KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Over the past month, our series Total Failure has been bringing us stories of missteps that have shaped people's lives. Today, NPR's Geoff Brumfiel ends the series with the story of a climber high up in the mountains of Myanmar.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Emily Harrington had to make a choice.
EMILY HARRINGTON: We were on this ridge at about 18,100 feet and it just dropped off on both sides, like, 4,000 feet.
BRUMFIEL: Harrington is a professional climber. She was trying to reach the top of the tallest peak in Southeast Asia.
HARRINGTON: That had only been climbed once before.
BRUMFIEL: She could see the summit from the narrow ridge. But one of the more experienced climbers warned her the final route to the top was going to be tricky.
HARRINGTON: The climbing from here is going to be more technical, more dangerous, it's going to be harder than anything that we've done up until this point.
BRUMFIEL: Was she really up for the final push? Or was it time to climb down? Emily had spent her whole life fighting failure. As a kid in Boulder, Colo., she was always trying to beat her two boy cousins.
HARRINGTON: I just grew up in this atmosphere of competitiveness.
BRUMFIEL: And when she discovered she was better than them at climbing, she stuck with it. She started visiting a climbing gym, an artificial wall climbers use to practice. The gym had a junior team that competed against other junior teams from other gyms. And that led to her first competitive climb against a girl named Zoe.
HARRINGTON: And she beat me by a long shot. Like, I mean, she just crushed me. But I remember that, like, fueled my fire. I was, like, OK, next year I'm going to come back and I'm going to do better, and so I just sort of, like, worked my way up.
BRUMFIEL: Emily started winning - local, national, international.
HARRINGTON: My dream was to be world champion, was to compete on the world cup circuit and do really well. And that was all I did. That was my perspective on what climbing was.
BRUMFIEL: She became a five-time U.S. champion. She won second in the world. But competitive climbing is an unforgiving sport. Unlike climbing a natural rock face, there's only one path up. And with the slightest slip of the fingers or a moment's hesitation, Emily found herself a loser. When that happened...
HARRINGTON: I'd get super dark, just, like, I'm never going to be good. I'm never going to - you know, I'm never going to do what I want to do. I suck.
BRUMFIEL: In 2008, Emily was feeling burned out when she got an extraordinary opportunity. The gear company North Face offered her a spot on their team of professional climbers. All of a sudden, her horizon expanded from the indoor wall to rock faces all over the world. She spent a few years learning the ropes, and then she was invited on an expedition to Mount Everest.
HARRINGTON: I agreed and I went on the trip and I - it was super hard. It took two and a half months.
BRUMFIEL: Getting to the top wasn't just about climbing skills. She had to stay healthy. The weather had to stay clear.
HARRINGTON: There was all these factors that worked in my favor. And in a way, there was a lot of luck involved. But I summited. I did - I completed it and I went home. And I was like, all right, cool. Well, that was amazing. I should do more of this.
BRUMFIEL: She kept climbing big mountains and summiting. And then Emily was approached by a fellow climber named Hilaree O'Neill to embark on an expedition that was something completely different - a journey to a towering peak in Southeast Asia, a little-known mountain called Hkakabo Razi.
HARRINGTON: And so her idea was to start in the capital city of Myanmar, which is - used to be called Rangoon, now it's called Yangon - and travel overland as far as we could up north to get to this mountain.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)
BRUMFIEL: That sound is from a documentary about the trip called "Down To Nothing." From the capital, they set out by bus, then boat, then a jarring overnight train journey.
HARRINGTON: Which was the most horrible experience of my life.
BRUMFIEL: They got off the train and took motorcycles 80 miles into the jungle.
HARRINGTON: And then we got off the motorcycles when the trails got too rugged and we walked for 125 miles.
BRUMFIEL: It took over two months just to get to the bottom of the mountain. By the time they were ready to start climbing, they were low on food and there wasn't a trail up.
HARRINGTON: There was a lot of wrong turns. There was a lot of backtracking. There was a lot of, like, intense decision-making.
BRUMFIEL: Ten days of climbing and they finally made it to that ridge which led to the summit.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DOWN TO NOTHING")
HARRINGTON: A lot of the things that I did today I've never done before.
BRUMFIEL: Perched there on a ridge as narrow as a knife's edge, exhausted, cold, scared. For most of her life, she judged success or failure by whether she made it to the top. She was so close. She could see it. But if she went on, she might not make it down.
HARRINGTON: And I decided that I just - it wasn't for me. It wasn't my time to keep climbing.
BRUMFIEL: She turned around. And giving up, it may have been the best thing she ever did, not just because she didn't fall to her death. High up on that ridge, she really understood that life wasn't so simple. There were wrong turns, bad weather, bad luck, things she couldn't control. And it was OK to give up. In the end, even the more experienced climbers had to turn back around to go down with her.
HARRINGTON: We all failed. I mean - but I didn't take it as a bad thing. We tried - we did our best (laughter).
BRUMFIEL: In that moment on the mountain, Emily finally let go of something, something she carried with her through all those years of competition.
HARRINGTON: I think it just taught me that I can't control everything that's going to happen to me in my life. And I'm going to have to just take it as it comes and just deal with it and be OK. Success or failure, it's going to be OK (laughter).
BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND THE KIDS SONG, "WORRIED SHOES")
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