In 1993, Lynn Hill did something that no one else—man or woman—had ever done in the history of climbing, despite years of attempts: she completed the first free ascent of the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite. And then, because she’s such a rock star, Hill returned the following year and free-climbed the Nose again—this time “in a day,” meaning a single 24-hour period.
Hill is one of the most famous climbers of all time, yet somehow, this easily fact-checkable milestone was inadvertently erased by many major news outlets around the world last weekend.
As they reported on Emily Harrington’s in-a-day free climb of Golden Gate (which is another route on El Capitan that isn’t the Nose), a shocking number of news organizations mistakenly characterized her as being the first woman ever to free climb El Capitan in a day, not just Golden Gate. That error not only effectively erased Hill’s achievement, it also erased those of Steph Davis and Mayan Smith-Gobat, who each free-climbed Free Rider (also a route on El Cap that isn’t the Nose) in a day in 2004 and 2011, respectively.
On November 7, on Facebook, Hill shared a story from the Associated Press with the mistaken headline: “1st Woman Free Climbs El Cap in a Day.”
“I’m so happy that Biden won the election!” wrote Hill. “But here’s a news story that needs some clarification.”
Predictably, climbers grew incensed about the error, a mistake akin to claiming that Harrison H. Schmitt was the first person to walk on the moon. The AP article appears to be ground zero for the viral spread of misinformation that plagued later reports at the BBC, CNN, NBC, Sports Illustrated, The Guardian, and others. (The BBC gets an award for the most nails-on-chalkboard headline, with “Emily Harrington free climbs El Capitan summit in one day,” which to my ears sound as bad as “Roger Federer Ping-Pongs a Hat Trick at Tennis-Matchy Thing.”)
Tom McCarthy, a national-affairs reporter at The Guardian who is also a climber, responded to my snarky tweet with: “For the record our original (very short-lived but that doesn’t make the mistake any less wince-y) version was a straight take from AP, a wire service pick-up, & that wire was I’m sure the superspreader seed. But they nailed the election!” McCarthy helped push The Guardian to fix its headline. Many other outlets have also since corrected their errors.
Watching one prestigious news outlet after another committing the same regrettable mistake, I was reminded of a viral video from a few years ago, in which a bunch of kids pour out of a tent and every single one of them trips and face-plants in the grass.
Look, I get it. You can understand how an editor might carelessly make the jump from “Emily Harrington is the first woman to free-climb Golden Gate in a day” to “first woman to free-climb El Capitan in a day.” No one outside of climbing knows what Golden Gate is, and most people have heard of El Capitan. Putting El Capitan in your headline is better SEO, better for clicks, and easier to understand. But this sloppy approach comes at the expense of erasing some of the most inspiring and fantastic achievements in climbing history. (It has also continued to erode readers’ faith in journalism across the board—on a Mountain Project forum, one user wrote: “Just remember they report all the other news with the same rigid fact checking and attention to detail.”)
It also looks bad for Harrington—unfairly, in my opinion—who, instead of enjoying some well-deserved rest and recovery from her lifetime achievement, has spent the past few days calling journalists around the world to get them to unfuck their headlines and copy.
“This whole thing has been mortifying in a way,” says Harrington. “I’m the fourth woman to free-climb El Cap in a day, and I’ve never claimed anything different. I’m standing on the shoulders of Lynn Hill, Steph Davis, and Mayan Smith-Gobat, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for them.”
Harrington is also quick to highlight that some news organizations did get the facts right (including Outside). “Anyone who actually put in the effort to reach out and speak with me directly, which I was ready and willing to do, wrote an accurate and legitimate story,” she says.
Climbing is a complicated sport, full of nuances and its own jargon. As a climbing journalist, I sometimes think that I’d rather free-solo El Cap than have to write another sentence that spells out the difference between a free solo and free climb. It can be tiresome to make these nitpicky distinctions, but this media cycle has proven the consequences of not hiring journalists who are climbers to write stories about climbing. At the very least, do a basic Google fact check.