And there was plenty of suffering and hard times with a cold that she just couldn't kick. Bummed out and scared, she started to second-guess herself. Should I go home? I don't know if I can do this. Harrington and her group spent the weeks hiking up, and then hiking back down. Resting. Recovering. Hiking up, and then hiking back down again. Day in and day out, getting their bodies used to the high elevation. Day by day, step by step.
The Road to Everest
Emily Harrington, who grew up near the mountains of Boulder, Colorado, didn't exactly have lifelong dreams of summiting Everest. She was a sport climber most of her life, but not a mountaineer. Growing up, Harrington climbed at the local gym, and at age 10, she developed enough skill to begin competing on the junior team. Even as a tween, Harrington was pushing herself and by age 13, she began sport climbing and had a slew of mentors that inspired her to continue to test her limits in climbing and beyond. “I needed that push to be happy," Harrington says. “I didn't realize it as a kid but that's what I always wanted and when I always felt good about myself. It's continued as an adult and continued throughout my climbing career by exploring other aspects and offshoots of climbing — like ice climbing, mountaineering, and skiing — and trying to find bigger and harder objectives that test me." That drive led Harrington to success in competition climbing, joining the USA Climbing Team and winning multiple national championships in sport climbing. She was noticed by The North Face and joined their team of world-renowned climbers and mountaineers, like the prominent explorer Conrad Anker. He inspired her and supported her desire to branch out from the kind of climbing she was doing. "Conrad is The North Face athlete team captain, and he puts a lot of energy into educating and expanding the spirit of exploration within the younger team members," Harrington says. Anker noticed Harrington's potential, and he invited her to teach at the Khumbu Climbing Center, a school in Nepal that teaches Sherpas high-altitude climbing skills. "The KCC has been an integral part of The North Face athlete team for many years," Harrington says. "Several of us have volunteered our time to teach there and see it as a great opportunity to visit a place that has such a legendary presence in mountain culture." After Harrington's time at Khumbu, Anker called and suggested that she climb Everest. “I thought he was kidding," Harrington says. “Conrad has been a huge influence in how my career has evolved. I never really knew much about climbing in the big mountains, and he exposed me to that part of climbing and it's been an amazing transition."
It was time to wake up, even though it was 11:30 at night. Outside the tent was bitter cold and complete darkness, but today was the day—the day—and she needed to get ready, layer up, and start the last leg of the trek. This is it. This is what we've been preparing for. Sleepily, she peered out of her tent to see fifty — no, 100? — headlamps bobbing and shimmering in the distance, slowly and steadily making their way to the top of the 29,029-foot mountain, the highest peak on Earth, the summit of Everest. Let's go. You can do this. Wind rustled the tent as she and fellow climbers geared up. It was time to start the 5000-foot ascent to the top of Everest, what the team had been working toward for two months. She got dressed, almost haphazardly and rushed, put on her oxygen, and headed for the top. I just want to get this over with. The route to the top was on fixed lines with ropes that climbers had to clip onto, which meant lines of people that you couldn't pass, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting to move on and summit, walking up and up the big hill, digging the crampons in with each step as 30 mile-per-hour winds blew past. She took her place at the end of the line and waited.
Going Beyond Exploring
Now at 29, Harrington looks back fondly on her Everest experience, and how it spurred her to fully enter the world of exploring, climbing, and summiting big mountains. "I learned a lot on Everest—what it's like to truly suffer and how big mountain expeditions work," Harrington says, who moved to California after climbing Everest, and continued to push herself and her body to new heights and new expeditions. "Overall, Everest introduced me to this world. It opened up my eyes to the world of being in the mountains, and I'm super grateful for it. After Everest, I wanted to get more into climbing in the mountains, get more into skiing with my boyfriend, and just start exploring my environment in a whole new way." Like free climbing El Capitan in Yosemite in the spring of 2015, and attempting — but failing — to ski Makalu in the Himalayas, and other big mountains. “I've failed a lot," she says, "which is a huge part of climbing in big mountains, knowing when to bail and turn around because of circumstances outside of our control — it's important to be able to accept that and still walk away with a good outlook."
Through climbing, I've learned that failure is just a part of everything I do. Without it, I wouldn't push myself."
Although Harrington learns from failing, she also continues to step up her game with intense training, day in and day out. When she isn't traveling or speaking, she's upping her cardio with trail running and ski touring, or training at the gym. But Harrington is always using what she learns from training, climbing, and mountaineering in her everyday life. “It's made me into a more tolerant person," she says. “When unexpected things happen, even in normal life, I try to be more relaxed and easygoing about it. When you are climbing or in the mountains, things happen all the time that you don't expect. You have to learn how to deal with them and not be in control of everything and make decisions around that. In life, it's a similar thing — you can't control everything, so you might as well just do your best."
Her teammates behind her began unclipping to pass her by, coming up stronger and faster than her. Sick of waiting in line and aware of her own skill, she also unclipped and began to pass people, letting her nerves and anxiousness drip away as she stepped out of line and did what she came here to do — climb. The team started to separate, and for a moment on a ridge filled with more waiting, she had a few anxious seconds of freak-out. What if something happens to me? There are all these people around, but I don't know them, I can't turn to them if something happens. Deep breaths. She began to move again, and passed her already descending partners who were shouting words of encouragement to her. Almost there, step by step. It was 6:30 in the morning and light greeted the summit. The last few steps were filled with the rising sun, creeping over the mountains and lighting the last steps to the summit. I made it. This is it. This is Everest.
Lessons Learned and Limits Tested
“I asked myself, what did I gain? I don't really think about what it was like at the top, but all the experiences in between and all that I learned, all the suffering I went through," Harrington says. “You are put in these situations where you feel totally out of your comfort zone and completely at your limit. You are with these other people who are going through the same thing, and you see everyone at their worst and at their best. You find out who you are and you find out who they are. You go through these really dark moments and these really amazing, beautiful moments of light. It's such a special place to be, in those mountains. I don't think you can get that in normal life." Everest is in Harrington's past, but the memories and lessons are in her present and future, pushing her further and harder toward whatever she wants to conquer next. To keep up with Emily Harrington and her next adventure, visit her website at emilyaharrington.com, or follow her on Instagram, @emilyaharrington.