Climbing With Kids: Emily Harrington Interview – Decisions About Having Kids
Emily Harrington is one of my best friends. She also happens to be a total badass athlete and adventurer. Her profession has taken her around the world, and her resume includes big mountain ascents (Everest, Ama Dablam) and hard rock routes (first female ascents of 5.14’s). As a professional climber myself, I was curious about her thoughts on starting a family with such a busy lifestyle. As a mother, I was equally curious about her thoughts on starting climbing/skiing as a kid. She was part of the generation that started climbing and skiing at a very young age.
She was kind enough to do an amazing interview and I hope all you climbing ladies and mamas out there enjoy it as much as I did!
– You are one of the most influential climbers of your generation. I also know you work very hard at what you do, can you briefly describe a “typical” year for you? Climbing, skiing, travel wise?
I spend alot of time traveling. Attending events on behalf of sponsors, speaking engagements, design trips for The North Face, and normally 1-2 big expeditions that are around 2 months long. In addition, I try to do at least one personal ski or climbing trip with my boyfriend. The rest of my time is spent at home in Tahoe training for climbing, trying to be a better skier, and just trying to be home. I really love having a home base, and I’d say I’m only home 6 months a year total, but it’s time I really cherish. Life has become more and more hectic as the years have gone by, which I truly love, but sometimes it becomes a bit stressful, just like any job I guess……
– In the past few years you have expanded your resume to include high altitude peaks and big adventure style trips. Can you tell me what led to this?
I just needed a change. I’d been climbing seriously since I was 10 years old, and it just felt a bit….stale I guess. I wasn’t progressing in the way I wanted to anymore, or maybe I just didn’t have the motivation to. In 2011 Conrad Anker (The North Face team leader) gave me the opportunity to go to Nepal to help teach high altitude workers climbing skills. I guess that was the beginning, but it was a pretty gradual love that developed. Even after Everest I wasn’t convinced that high altitude expeditions were for me. Now, I’ve completely become infatuated by big mountains, both for climbing and skiing. I owe a lot of this to my boyfriend Adrian Ballinger, an IFMGA guide and professional big mountain skier. He’s a super passionate climber and skier, has years of experience with both, and I trust him. He’s the best ski/climbing partner one could ask for.
– Have there been women climbers or athletes that have inspired you? Who and why?
Lynn Hill of course was an inspiration of mine early on, but I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of what she did for our sport until recently. Since I’ve been doing more trad/big wall stuff I’ve gained so much respect for women like Lynn, you (!), and Hazel Findlay. I also look up to Liv Sansoz because she embodies pretty much exactly the type of climber/mountain person I want to be.
She’s won comps, climbed hard sport routes, been on crazy big wall adventures, and she’s a rad skier.
– I’m curious if you ever see yourself having a family? If so, how do you see that fitting in with your profession and lifestyle?
Yea. I think about it frequently since my friends have started having kids, and I’ve watched that transition happen to them. It’s definitely something I see myself doing in the next 5-7 years. I love the traveling and adventure aspect of my life right now, but I certainly don’t think it’s a pace I want to sustain forever. I also foresee myself reaching a point where I’ll want to give my energy to someone else rather than being all about me and my goals. At least I hope I reach that point someday. I don’t think my profession and lifestyle will have to end in any way, but it will have to change for sure.
– Is this something that you think about incorporating into your life? Or more of a pivot point where you will change what you do?
I often wonder how it would all work out, if I would miss certain things, or if I’l be able to figure out a balance. The honest answer is that I have no idea. I’d hope I wouldn’t have to change my life too much, or give up the activities I love, but I’m not fooling myself into thinking that everything will be able to stay the same. Bringing another person into the world is a huge responsibility, one that I’m totally not ready for right now, but I hope someday I will be up for the challenge and ready to make the sacrifices necessary in other aspects of my life to be successful at it 🙂
– Are you at all nervous about having a family? Career or performance wise?
I think it will be a worry of mine for sure. But I’ve also had amazing mentors in my life who have shown that it is still possible to perform at a high level and be a great mom. For now I’m not too worried about it because it’s still a ways off, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind.
– Do you see any other women professional athletes that you are looking up to as examples in how to have a family in the outdoor lifestyle?
Yes! I see loads of them. Hilaree O’Neil is a great example. As is Caroline George. They both juggle busy family life with playing hard in the outdoors, and it’s something I’ve observed and try to envision how it may fit into my world someday.
– I know you ski raced as a young child, and then started competing in climbing at a young age. Can you tell me a little about your experience with each of those sports?
I was a super competitive kid, and I thrived off of competition, but skiing and climbing were very different for me. I struggled with skiing. I never won any races (or even placed in the top half probably). I was small and racing in a really competitive region, I remember always feeling like I was the worst kid out there. But I tried really hard and I became a good skier because of it. When I started climbing things sort of clicked. I was good right off the bat and I knew I had the potential to be even better. I applied the work ethic I’d learned in skiing to climbing and very quickly found success. I quit skiing after that and didn’t look back for 15 years. Now I love both sports and am super grateful for the different experiences I had with each of them.
– How have you seen climbing or skiing change with respect to kid involvement over the years?
In both sports, kids start so young now. It’s all so organized and there’s so many opportunities for them to excel. At the ski resort I see 5 year olds shredding with perfect form and hucking cliffs 5x taller than they are. Then at the climbing gym they’re sending 5.13 on lead. I watched the live stream of ABS youth nationals this year and couldn’t believe how well these kids climbed. Not just swinging around like on the monkey bars, but reading complicated sequences, executing dynamic movements as well as slab climbing with excellent footwork. It’s all so impressive, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.
– Any words of advice for parents out there trying to get their kids into either discipline?
There’s a balance between giving them the opportunity and the support to find something they’re passionate about, and being “that parent” who’s a bit too involved and pushy. The trick is finding that balance. I’m not totally sure where that lies because I believe every kid is probably different. I feel like I was super lucky to have parents who gave me all the opportunities to discover what I wanted to do in life without really pressuring me in one direction or the other. I think one basic piece of advice is to expose your child to everything. Let them try it all. I didn’t just ski and climb as a kid. I did gymnastics, dance, theater, piano, soccer, girl scouts, etc. and I made my own choices about what I wanted to pursue. I hope someday I have the capacity to give my own kids the same opportunities to explore their own passions in that way.
– How do you see professional women athletes having families changing since you started climbing?
I’m not sure because honestly I never paid as much attention. I grew up around a lot of female climbers who were also moms and it just seemed sort of normal. Robyn Erbesfield started coaching me at age 11 and she already had her 2 kids and just made it work. It seemed normal to me. I grew up seeing parents bring they’re kids to the crag and they eventually started climbing when they got old enough. Kids climbed and so did their parents. I grew up climbing with my dad, and my friends’ parents. Climbing just seems like such a family activity to me because I was surrounded by families who climb from the beginning.