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Evolution of a Sport Climber

Posted on: February 2nd, 2012 by Abbey Smith

AAC Friend Abbey Smith sat down to talk to Emily Harrington about competition jitters, and how a winning comp climber overcame her frustrations with the sport to become a winning comp climber again—only this time on ice!

I was born and raised in Boulder, CO. I began climbing in the gym at age 10, and competed in sport climbing comps through my teenage years and into my early 20s. I was a successful competition and sport climber with a narrow understanding of climbing outside my very specific discipline. Climbing for me was about training, competing (winning), and sending.  I remember one time when I was 12 and competing at Junior Nationals in Virginia. I was sitting in the isolation zone thinking, “I wish this was over. I just want to be done. I hate this.” The unfortunate thing was that I felt this way alot while competing. There was alot of pressure and I put so much emphasis on success and beating others. It was the most important part of my climbing.  
I started ice/mixed climbing with my boyfriend, Sam Elias, about two years ago now. I had two initial thoughts. One: Ice climbing is not that hard physically, but leading ice is pretty much like soloing and therefore the most terrifying and dangerous form of climbing I’ve ever done. Two: Mixed climbing is super awkward, insecure, and physically exhausting. Combine all those things with sharp points and it too is a really scary thing to do. Despite all this, there was something about it that made me want to explore it more.  
I don’t remember having to learn how to climb. I used to love climbing trees and was a gymnast. Climbing was a really easy thing for me to pick up. I just felt the movement and did what was natural. It was never awkward or insecure. That’s why kids can send so hard. It’s like learning a foreign language as a child, when our brains are not yet fully formed. It happens quickly and effortlessly, becomes ingrained in us and imprinted in who we are. We never forget or lose what we experience as children. We may suppress it and hide it deep within, but it’s always there somewhere.  
Unlike rock climbing, I had to actually learn how to move while mixed climbing. It’s nothing like climbing with your hands and feet. You’re disconnected from the rock, using tools that make your limbs longer, like a teenager who’s just had an awkward growth spurt. I’ve had trouble acquiring that intuition, the ability to “feel” whether or not I can trust a tool placement on the rock or in the ice. I still spend alot of time scratching, flailing, overgripping, and taking unexpected whippers due to that inexperience. In the past two years I’ve gained alot of knowledge by watching exceptional mixed climbers. Sam’s movements always look natural, like his tools are a part of him. He’s steady and calm, always trusting and confident. I remember watching Josh Wharton and Ines Papert climb in the Ouray Ice Festival in 2010. They both moved so fast up the comp route, no hint of effort or struggle. I keep trying to understand how they do it, but I think it takes years. I like mixed climbing because it has forced me to start at the beginning, abandon all my notions of what I thought climbing was and learn how to move differently. I also learned how to lead ice last year.  It was awful and scary at first, but I disciplined my mind and learned that it’s alright to to be afraid when I’m in control and within my physical limits. I hope that I can continue to push myself in mixed climbing and become a solid and experienced ice climber in the future.  

 I just returned from the Ouray Ice Festival yesterday, where I surprised myself by taking first for the women in the competition. I think my sport climbing background helped me on the comp route, which was pretty physical; but I have certainly come along way from two years ago when I had very little understanding of the technical aspects of the sport. The best part about the comp was that I didn’t feel like I did when I was 12 at Junior Nationals. I was pleased not because I placed first and beat the other women, but because I climbed well, and I fell because I was tired and not as a result of bad luck or a mistake on my part. I still have a competitive spirit, but I also have the ability to put everything in perspective and understand that competitions do not always reveal the best climber, and are certainly not a good definition of what climbing is about.   
By the way, here’s a great article on the Biggest Free Solo of Emily Harrington’s life, posted by our Media Partner, Rock & Ice Magazine.

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