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Emily Harrington becomes first woman to free-climb El Capitan in a single day

Only three others have crossed the milestone — and they were all men.
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Professional rock climber Emily Harrington made history Wednesday when she scaled the 3,000-foot granite wall of Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan in under 24 hours.

While the rest of the country anxiously awaited the results of the 2020 presidential election, the five-time US National Champion braced for a climb that just a year earlier hospitalized her.

At 1:36 a.m. ET, Harrington began her ascent, unsure of herself.

“I never believed I could actually free climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself,” Harrington wrote in an Instagram post. “It didn’t seem like a realistic objective for me. I didn’t have the skills, fitness, or risk profile to move so quickly over such a large piece of stone.”

Emily Harrington free climbs El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
Emily Harrington free climbs El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.Jon Glassberg / Louder Than 11

But 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds, later Harrington reached the top of El Capitan, making her the fourth person — and first woman — ever to free-climb El Capitan under 24 hours.

“I knew I was in for a big day — but that’s exactly why I was there. I wanted to find my limit and exist in it and fight beyond it,” she wrote.

Last year, Harrington suffered a brutal four-story fall while attempting the same climb. Her rope — which free-climbers use in case of a fall but not to climb — caught her as she fell, but she was still hospitalized with scrapes, torn muscles and a concussion.

“I had an accident yesterday on El Cap. I’m banged up but gonna be ok thankfully,” Harrington wrote in an Instagram post at the time while recovering. She said during her fall, her safety rope scraped her neck, leaving a horizontal bruise that she showed in the Instagram post.

Harrington also said she was lucky to have been climbing alongside her boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, a renowned Mount Everest guide, and Alex Honnold, who was the first person to free-climb El Capitan in under 24 hours. The pair helped stabilize Harrington after her fall until rescue arrived. Ballinger wrote in his own Instagram post at the time that he found Herrington “on a ledge after a big fall in below freezing temperatures with real injuries and a lot of reasons to suspect spinal injury,” but that Harrington was “going to be ok” and would “be back in the vertical world soon.”

Wednesday’s climb was not without its challenges, either. A "nasty slip” left Harrington wondering if she could continue forward. She wrote in the Instagram post that the slip almost took her resolve and that a "deep gash" on her forehead left her "bloody and defeated.” She added: “I pulled on again, part of me not really wanting to stay on the wall, the other part gathering courage and flow. I kept thinking ‘why am I still hanging on?’”

After climbing past the same spot that stopped her last year, Harrington would go on to make history.

"I cried at the belay — it could happen this time. ... The final 5 pitches felt scary in my current state but I pulled over the final lip at 10:30pm in disbelief," she wrote.

"There's a lot more to say but mostly I wanted to express my gratitude for the love and support from friends, family, and strangers," Harrington added. "I feel the love so intensely right now. Thank you all."