How an elite climbing couple is tackling Everest and El Capitan while keeping romance alive
“We just need to be so open to protect our love and relationship first.”
Some couples worry about how to manage a week apart on business trips. Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger — among the top rock climbers and mountaineers, respectively — worry about how to spend months several thousand miles apart while they both make potentially life-threatening attempts at groundbreaking physical feats on the edges of human capacity.
On Monday, they are parting ways from their home in Tahoe, California. Harrington, a North Face athlete, is off to attempt the Moonlight Buttress wall in Zion National Park, Utah, and then Yosemite National Park, where she’ll be attempting to free climb El Capitan on the Golden Gate Route in under 24 hours.
It’s nice to hear like, ‘I’m having coffee outside, it’s sunny out, here’s a photo of Everest,’ and I’ll be hanging on the wall like, ‘Oh cool, here I am on top of El Cap, I’m gonna rap in.’
It’s a route she’s done before — but over several days. No woman has ever free climbed that route in under a day, and only three or so women have free climbed El Cap on any route in under a day.
“The idea of free climbing El Cap in a day is kind of the epitome of achievement in big wall climbing,” she told ABC News. “For me, it’s like absolute perfection in climbing. As close as I’m ever going to get to it.”
Her belaying partner will be Alex Honnold, who gained mainstream fame with the Oscar-winning film “Free Solo,” which documented his historic climb of El Capitan; in free climbing, as opposed to free soloing, Harrington will be attached to ropes she won’t be using as aid, but that will catch her if she falls — “so it’s far safer,” she explained.
Ballinger, an Eddie Bauer mountaineer and CEO of Alpenglow Expeditions, meanwhile, is heading back to Mount Everest — which he’s already summited eight times, including once without supplemental oxygen, which only about 200 people have ever done.
Along with Alpenglow Expeditions, Ballinger will be the expedition leader for four projects on Everest, including a research project for which he’ll be attempting to spend as much time as physically possible — as many as eight days, he hopes — above 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) — sometimes referred to as the “death zone.”
The couple, who met on Everest in 2012 and document their life on a YouTube channel, will see each other for about a week around late May, and then it’s back apart — Ballinger to attempt K2 in Pakistan without supplemental oxygen and Harrington to Peru to attempt some first ascents — until mid-August.
While they’ve gotten “better” at managing these separate trips with logistics, including planning their big trips to overlap, when asked if it gets any easier, they both said, “I think it gets harder.”
“Early on it was just so cool,” Ballinger told ABC News. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, Em’s the craziest! She’s going to Myanmar! She’s going here! She’s going there! This is so rad!'”
“And now the novelty of all that has worn off,” Harrington said. “You’re like, ‘Really? You want to go there? OK, cool, like, we’ll just spend another month apart, um…'”
This is especially true as “we have this life that we’ve built together,” including a dog, named Cat, Harrington said. But technology has made their time apart easier.
“Now, with WhatsApp and satellite technology and FaceTime, we talk in some form every single day,” Ballinger said.
“It’s nice to hear like, ‘I’m having coffee outside, it’s sunny out, here’s a photo of Everest,’ and I’ll be hanging on the wall like, ‘Oh cool, here I am on top of El Cap, I’m gonna [rappel] in.’ You get to discuss the tiny little minutiae of the day,” Harrington said.
They’re always going to have that — those stories, those experiences of suffering, that massive potential of success or failure — I struggle with not being that person for her.
That also means when they reunite, they don’t have a whole life experience to catch each other up on, so their reintegration into being a couple, together, is easier.
Even so, that doesn’t mean they’re sharing an experience, and that feeling of being “left out” is the most difficult part for both professionals.
“Knowing Em’s having this complete pinnacle experience that’s life-changing for her or a life highlight and she’s doing it with other partners and they’re always going to have that — those stories, those experiences of suffering, that massive potential of success or failure — I struggle with not being that person for her,” Ballinger said.
That’s partially why they’ve figured out the key to their relationship — and the best relationship advice they have to offer — is to be honest about everything, from potential business deals to tipsy flirtations or sober connections while they’re on their respective mountains.
“We just need to be so open to protect our love and relationship first,” Ballinger said, acknowledging it’s taken time and effort to get there, especially since they’ve been living and dating in the small world of extreme outdoor athletics for longer than they’ve known each other.
But another way to protect their relationship is to protect their safety.
“We are talking about things like having a family, and I really want to live a long life and have [that] opportunity,” Ballinger said.
So, over their past seven years together, Ballinger has lowered the time of risk for random accidents he’ll do in a year. For instance, instead of attempting a new route on Everest this year and doing K2, he spoke with Harrington to figure out which was more important to him and ultimately decided to only do K2 to minimize his time in risk zones.
In the weeks leading up to their trips, while they were both busy training, they’d make efforts to join each other, whether at Harrington’s indoor climbing wall or on Ballinger’s recovery runs.
“It’s time we can spend together and it feels supportive,” Harrington said.
Their dog, Cat, will be traveling with Harrington, so she let Ballinger take Cat with him on more training days.
And for their last week together, as morning people, they cleared their early schedules of any calls or meetings so they could “just get up, drink coffee, sit on our deck, and talk about what we have coming up,” Ballinger said.
After all, it’s the little things that make a life together, even if that life revolves around the world’s biggest mountains and walls.