Curious Case: Brette Harrington Breaks New Ground
Brette Harrington is known for her daring free solos, but she wouldn’t classify herself as a free-soloist. She’s a trad climber at heart and only solos “for fun.”
Brette Harrington woke to a wall of mist outside her bivy cave above the Torre Valley. The skies had stormed all night and, knowing that the rock would be drenched, she went back to sleep. At 10:30 a.m., patches of blue sky emerged. By noon, the upper half of the Aguja Saint-Exupery—an 8,000-foot granite tower in the Fitz Roy massif, Patagonia—was in full sun.
Harrington set out alone and climbed the first few pitches, able to avoid the small streams running down the rock face. But when she reached the lower dihedrals, the crux, she found them shaded and soaked.
“I stopped for a few minutes in a small sun patch to re-evaluate how I was feeling,” she says. “I was in a sort of ‘curious’ head space, so I wandered up to the [crux] to check things out, then realized I was in a good head space.”
She decided to go for it, despite the wet. Three hours later, Harrington, 23, of Lake Tahoe, California, stood on top of the tower. Not only was hers the first free-solo of the 2,500-foot Chiaro di Luna (5.11a), it was also the first free-solo by a woman on any tower in the Fitz Roy massif.
Still, Harrington wouldn’t classify herself as a free-soloist. She’s a trad climber at heart and only solos “for fun.”
What type of kid were you?
I was a quiet kid and liked to be alone. My mom liked to say that I was always trapped in my own head. I was kind of rebellious, too … it wasn’t that I was out to do anything bad, but I had a hard time listening when people told me not to do something. I was rebellious more out of curiosity. I liked to explore and adventure—sneak into places.
What are your interests besides climbing?
I played all types of sports as a kid, but I was mostly into skiing—that’s why I chose to go to school in B.C. I ski raced for eight years, then transitioned to free-ride for four years, but I quit after having too many concussions and breaking my neck when I was 20.
How did you get into free soloing?
When I first learned about free-soloing, I thought, What the hell, that’s crazy. I never thought about doing it until I started alpine climbing. We wouldn’t rope up for easy third class to get to the base of a climb since we could move so much faster. Then it was fourth class, then fifth, 5.7, 5.10—soloing got easier and easier.
I started free-soloing multi-pitch routes for fun around Squamish. It all depends on what type of mood I’m in.
For me, soloing while tired and clear-minded is the best. If I have too much energy, I become shaky. Or if I’m in a bad mood, I won’t solo.
Have you ever been gripped while free-soloing?
No. If I did, it’s a sign that I shouldn’t be on that route, or I wasn’t ready for it that day.
Heights and exposure never bothered me. [Soloing] forces my mind into hyper-focus, where I climb at my best.
How do you determine where your limit is?
When I get to a difficult move that I know I won’t be able to down climb, I have to make a decision to keep climbing or not. If I know I can get through, I’ll go for it. If not, I’ll back off. For me, I must be able to down climb.
Is your ability to control fear a skill you developed over time?
It’s something I naturally have, but I’ve soloed a lot, so have become comfortable with it. I don’t consider my free-solos bold—I know when I’m being bold. Keeping my mind together is one of my strengths.
Where do you see yourself in a few years?
That’s so funny. My dad asks me that all the time. I don’t really know, I don’t think like that. I go step by step. Some climbers make plans for these big trips years down the road, or say, I want to climb this grade in this many years, and this grade by then. But that’s not how I think.
I’m kind of on the endless road trip right now. I went to Patagonia after graduating [from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver], then to Europe, and now I’m back in Squamish for most of the summer. I’ll be climbing in Indian Creek and Yosemite in the fall, Patagonia again in January.
I’ll always be a rock climber, but I could take any turn if I’m following my heart.
Brette stars in her own film in this year’s REEL ROCK 11 film tour. Check out the trailer and link to show listings below.
REEL ROCK 11 Official Trailer
This article was published in Rock and Ice issue 230 (November 2015).
Also read Jimmy Chin: What I’ve Learned