Here’s a story we’ve heard before: flush with ambition, athletic wunderkind drops everything to devote their very all to the one thing they love the most, while their parents end up doing the same, drawn so deeply into supporting their child’s success that they’ve long abandoned any goals of their own.
A lot of times when you’re a kid, you kind of forget that your parents are people who have their own dreams and their own desires to accomplish things.
Before she became an accomplished climber and ski mountaineer, Emily was a kid who dabbled in soccer and gymnastics, and enjoyed turns in the Colorado pow with her parents. Then, one fateful day when she was ten years old, she ventured to the nearby Boulder Reservoir with her cousins, where they encountered a portable climbing wall. After spending the day exhausting its routes, Emily returned home and exclaimed, “Dad, I want to climb—I love it!”
Tim signed Emily up for a class at the Boulder Rock Club, an indoor climbing gym. Afterward, the instructor, impressed by her talent on the wall, asked about Emily’s climbing experience; shocked at Tim’s response that it was only her second outing, he replied, “We need to get her on our team.”
Climbing wasn’t an entirely new sport to the Harrington family—Tim roped up on area crags for a while when he first moved to Boulder in 1980, but the demands of launching a new business eventually pulled him away from the sport. He recognized that supporting Emily’s interest in climbing was an opportunity to renew his own, so he joined her at the gym, became her rope gun on outdoor routes, and accompanied her to competitions, marveling as his talented kiddo began racking up championships. Each opportunity allowed him to not only support Emily in exploring her potential, but also indulge his own curiosity about what he was capable of on the rock.
Emily continued to push herself harder, further, and faster, moving from comps to big wall climbing, ice climbing, alpinism, and ski mountaineering, along the way scaling some of the world’s most iconic peaks—Everest, Makalu, Ama Dablam—and even setting a speed record during a ski mountaineering expedition on Cho Oyu. And Tim was right there with her, in spirit if not always physically. “He’s never once questioned my desire to become a professional rock climber, which is not a very conventional career,” says Emily. “He’s always supported my dream.”
But that unwavering support hasn’t come at the cost of Tim’s own ambitions. Over the last two decades, he and Emily managed to transcend their parent-child relationship to become friends and climbing partners, motivating one another to push their respective limits. “Even though she might be working on a 5.14 [climb] and I might be working on a 5.11, it’s still just as hard for me to work that as it is for her to work [her projects],” says Tim. “We have these common goals. We share a common passion. I think that’s what creates that special bond.”
Though they now live in different cities, Emily ties in to support Tim whenever he wants to take the sharp end, as she did a few years back when her then-60-year-old dad hoped to complete his first 5.12 climb during a trip to Spain, a process documented in the short film Role Reversal. She’s also inspired him to dream bigger—say, almost 19,000’ big.
Tim had long wondered if he could join Emily on an expedition to a major Himalayan peak like Ama Dablam. And last year, after she joined fellow ski mountaineer Michelle Parker to climb and ski Cotopaxi, a 19,347’ volcano in Ecuador, Emily realized that while it might not be the Himalayas he’d dreamt of, she could envision her father finding success in the heights of Ecuador. “I immediately got pretty excited about it,” says Tim “She’s given me that opportunity to do things that I never thought I could do.”
When Emily scheduled a trip to climb Cayambe (18,996’) with her partner Adrian Ballinger, a mountain guide and owner of Alpenglow Expeditions, Tim got busy training, following a strict workout plan for six months before their departure. And then with less than two weeks to go, he and his wife Julie received a call they’d always feared—Emily had fallen while climbing on Yosemite’s famed El Capitan.
It was a freak accident. Emily was well within her abilities on the first pitch of a single-day attempt on Golden Gate (5.13), a highly demanding route, but one she’d climbed many times before. In the sub-freezing temperatures, however, the rock was hard glass, and in an instant, she slipped. Luckily, Emily was caught by her belayer (Alex Honnold, whose presence attracted additional media attention to the fall), but not before what she estimates was a 40-foot tumble down the harsh rock face.
Emily had been injured in the fall; almost immediately, it seemed obvious that she’d have to cancel the Cayambe trip. Then, with more clarity on the ground, she began to take stock of her injuries—later, she’d find out they included a concussion, various contusions, an assortment of muscle and tendon tears, and a gnarly rope burn seared into her neck—and realize that despite the superficial gore, she’d been exceptionally lucky.
Tim was panicked; he no longer cared about their trip, just Emily. When he finally reached her on the phone, he was both grateful and surprised by her response. “She said, ‘Dad, I’m going to be okay We’re still going to Ecuador!’” he recalls. “I’m like, ‘You really want to go to Ecuador?” And she goes, “Yeah, we’re going. Let’s do this.”
As it turns out, Tim would have a somewhat painful experience of his own on Cayambe a few weeks later. The first few days in Ecuador passed without incident in a blur of incredible meals and fantastic wine. Then came time for their first acclimatization hike on Ruco Pichincha, which towers over Quito at almost 15,700 feet. Tim hadn’t worried so much about his physical fitness, but considering he’d never been above 14,000 feet, the altitude presented an unknown. He was alarmed to feel dizzy during that first hike, which spiraled into a sleeplessness that would pervade the entire trip. He arrived at Cayambe absolutely exhausted—and began to worry that he’d signed up for something beyond his capabilities.
Emily and Adrian knew that he wasn’t suffering from altitude sickness, but they did recognize that his motivation had flagged come summit day; Adrian made the call that they’d start up the peak an hour earlier than the rest of the team to give him a fighting chance at the summit. “Obviously, I was the weakest link of the whole group,” says Tim. “That’s when I started to really think—you know, I don’t want to hold the team back. Maybe I shouldn’t even try.”
But Emily, who was also pushing through lingering pain from her accident, wasn’t willing to give up on her dad—or on his dreams. “We didn’t think that he would make it because he just didn’t seem like he wanted to go through the suffering,” says Emily. “He didn’t seem like he had that type of motivation and it seemed like he was exhausted and it was really hard for him and was the weakest in the group.” Now it was her turn to encourage Tim to push his limits. “I said, ‘We’re here, I just want you to try.’”
Flush with his daughter’s support, Tim decided to give it a go and forged ahead to a high point on the peak’s glacier. It had been slow, difficult going and he asked Adrian if it was okay to turn around; when the guide pointed out that it would mean descending in the dark, Tim agreed to continue on. “I just put my head down and listened to their encouragement. I just kept pushing and pushing and pushing,” says Tim. “I dug as deep as I ever could.”
The higher they climbed, the more it seemed as though Tim was about to achieve his dream—and Emily was just as invested in his success. Along the way, she’d been nervous about pushing him along with tough love. “I was kind of questioning whether or not we were doing the right thing,” she says. But watching her father stand on the summit of a high-altitude volcano at 64 years old, flush with joy at his hard-won accomplishment, is something she’ll never forget. “In the end, I was really stoked. It really couldn’t have turned out any better.”
When Tim talks about that moment, his voice is filled with happiness—and love. “It was just amazing and special to stand there with Emily and Adrian and everybody. I’m chilled right now thinking of it,” he says. “It was the coolest experience of my life—and Emily’s the one who put it together.” And Emily wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“When you’re a kid dabbling in things like soccer and gymnastics, your parents are always on the sidelines, watching; there’s not that much opportunity for them participate. But in sports like climbing and skiing, parents are given the opportunity to push themselves, as well,” she says. “A lot of times when you’re a kid, you kind of forget that your parents are people who have their own dreams and their own desires to accomplish things. It makes you see your parents differently—you see them as people and friends and partners as opposed to being just your parents. And I think that’s cool.”
Photos by Adrian Ballinger