There’s a simple rule of simul-climbing

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Rock-climber Emily Harrington was making a one-day free attempt on the 5.13 Golden Gate route up Yosemite’s El Capitan, when her foot slipped, and she fell:

Having Honnold on board as a belay partner was only one part of a strategy that would need to work perfectly in order for Harrington to become the first woman and fourth person to free climb Golden Gate in a day. She’d been working through the moves of the route for years. In 2015, she freeclimbed it in six days. And on November 7 of this year, she came heartbreakingly close, climbing all but the last 30 feet of the final 5.13 pitch before exhaustion overtook her. “It’s not about the hard pitches,” she explains. “It’s about the accumulation of fatigue. Even the 5.10 pitches are really physical, so it becomes this huge endurance challenge that a lot of climbers don’t quite grasp.”


To stack the deck in her favor, she and Honnold planned to use a technique called simul-climbing, a time-saving high-risk endeavor in which the leader and follower both advance at the same time. The leader places gear sparingly, “running it out,” as they say, while the follower cleans the gear. By leaving huge gaps between placements and climbing simultaneously, a team can cover four pitches with the amount of gear and time that it typically takes to finish one. The tradeoff is, of course, safety. If the follower slips, he pulls the leader off with him. If the leader falls, she takes an enormous fall that must be caught by a belayer who is focused on climbing.

“You have to conserve your gear,” says Harrington. “Instead of climbing the Freeblast in 12 pitches, we planned to climb it in four pitches.” The Freeblast, for people who remember the movie Free Solo, is the lower, less-than vertical-section of Freerider/Golden Gate where the climbing isn’t technically as difficult as the upper sections, but it’s slabby, slippery, and what Harrington generally characterizes as “insecure.”

“It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s easy for your fingers and feet to be numb and to slip unexpectedly,” says Honnold. When he made his abortive attempt on Freerider early in Free Solo, it was the Freeblast section that turned him around rather than the most difficult sections up high. Harrington is a 5.14 climber. When she slipped, she was making the last move of a 5.10c pitch while navigating a pair of twin cracks. Just a few feet above her was a fixed bolt she could have clipped for ultimate safety.

About 150 feet below, Honnold was belaying Harrington when he heard her scream. “I was sitting on the ground tying my shoes, getting ready to start simul-climbing,” says Honnold. “Tons of slack just pools on the ground, which is consistent with huge falls.” The phenomenon occurs when the leader is falling but still above her last piece of gear. “The rope is falling at the same speed as the climber,” says Honnold. “It’s just physics.”

Honnold was belaying with a gri-gri, a mechanical device that’s a little bit like the cams in a car seat belt. Its mechanism allows the rope to slide smoothly through it at low speeds but locks down tight if you try to pull the rope through it with any kind of jarring motion. But the energy of the fall never actually reached the gri-gri. In most circumstances, a belayer’s hand is never supposed to leave the rope. But at the highest echelons of simul-climbing, that’s just not an option. The follower has to climb and remove gear from the wall while also belaying the leader. That’s why there’s a simple rule of simul-climbing: don’t fall.


At the hospital, her injuries proved to be gruesome but largely superficial. Most shockingly, Harrington had somehow managed to get her neck caught in the rope during the fall and was left with a long bruise that made it look like she’d been strangled. Ultimately she was able to walk out of the hospital a day later.


Honnold, who is famously dry when it comes to assessing risk, doesn’t view it as a cautionary tale: “In a lot of ways, this shows that the techniques actually work,” says Honnold. “She took one of the worst possible falls on the whole route and still wound up basically fine.”


Ultimately, though, Harrington herself sees the accident as a validation, if a painful one: “The system worked. The rope caught me. My gear held,” she says. “I’ll try again in spring.”


  1. Wang Wei Lin says:

    When taking a risk you must ask yourself, “Is it worth dying for?” If the answer is yes then do it. If the risk is an avoidable, non-essential activity and you treasure your life, but do it anyway…you’re an idiot.

  2. Bomag says:

    When taking a risk you must ask yourself, “Is it worth dying for?”

    Well, then, considering the risk of automobile travel, I can now stop running around in service to the wife’s vanity projects!!!

    I’m not too keen about the girls keeping up with the boys in this type of endeavor.

  3. Sam J says:

    I watched that movie Free Solo and all I could think about was what a fool that guy was to for doing that.

    The only explanation for him free climbing at that level was status. I can’t image giving that much of a shit what people think of me that I would do something so stupid.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    I have a theory a male human has an instinctive need to face physical danger in order to prove to himself he’s a real man.

    I was put in harm’s way frequently as a child, and I never went for extreme sports. For me there was no point. But I knew guys who went in for skydiving and the like, and they seemed oddly innocent to me, as if they’d never been close to death growing up.

    I’ll risk death for a good reason. I won’t do it for its own sake.

  5. Kirk says:


    I take a slightly different viewpoint on that issue; it’s not just the “need to face danger”, it’s also a timing thing during the maturation process.

    I think that there are “behavioral gates” akin to the ones we know exist for language acquisition, relating to behavioral patterns and so forth in the human psyche. If you don’t hit those gates while your brain/mind is still plastic, then you’re going to be lacking in those regards for the rest of your life.

    You want to see a fully rounded, well-balanced young man, you have to ensure that they learn and experience specific things during the process that takes them from child to man, or you’re not going to get functional fully-realized men out of the process.

    Same factors no doubt go into the process of creating fully functional women, but since I don’t know that from the inside, I’m not gonna comment on what they are.

    If you don’t socialize a male child properly, that child is never going to connect well with others. If you fail to provide him with a challenging environment, then he’s likely to be an out-of-balance whacko who tends to irresponsibility. At some point, you really have to present his ass with an existential threat, a real one, and he has to survive it in order for him to assess and react rationally to other such events in his life. You don’t do that, by a certain point, then he’s never really going to “get” that the environment he’s in can kill him. I think that there’s a really good chance that the thrill-seeking idiocy we see in a lot of males these days stems not from some innate drive, but from the fact that these idiots have never seen or experienced death at close range while their minds were still plastic enough to process the reality that they, too, can die. A lot of the thrill-seeker types I know are guys who grew up in environments of benign boredom, without threat or challenge. As such, they’ve never had to “grow up”, and recognize that they stand a chance of dying from their avocation. They simply cannot comprehend or process the risk rationally.

    Guy I went to high school with was a climber, and he was not one of the thrill-seeker types. He had friends of his who were, and who settled around where we went to school. What was interesting talking to a couple who managed to get themselves killed doing what I’d term “stupid sh*t” was that they’d never run into a situation that came close to killing them during their early days climbing. My friend I went to school with had, in his early twenties. His risk-assessment instincts kept him off of a couple of high-risk climbs that led to extensive deaths in the climbing teams doing them, because he had a solid handle on “Hey, this could kill me…”, and he had a wife/kids to stay alive for. Several of his climbing friends did not develop that recognition of their limitations, and they’ve left behind wives and kids after they were killed in the pursuit of glory.

    You see the same thing in a lot of military veterans–Risk aversion is something you see in certain categories of age/experience, while there are others who are blithely oblivious to the tactical facts of life. Same-same with intel operatives–The guys who let that IED-vest guy into the CIA camp in Afghanistan a few years back? Blithe spirits all, who failed to develop a healthy paranoia about the risk of trusting the locals too much.

  6. CVLR says:

    Harry, skydiving is incredibly safe.

    Sam, clearly you’ve never experienced the love of a climber chick.

    I prefer extreme sports requiring exotic machinery, myself. Kite surfing, paragliding, that sort of thing.

    If you want something fun but pretty safe check out OpenPPG. It’s also the least expensive way to get into aviation.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    I lost a (not close) relative to skydiving. Actually, to repeated skydiving. My theory explains why he went skydiving once. Kirk’s theory explains why he kept doing it over and over again.

    The law of averages explains why he eventually went splat.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Apparently skydiving isn’t terribly unsafe — 13 fatal skydiving accidents in the U.S. out of roughly 3.3 million jumps last year.

  9. CVLR says:

    My condolences, Harry.

    Nevertheless, as our host points out, skydiving is orders of magnitude safer than driving. Law of averages, splat, etc. etc.

  10. Sam J. says:

    I rode motorcycles to get my kicks. Up until about maybe 7 years ago when my reflexes were not so good and it seemed everyone on the road was trying to run me down. I decided no more.

    I still say climbing Yosemite without a rope is stupid.

  11. CVLR says:

    Yeah, I love motorcycles, the problem is everyone in everything else.

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