Mary Harlan: Heartiness, Suffering and The Zion Link-Up

Mary Harlan, a single mom, firefighter and paramedic student, plans to attempt the “improbable”—a linkup of Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Sheer Lunacy (5.12c) and Shune's Buttress (5.11+) in Zion National Park, Utah, all free and in less than 24 hours.

By Tiffany Hensley | April 20th, 2016

Colorado’s Mary Harlan, a single mom, firefighter and paramedic student, plans to attempt the “improbable”—a linkup of Moonlight Buttress (5.12d), Sheer Lunacy (5.12c) and Shune’s Buttress (5.11+) in Zion National Park, Utah, all free and in less than 24 hours.

She’s partnered with Kiwi-born Helen Sinclair, a ski patrol and YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue) member. Neither can climb full time and despite daunting responsibilities outside of climbing, they have found the time to train and are ready to take on three of Zion’s toughest trad lines.


Mary Harlan, 39, plans to linkup of <em>Moonlight Buttress</em> (5.12d), <em>Sheer Lunacy</em> (5.12c) and <em>Shune’s Buttress</em> (5.11+) in Zion National Park, Utah, with Helen Sinclair. Photo courtesy of Mary Harlan.” title=”Mary Harlan, 39, plans to linkup of <em>Moonlight Buttress</em> (5.12d), <em>Sheer Lunacy</em> (5.12c) and <em>Shune’s Buttress</em> (5.11+) in Zion National Park, Utah, with Helen Sinclair. Photo courtesy of Mary Harlan.” style=”float: right; margin: 0px 0px 10px 10px;”></p>
<h5>Q&A with Mary Harlan:</h5>
<p style=How did the idea take hold?

The only way that I could do Moonlight Buttress perfectly and to truly get the redpoint was simply to keep doing it again and again until it felt like second nature. At the same time, I knew that I wanted to do something bigger. Zion is a unique place in that most of the approaches to these big routes are short. I started thinking about two of my other favorite routes in the park, their proximity to one another, and their difficulty. The idea occurred to me to just do a linkup of the three routes.

Then I needed a partner who was not only strong enough, but who had the experience and desire to do a linkup too. I had a training session with Justen Sjong, from Movement Climbing and Fitness, and he suggested Helen [Sinclair].

She is an amazing climbing partner, with loads of credibility and integrity. She cares A LOT about my success as well as her own. She cares about climbing safely, with speed and efficiency, and she is a purist. I’ve learned a lot from her.

What’s the historical significance of the project? 

There’s a group of women in Yosemite pushing speed records and doing linkups on huge routes, and they are using a variety of climbing techniques to achieve their goals. It began to intrigue me, this goal of three hard free climbs in a day (a 24-hour day). I wanted to do this project specifically with a woman, and then it all just came together.

It’s sort of “improbable.” Firstly, I’m a single mom, a firefighter, I’m in paramedic school, and I have other jobs. I can’t climb full-time, and neither can Helen. We both have enormous responsibilities outside of climbing. If we had endless time to climb, we could just get it done. But we don’t.

“For whatever reason, women aren’t doing big linkups as much as men.”Also, historically, people aren’t really linking-up routes in Zion. The climbing in Zion is physical and mentally demanding. It’s sandy, dirty, and can feel like a grovel at times. Moonlight, which is part of the linkup, is the cleanest and most straightforward of the three routes.

For whatever reason, women aren’t doing big linkups as much as men. I hear about people doing linkups in other big climbing areas, from Yosemite to The Black Canyon, to El Potrero Chico, but it isn’t super common. It’s a test of both mental and physical ability, and it will require a level of suffering that intimidates me.

So part of the allure and challenge includes balancing all of these things, and still pushing ourselves to complete the Zion Project to make the dream a reality.

It will make us better people in the long run!

What’s your training like?

Normally my training is ramped up in the winter months, when I am mixed climbing and ice climbing. I do a lot of gym climbing, hangboard workouts with campus boarding (two times a week). Gym sessions usually consist of a few hours of roped climbing and a few hours of bouldering.

This year, however, because of the linkup project, my training is much more structured and focused. I train three days per week and climb outside one day per week. In the endurance phase I was climbing 20 pitches in a gym session, one day per week, with nothing harder than 5.11d. In the same day, I may have gone for a short to medium length run, or alpine or Nordic ski.

My second day of training consisted of a workout that Justen Sjong had devised for me, which included a systems board workout, some bouldering, and climbing specific strength movements I needed to work on. I trained with Justen Sjong throughout the winter both in person and online.

My third day of training was climbing between five and 10 pitches, and trying to climb through fatigue, as well as doing another cardio workout of trail running, skinning, or Nordic skiing. I did these three days of training consecutively and that left me with only one day to just go outside and climb.

April of 2016, the peak of my training, I will be able to mini-traction for about 5 to 8 hours straight, accomplishing about 30 pitches of climbing in increments of 10, up to 5.13a, with no hangs or falls, and sprint a mile between each increment of 10 pitches.

Give us the lowdown on diet, how do you sustain yourself in training and on the wall?

Nutritionally, I eat a mostly Paleo diet—lots of veggies, meat, and some dairy. I use Gnarly Nutrition drink supplement during and after workouts, and focus on eating a ratio of 3:1 protein to carbohydrate. I limit my intake of processed sugars, but I do eat a lot of fruit and drink homemade fruit smoothies with protein powder. I’ve kind of always eaten this way, but as it gets closer to the time of the linkup (May 2016), I will be really focused on the nutrition, as well as completely omitting alcohol from my diet.

My favorite wall foods are Honey Stinger Coconut Almond Dark Chocolate nutrition bars, dates, cheese sticks, pretzels, and turkey sandwiches. I’m into eating whole foods over processed bars and gels, but the Honey Stinger bars are about the best tasting I’ve had, they are loaded with calories and protein, and they’re lightweight.

Mary Harlen in her element. Photo: Steph Davis.

What experiences encapsulate your passion for the outdoors?

I took a semester Outward Bound course. Our group had a peak ascent planned for a 13’er in Colorado called Mt. Powell. I was terrified. The whole way up I kept asking to turn around. At some point, I freaked out. The exposure had gotten to me, and I couldn’t move—I was frozen with fear, I refused to keep going.

Our whole group turned around because of it. I felt terrible, and vowed to get over my fears during the remainder of the course. A few years later, during my interview with Outward Bound, I told this same story, and how I wanted to give back to the community through teaching for Outward Bound. This led to my employment with Outward Bound, as well as several other guide services, including The American Alpine Institute in Bellingham, Washington, and employment as a climbing ranger at two national parks (Mt. Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park).

I was able to create this lifestyle of living out of a vehicle, guiding and working outdoor education jobs, while climbing rock and ice, or skiing, full-time for almost 12 years.

You are obviously a very energetic and motivated person who likes the sufferzone, so to speak. Where does that come from?

I started getting into “alternative sports” at a young age. At age six, I started riding horses in a style that was very physically demanding called Saddleseat, and at age 10 I won a youth National Championship. At 12 I took ballet lessons, realized I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, and I took double the amount of classes so that I could catch up. I danced professionally for Webster University, Paul Taylor II, Joffrey II, and some smaller companies in St. Louis, MO, and then went to Russia in 1997 when I was 21 on an exchange with the International Fine Arts Federation out of Vologda, Russia.

It was there that I reaped the benefits of all my hard work, getting work as a guest artist and getting solos in performances. Getting to that point in Russia taught me that hard work, dedication, perseverance, and a positive attitude will pay off.

I LOVE the feeling of pushing myself to the limit, both physically and mentally.

How did you become accustomed to suffering?

During my Outward Bound semester course, we did our rock climbing section in Vedauwoo, Wyoming. I wanted to be like the experienced rangers so bad. I wanted to be as good as them, it didn’t occur to me that suffering wasn’t a part of climbing, I just thought, “This is what I have to do to be that good and that strong. I have to suffer, be cold, hang out in miserable weather, experience discomfort.”

“I learned how to suffer early on.” Discomfort stopped being uncomfortable. I learned how to dress right, eat right and manage the discomfort…it made me hearty.

Because of that I’ve climbed 36 glaciated peaks in the lower 48 and Alaska, climbed 28 routes in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and skied, ice climbed, and rock climbed in some amazing and beautiful places simply because I learned how to suffer early on.

The best feeling I have had is when I sent Moonlight Buttress (5.12+, Grade V) in 2013 in Zion National Park. I originally had the idea in 2007. It took me from 2007 to 2013 to really get strong enough mentally and physically to do that. Some people can walk up to it and onsight it. I had to fight for it. I had to diligently train for only that route for a year and a half prior to doing it.

I’ve climbed it in rain, snow, and obscenely hot weather. I probably had to suffer more than others to do it, because at the time I decided to do it, it was improbably too hard for me. It is my greatest accomplishment and example of hard work and “heartiness.” Now when I climb routes that feel hard or scary or I’m cold or too hot, it feels okay. It’s no big deal.

Okay, describe “hearty,” because the first thing I think of is Dinty Moore Stew.

One day while sport climbing in Rifle with Anna Pfaff, we had this interesting discovery that we just didn’t care that the rock was “schmarmy,” that it was hot and slimy, and that we were tired. Conversely, we wouldn’t have cared if it were cold and windy. We may have remarked about it, but those things wouldn’t have stopped us from climbing. Between the two of us, we dubbed that as being “hearty.”

“When I get scared or make decisions on the wall or in the mountains, I always make decisions that I believe will bring me home to my family.”

What has learning to suffer given you, that otherwise we don’t normally appreciate in our lives?

It has given me a deep appreciation for my family—my parents and my son, especially. I think about all the opportunities my parents have given me, the sacrifices they have made in order to help better my life and teach me how to live life to its fullest. I think about how lucky I am to have my amazing five year-old son, and how I want to give him as many opportunities as I’ve had, and how family is the MOST important part of my life.

Climbing is my passion, but family always comes first.

When I get scared or make decisions on the wall or in the mountains, I always make decisions that I believe will bring me home to my family.

What’s higher on the suffer-meter: childbirth or Moonlight Buttress?

Moonlight Buttress. Moonlight is always hard for me, every time I get on it. Childbirth was somewhat painful, but short-lived. I keep going back to Moonlight in the hopes that it will eventually feel easy. Or easier!

How is the experience or balance of climbing different for you now with a family and multiple jobs?

I have to plan differently. Now that I don’t guide full time anymore, and I am working as an urban and structural fire fighter and EMT, I have more time to schedule my climbing around family time. I try to climb when my son is in school (he’s five), and I plan my bigger trips around times when he is at his dad’s house.

I am currently doing my prerequisites for Paramedic school. Balancing school, work, and family life is challenging—I can’t complete my climbing projects as quickly as I could if I was just living the climbing life. But my life is so much more enriched because of the dynamics of it all. I also get the much needed “rest days” that I used to forego.

Is the experience of climbing different for you, between climbing with a male partner vs. climbing with a female partner?

Women seem to be a bit harder on themselves. Self-expectations are higher. Sometimes, with women, the silliness factor in me comes out more. I tend to take these goofy pictures or laugh about weird things. I enjoy both experiences equally, however. I feel empowered by both my male and female partners. A profound sense of adventure, heartiness, a positive attitude, and a desire to be safe and have fun are really what I look for in any partner.

When I first started climbing, it was mostly the guys that were doing the style of climbing I liked to do. Few women were psyched on pushing grades on multi-pitch trad routes. The choices in partners were simply limited. Now there are so many women climbing hard trad, or trad in general, at any level. It’s awesome!

Thank you for your time, Mary, I know you juggle a lot!


Check back later for an interview with Helen Sinclair.


READ Q&A: The Willpower of Mar Álvarez


Tiffany Hensley is a traveling freelance creative, director at Escalando Fronteras and spends most of her time helping marginalized generations, including dirtbags. She lives in a 2005 Sprinter van registered in Colorado. Check out her website, follow her on Instagram @Tiffany_Hensley.

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