El Capitan climber Emily Harrington explains how she uses her fear to succeed

Harrington became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route of the famed El Capitan in under 24 hours.
/ Source: TODAY

Climber Emily Harrington wasn't looking to conquer her fear when she became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route of the famed El Capitan in under 24 hours. She was looking to use it to her advantage.

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Harrington, 34, who has also climbed Mount Everest in her decorated 23-year career, was admittedly afraid of a grueling climb up the 3,000-foot-high granite edifice in California's Yosemite National Park.

"I, for one, feel fear all the time," Harrington told Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on TODAY Tuesday.

"I am afraid. I deal with my fear pretty constantly in climbing. I think more than anything, the idea to get past is the idea that you have to beat your fear, that you have to conquer your fear. I don't actually believe that that's a thing that we can do. I think once you feel it, it's there, and you kind of have to exist with it and learn how to move through it."

Harrington finished climbing El Capitan in darkness, 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds after she began her ascent at around 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, using ropes only as a safety net. She became the fourth woman to free-climb El Capitan in less than a day.

"So for me it's less about conquering my fear and beating it and more about sort of sitting with it and understanding it and recognizing why it's there, and then taking steps to move through it and to almost use it in a way, almost become comfortable with that emotion and just sort of let it be even though it's uncomfortable," she said.

Adding to her fear was that by attempting to finish a route that normally takes days for most climbers, she had to increase the danger factor.

"In order to free climb El Cap in a day, you have to cut corners," she said. "For me it was just about balancing what types of risk I was willing to take in order to sacrifice my safety for speed."

Harrington also had a frightening moment when she considered giving up.

She was climbing one of the harder pitches when she slipped and smacked her forehead, opening up a gash. Her team assessed whether she had suffered a concussion and determined she could go on if she was willing.

"There was a part of me that didn't want to keep going, but there was this other part of me that knew that I could do it," she said. "I owed it to myself to try again."

For the first two-thirds of the climb she was joined by friend and climbing legend Alex Honnold, who was featured in the documentary "Free Solo" climbing El Capitan without any ropes. Her boyfriend, Adrian Ballinger, then joined her for the difficult final third.

Honnold and Ballinger carried backpacks with food and water to aid Harrington as she made her ascent. There were a few little ledges along the way where she could stand, but there wasn't much time for rest in order to make the climb in less than 24 hours.

"I think that sometimes those are the most important moments to experience because they're the moments that we grow the most, and for me that vehicle for experiencing that sort of edge is climbing," she said. "I think that a lot of times people shy away from being afraid, they shy away from that type of emotion.

"And I think in reality maybe we should try to get a little more comfortable with being afraid, and sort of analyzing it. I think in a way it can become a strength."

Harrington was inspired to make the climb by Lynn Hill, who climbed the El Capitan route called the Nose in 1994 to become the first person to free climb El Capitan in less than 24 hours.

"It's sort of like the epitome of big wall free climbing in our world," Harrington said. "Doing it in a day just really distills it down into being only about climbing."