Growing up in an athletic family in outdoors-sports mecca Boulder, Colorado, competition and athleticism have always been in Emily Harrington’s blood. She excelled at gymnastics, skiing, and soccer. But the first time she scaled a rock wall at age 10, she found her calling.
By the time she was a teenager, Harrington joined the USA Climbing Team, winning five U.S. National Sport Climbing Championships as well as two North American Championships. When she transitioned to outdoor climbing, her sport took her around the world — Australia, China, Morocco — and into some of the most picturesque and dangerous terrain in the world — from Ama Dablam in Nepal to Yosemite’s El Capitan to Mount Everest. At just 29, Harrington is one of the most successful professional climbers in the world.
Harrington shares what it’s like to scale mountains for a living and how learning to accept failure has become her most important asset.
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where pretty much everyone is some type of outdoor athlete. I started skiing when I was 2 years old. I was also a gymnast, I played soccer, and I danced. My parents let me do whatever I was interested in, and they definitely encouraged exploration of the outdoors.
One year when I was about 10, I visited an outdoor festival that had one of those artificial climbing walls set up. I remember watching boys my age climb it and I was like, Now I have to do it. I remember feeling this connection to the movement or to the feeling of being up off the ground. I told my dad, “This is what I want to do. Can we go tomorrow?”
My dad, who has always been my biggest supporter in life, was pretty excited about it. He took me to the climbing gym and we started taking classes together. He hasn’t ever been at the same level as me, but he tries really hard and it’s awesome. A few months in, I joined a local junior climbing team and became part of the youth competition circuit. I spent the next 10 years traveling around the country competing in indoor climbing competitions.
I would go to school during the day, then I would go to the gym and probably spend anywhere from two to five hours at the climbing gym. It’s a lot of pull-ups, a lot of core, but it’s mostly about body awareness, which is what I love about climbing. It’s that feeling of trying to solve a puzzle and figuring out the correct body positions to stay on the wall.
In high school, I started to gain some sponsorships [from local sports and apparel companies]. I wasn’t paid in anything but product for a while. I had a coach who was sponsored by [professional athletics footwear company] La Sportiva, and she pulled the strings for me to get one as well. It started out as a few pairs of shoes, but as I got older and more well-known, it transitioned into a little bit of money. It felt like validation for my hard work.
I started transitioning into outdoor climbing when I was about 14. The emphasis is on physical gymnastic movement up the face of a rock. I saw it as another way to progress my climbing skills. It’s also a lot different than the gym in that you have to understand the rock and create your own solutions in order to ascend upward. I was able to travel all of the U.S. and go to Europe. When I was 17, I graduated high school and went to Australia for two months to go rock climbing. Climbing was this amazing vehicle for seeing the world.
In my head, climbing was this lifestyle I was going to pursue the rest of my life. I had a different plan for a future career. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I studied international affairs with an emphasis on politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. I wanted to go into international law and human rights. I graduated in 2007 and I was getting ready to take the LSAT. That’s when I was approached by The North Face to join their global athlete team. They have rock climbers, skiers, endurance runners, and other outdoor athletes. They use us in their marketing [in commercials, ad campaigns, and photographs], which allows us to pursue our sports at the highest level.
I saw it as this amazing opportunity to really take the plunge and see if I can make it as a professional climber. I decided not to go to law school. My dad told me, “You can always go back to school if you want to.” That was 2008 and I am still on The North Face team. When I started out, I don’t think I was even making $20,000. I was lucky that I didn’t have any student loans, my parents still supported me, and I lived in an apartment in Boulder that cost $400 a month. As time went by, I gained more sponsors and outside sources of income like speaking gigs and commercials [with different brands, such as Apple], and now I make enough to fully support myself as an athlete.
The North Face focuses heavily on social media engagement, marketing, and networking. I work with an athlete manager to set goals for every year. The athletes go on research and development trips, where we talk with North Face designers and discuss which products we like, what we don’t like, and what we’d like to see. There is an athlete summit every year, where we all get together for five days to discuss how to continue to grow our own personal brands.
It’s cool because it’s no longer just going out and climbing something difficult or really dangerous. I can still be an influencer and storyteller, even into my older years. It’s increased my longevity as a professional athlete and also opened doors. If I decide to stop climbing, I feel confident that I can go into some sort of marketing position at an outdoor sports brand. Before I felt like there was this time limit and my only worth was my ability as a climber. But our bodies are not going to last forever.
I climbed Mount Everest in 2012, and that was my introduction to climbing the big mountains. I remember the feeling that I was not in control of anything. It’s a gift that you get to climb the mountain. Following that trip, one of the woman I climbed Everest with — the only other woman on our team — had this crazy idea that she wanted to climb a remote peak in Myanmar, formerly Burma, this country that has been cut off from the rest of the world. The mountain peaks there haven’t been explored. We spent two months getting to this mountain. We took a boat and a train and an overnight bus, and rode motorcycles 80 miles through the jungle. Then we walked from sea level to 13,000 feet. There were snakes and spiders and leeches, and it was incredibly remote. I was out of my comfort zone and scared. The peak we tried to climb was 19,000 feet and we ended up getting our asses totally kicked. We ran out of food so we had to go back. We definitely failed.
I’m a lot better at losing than I was before. I think it’s because now I’ve had these experiences where I’m not in control, and my success and failure is not up to me. It’s not about being the strongest or being the best. If you’re in the mountains, it’s up to the mountain whether you are going to succeed or fail. I call 2015 summit nothing because I didn’t summit any mountains. I failed on probably three peaks and several objectives, and every single time, it was because we felt the risk was too high. It’s not important that you summit. What’s important is that you get out and you’re still here. Success is this traditional sense of accomplishment that we all have, but I think some of the biggest things we learn in life come out of failure.
People always ask me, “Why do you do this? Isn’t it pointless?” My experiences climbing are when I feel most alive. I feel most connected to my environment and to the people around me, and I come away feeling like I’m in a better place. It’s the only way I know how to live my life. I hope that that inspires people. I hope it makes them want to go out and do something meaningful. That’s what the world needs: People who want to do interesting things and share them.
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