Alpinist Brette Harrington about next level rock climbing

Brette Harrington is an American professional rock climber and alpinist based in Lake Tahoe, California and British Columbia, Canada. She was featured in the film 'The Alpinist' alongside, Marc-André Leclerc. Her versatility in the mountains is seemingly endless: bold alpinist, accomplished 5.13+ traditional climber, calculated soloist, expert ski mountaineer, big-wall sender and graceful mixed climber. In 2015 Brette gained recognition when she free-soloed Chiaro di Luna on Aguja Saint Exupery, Patagonia. She was the first climber, male or female, to do so without the aid of any equipment or protection. The climb was ranked as one of the ten most legendary free solos to date. According to Gripped Magazine in 2016, Brette was "one of the world's leading crack and alpine climbers". In 2017, she was named one of the top women in sports to watch by Forbes Magazine.

You're a professional climber, what are your biggest feats and hardest routes you've climbed so far?

Each climb presents different challenges from preparedness, logistics, conservation and expenditure of energy, organization, and mental toughness. Winter and summer climbing differ in with challenges due to climate. Last winter I soloed the north face of Mount Niblock in the Canadian Rockies.

This was mentally challenging because I had to commit to climbing a large face in snow and ice, using only my intuition of the snow conditions to decide if the passage was safe. I had to use complex rope systems to self-belay, and once I got to the summit, I had to navigate the descent on my own through steep snow and ice.

Getting better as an alpinist involves taking more risks. Is it your mind or your heart that informs those decisions?

Risk taking is part of the game and is always an unknown. It is smart to refrain from taking too large of risks and over time you learn to take smaller risks to improve.

There is a lot of action going on in Alpinism, does each climb have its own story?

Each climb brings a new experience and requires improvisation in unforeseen ways.  For example, while climbing the East Pillar of Torre Egger in Patagonia 2019, I had a gear malfunction and I lost my mountaineering boots to a crevasse. My partner and I then needed to devise a plan to continue on, but not put ourselves in danger and adapt to the lack of footwear.

What do you enjoy most when climbing or extreme bouldering?

I love being outside and moving my body and mind in unison. Climbing is a natural movement that I have refined over the years, so it feels healthy and energizing when I'm out.

At what point does a climb start feeling high and where, when or how does this end?

Each climb differs with the feeling of being high based on a factor called Exposure. While one climb may be 50m off the ground, it could be overhanging into space and the explore can feel great. In contrast, a climb may be at 3000m but a large snowfield planes the mountain making the climb feel less exposed. Many times, however, a face will be at high altitude and have exposure. These are the climbs that make one feel very small.

What exactly is mixed climbing? Do you consider mixed climbing as fun?

Mixed climbing is a style of climbing that combines rock climbing technique, with ice climbing. It is often very fun, but sometimes it requires a fair bit of suffering. Mixed climbing is done in winter, when temperatures can drop to –30 decrees. These days may not feel fun, but the memories are often vivid and moving afterwards.

How do you stay completely ZEN when irrational fear comes to mind?

My mental state is always in flux. Some days I feel fear more than others. I like to evaluate how I am feeling each morning to decide whether or not I am up for certain climbs. When I feel fear on a climb, I calm myself by taking slow, deep breaths to lower my heart rate.

Are you more connected with nature when you do soloing? If so, why is that?

In a certain way, soloing does help me connect with nature more than when I am with a partner. This is because nature is quiet, and when I'm out on my own I am more attuned to the sounds and motions of the natural world, and I am simply moving through it.

What is the general opinion about not using ropes in the climbing community?

I free solo climb on occasion, but not as much as I climb with partners. I keep a list of mountain objectives in my mind, saved for the times when I cannot find partners. The climbing community generally accepts free soloing as a passion that attracts certain people. I think non-climbers have a harder time understanding the attraction to it. 

We see real ice climbing in 'The Alpinist', is that also your cup of tea?

I enjoy ice climbing for a number of reasons. The beauty of climbing frozen water in a snow-covered environment is incomparable. I also like the mental challenge of evaluating the stability of the ice, and the physical challenge it requires of the body.

With your ice tools over head, you swing the pick into the ice like an arch to get the sharp tip to cut into the ice. For the feet, you kick the crampon straight into the ice using the crampon point as a step.

Do you enjoy skiing and does it give you the same thrill as climbing?

I love skiing and spend much of my winter doing it.  My favourite style of skiing is ski touring and ski mountaineering. This requires a high level of cardio endurance in order to get to the tops of the mountains. The fast pace of ski touring is more parallel to that of a runner. Skiing can be thrilling, but it is often more of a fitness pursuit for me. At times, I combine skiing with Alpinism, and then skiing becomes more thrilling. 

We understand you're a professional climber working for 'The North Face', what can you tell us about this partnership?

I have been working with The North Face as a climbing athlete since January of 2020. The North Face has been extremely supportive of me, in trying to attain my mountain goals, as well and my changing styles of climbing. The athletes of the North Face team are incredibly talented and are great resources for information, training, and partnering up. 

What are your favourite climbing destinations, and why are these your favourites?

I have a few favourite styles of climbing: Alpine granite, and sport limestone. I am pretty happy exploring around the world to find these two rock types. 

The Alpinist documentary is spectacular, and also real. What do you think of the end result and your contribution to it?

I am very proud of Marc-Andre and always felt he was underrepresented in climbing. For this, I am supportive of the film release and I feel that the directors and producers put their hearts into making it special.

How did you get to know Marc-Andre?

I first met Marc-Andre In Squamish, BC. I had just moved to Vancouver to attend UBC and drove up to Squamish on the weekends to climb. It was through my search of climbing partners that I was introduced to MA and we started spending all of our time together.

Marc-Andre was beyond elite level, that's for sure as we can also see in 'The Alpinist'. What was he seeking for?

Marc-Andre loved climbing more than anyone I know.  He spent the majority of his brain power thinking and dreaming about climbing. I don't think he was looking for anything more than to pursue this calling.

This question is also relevant to you, have you ever thought of that?

Marc-Andre and I shared many things and among them was a philosophy about life and purpose. I was drawn to climbing from a very early age by an intrinsic calling. I followed this voice because it was climbing that made me happy. It was self- improvement combined with drive, passion, creativity, and physical strength. I knew it was good for me.

Is there always the urge to go climbing? Where does this come from?

For me, climbing has a natural ebb and flow. When I am tired, it means I should rest, and when I have energy, it is climbing that I love to do most. Something however, I have climbing goals that are so lofty that they require more time training, and less time actually climbing. In these cases, my motivation shifts and I am able to focus on cross-training keeping the main objective in mind.

What was the shortest weather window you had before a storm came in?

I have climbed many mountains in 12-hour weather windows. In January of 2020 I climbed a mountain starting at 10:00 PM in the evening and summited at 7:00 Am the next morning in order to catch the best weather. We were then inundated by storm upon decent and hiked out in a rain storm. 

We have to ask, did any climber take your skills as pebble wrestling when you started as a pro?

As a young climber I felt I was constantly being underestimated. At times it would bother me, and I felt I wasn't given opportunities, but I also think this fuelled me to become better and to become the strongest climber I could.

Being a professional alpinist, you are a role model for young women. Are you aware of this?

I am very honoured to have influenced and inspired other women to follow their dream, no matter what they may be called towards.

We know that you have been in Europe as well. How was that for an experience?

I absolutely love climbing in Europe. I have spent most of my time climbing in France and continually return to France for the impeccable limestone. I have also spent time in Italy and lived in Southern Spain for a year.

If you could build your house high up in the mountains, would you consider doing so on the edge of a cliff? Wouldn't that be exciting?

Having a house on the edge of a cliff would be amazing, like a dream. But I am quite practical and I know that cliffs are weak structures and erode quick, so I would prefer to have a house where I wouldn't have to worry about an earthquake sending us into space.

You're full of life, what will be your next adventure? What more do you want to achieve?

I am constantly on the go, moving from one climbing trip to the next. I am currently in Tahiti, on my way to the island of Makatea to develop sport climbs alongside the ocean. 

Photos B. Harrington and Mountain: Piece of Magic © Trailer: Sender Films