken bones or a spinal injury.
But she did suffer a concussion, a torn flexor in her forearm which is a concerning injury for a climber and torn muscles in her neck.
The neck injury is particularly scary to think about because it likely occurred when she fell into the slack rope, which left a diagonal burn beneath her right ear.
“I think I hit the rope with my neck first which is why I have this rope burn here,” she said.
Despite the close call, Harrington said she intends to return to Yosemite next season to make another attempt on Golden Gate.
She said she knows there’s additional risk when it comes to speed attempts. And the accident, she said, shows it’s possible to manage those risks.
Even though she took a hard fall, her safety system prevented her from suffering catastrophic or fatal injury.
“The system kept her from death, but she got really banged up, that is kind of how it is meant to be,” Ballinger said.
Harrington said she wouldn’t want her experience to deter people from learning to climb.
“It doesn’t have to be that dangerous,” Harrington said. “You can come climbing in the gym and it is awesome, everyone should try it.”