I got the chance to chat with Brette Harrington, who has traveled the world climbing, speaking Spanish and hanging out with her pup Goya.
Among the many styles of rock climbing, she enjoys free solo climbing, which is when the climber doesn’t use ropes or harnesses, instead relying only on the body’s strength, agility and mental focus.
I would love to hear about where your interest in climbing comes from. I know you grew up around Lake Tahoe, which is such a beautiful natural environment. Where did you get your love of being out and beyond?
I always knew I wanted to be a climber; I used to climb trees all the time as a kid, and scramble around on the boulders that rim the east shore of Lake Tahoe. I went outdoor rock climbing for the first time when I was 15, and joined a rock climbing team right after that.
I love the movement of climbing, the connection, the mental focus. There are so many aspects to it. It is a lifestyle.
You do trad climbing, which I understand is when you place your own protection into the rock and clean it after the climb. Is that right?
Each type of rock dictates the climbing style for the area, so where I live trad climbing is usually the norm because the rock is granite or sandstone. It typically follows cracks systems where you place small metal pieces of protection in, called cams and stoppers. It gets really technical with how you put your figures and hands into the cracks. It’s all about jamming your hand into the crack without having it be extremely painful. These techniques are tricky to learn, but once you know them you can go anywhere with it.
This leads me into asking about the free solo climb that you recently completed in Patagonia, and about the experience of solo climbing in general.
I only free solo about 10% of the time. In my mind there are three different types of free soloing. The first is Alpine scrambling: you scramble up to the base of the route before it gets too steep and difficult without the rope, usually through moderate terrain. This saves time and energy before the ‘hard climbing’ begins. Then there is the fun and easy free soloing up walls. It is lighthearted and relaxing. And the last kind is the technical free soloing that takes a lot of thought, and it is a real mental and physical challenge. Again, 90% of the time I am rock climbing with a rope and within this 10% that I free solo, the technically demanding type is only about 10%, so it’s not that often.
A lot of people are scared of free soloing because you are climbing without a rope and they don’t trust themselves not to slip. I too was skeptical at first and I thought I wouldn’t ever do it before I understood the mental side to it. Then I started Alpine climbing, and in the Alpine the routes are so long that it makes sense that you will free solo a lot of the easy terrain. And once the terrain gets difficult, you put the rope on again. You can move much more quickly, and it is so fun. I was in the Waddington Range last year with my boyfriend and we ended up free soloing 1500 feet of amazing rock just to get to the base of the climb. I really like that aspect of it.
The route I did in Patagonia recently, Chiaro di Luna, was much more technical. I had climbed it once before and I already knew what was coming so I wouldn’t be surprised. Surprise is something you never want when you are free soloing. The climb was at a challenging level where I needed to hold my focus for a long time, but I knew I could do it. I wouldn’t want that experience everyday, it would be too much, but it’s a pretty cool challenge every once in a while, to figure out where your mental level is.
Talk to me about the mental challenge part. Does it come from being just you on your own? Is it about knowing that you have gown so far, but you have a long way more to go?
For me, I love being alone so that is not such a problem, but with the scale of things, if I look at a mountain and it looks so big, that can be a bit scary because I don’t know if I can maintain a mental stability for so long.
Such intense focus.
Yes, that is the challenge. It’s how long you can maintain your focus without losing it. You are putting yourself in the position where you know you cannot lose your mind. You have to keep it stable.
I have had instances where I have felt a bit shaky in the morning, where my day isn’t going so well, and I realized I shouldn’t free solo, so I won’t. It really depends on how you are feeling. I do a lot of evaluating before I go to free solo anything, because it is dangerous if you do it without a stable mind.
How do you do that evaluation? What kind of practice do you have for knowing where you are at mentally?
Usually I just know it in the morning if my mind is awake and I am thinking clearly. I am a really emotional person, so I can tell if I wake up a bit tired or grumpy, then it is not a good day to free solo. I don’t have a checklist for how I self-evaluate; it is just based on how I feel.
You talked about not wanting surprises. When we are talking about a whole mountain, what is the memory like? In order to not have surprises, you must have some sort of muscle memory, body memory, mental memory of the rock face. How does that feel and how does it look?
I am writing a paper about this right now actually. I visualized the entire climb the night before I went. I rehearsed in my mind over and over the three main cruxes, or the most difficult points. That night, I just sat in the cave, where I had slept, and visualized the movements until I knew that I could execute them perfectly.
And you had only done that climb once before, right? So you must have really remembered it so clearly.
Yes, the cruxes I remember completely. I have rehearsed it so much, every single move and my body positioning. I even felt the emotion that I would feel if I got scared while climbing it. While I was visualizing it the night before my hands actually started sweating as I experienced the feeling of fear as though I didn’t want to fall. Once I processed that, then I knew that it was going to be fine because even if I felt that emotion it wouldn’t be a surprise. In the end, I didn’t feel scared.
Brette, I feel like these are lessons that I could apply to so many parts of my life. Visualizing doing awesome work, feeling the fear, and knowing that I am going to do it anyway. That is awesome.
After I visualized standing at the base of the hard section and having that fear, I imagined different body movements that would make the climb more secure and practiced it in my mind until all I felt was confidence.
I love that so much! And you were the first woman to do this solo climb, right?
I was actually the first person to ever free solo the route. And I was the first woman to solo climb any of the peaks in the range.
So you were the first… lots of things [laughs]. I’d love to hear about your favorite place on earth. What does it feel like? What is the terrain like? What is the essence of the place?
I really love British Columbia. It is super green and lush there and the mountains are endless. There is so much snow, there are glaciers, and the water is super fresh. So you can rock climb on steep faces or you can go Alpine climbing. It rains a lot, but the forests need the rain. It is really misty and epic.
My favorite place to climb would probably be Patagonia because the mountains are so big and the granite is so good. If you could combine the forest of BC with the mountains of Patagonia, that would be the best.
I would love to hear about what kinds of things you get up to outside of climbing.
I love skiing. I started skiing when I was 2. I used to race, but now I backcountry ski. And I also love doing yoga and I just graduated from university in December.
I graduated with a Spanish major, so I love speaking Spanish. I would like to learn French too; I am on my way. I love languages and traveling.
Patagonia is a good fit then, isn’t it?
Yes, it is ideal that I speak Spanish.
What would you say drives you to keep exploring? I know you have so many climbing projects coming up. What drives you to take them?
It’s an intrinsic motivation for sure. Once I’ve overcome a challenge, I am ready for the next one. I love working through challenges. For instance, even when I was learning Spanish I dedicated my whole mind to it. I spent an entire year only thinking about Spanish, and I went through so many different phases of hating it, but it came through in the end because I put so much energy into it. It is like breaking a barrier in your mind and expanding into new concepts.
After learning how to communicate in the language I needed a new challenge, and I decided that I wanted to dedicate myself to climbing completely because that is what I love. I made that decision when I was 18 because with climbing there are endless challenges.
What does the life of a rock climber look like?
It’s not that fancy [laughs]. Lots of camping and hiking. I lived in a tent six months out of the year last year. I was still living out of a tent while in university.
Yeah, I was pretty grungy [laughs]. I eventually moved into a house because I have a dog, Goya.
As in the Spanish artist?
Yes! I used to live in Spain, and that’s where I adopted her. And she used to live with me in Spain, and then she moved to Canada, now she is in the US.
That is a jet-setting dog. So it sounds like lots of camping and traveling together.
Yes. The climbing community is pretty small. I haven’t lived in Tahoe for so long, and I went to a local crag here recently and I didn’t know anybody and I started working on this route called the Grand Illusion. Just from that I met about five people who were so helpful and friendly, offering me a place to stay. I love that about the climbing community.